The Profligate Versus the Prudent, Again

If there were ever an opening to a news article on the financial crisis to get my blood boiling, this is it:

ATLANTA — As law enforcement agencies and regulators investigate the likes of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, and lawmakers debate legislation to revamp financial regulations, it’s become conventional wisdom that big investment and commercial banks caused the crisis and small community banks are paying for the sins of others.

That’s not true, however. Georgia leads the nation in bank failures since the crisis began, and all of them have been at small banks, most caused by bad loans to builders.

There are two problems. First, small community banks could fail left, right, and center and not cause anything like the crisis we have endured. Second, the right way to distinguish between financial institutions is not by size, but by whether they were insured or not and whether they behaved prudently or not.

Institutions that were part of the FDIC insurance system were more heavily regulated in terms of the assets they could purchase or create with their liabilities. Regulation was far from perfect, but it was clearly relevant to how much of the lending was done in subprime mortgages. As the article goes on to state (emphasis added):

“I think there was a supply and demand imbalance, but I think that demand was inflated by the nontraditional mortgage activity,” said Doreen Eberley, the regional director of the FDIC’s New York region, who served as interim regional director in Atlanta last year. “The availability of mortgages drove construction. The Atlanta story wasn’t one of speculative construction.”

Eberley pointed to the growth in nontraditional mortgages underwritten by entities outside community banking that pooled these loans for sale to investors as complex securities. From 2002 to 2007, subprime mortgages for the riskiest borrowers in the Atlanta area grew in value from $4.6 billion to $15.4 billion, and Alt-A mortgages, given to the next riskiest borrowers, grew from $1.8 billion to $16.6 billion.

I am the Board at one of my community’s several outstanding local banks. We did not originate any of these nontraditional mortgages. Because of that, during the inflating of the bubble, we lost market share in the mortgage market to entities that behaved less prudently with their lending policies. After the bubble burst, we were subject to the same immiserizing near-zero interest rate policy as everyone else and now face the prospect of higher costs of operating due to increased regulation. We didn’t wreck the system, and we now have to pay the costs of cleaning it up. That there may be some community banks that behaved as profligately as the entities outside the insured banking sector does not minimize the real cost to prudent institutions in the wake of the crisis.

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About Andrew Samwick 89 Articles

Affiliation: Dartmouth College

Andrew Samwick is a professor of economics and Director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

He is most widely known for his work on the economics of retirement, and his scholarly work has covered a range of topics, including pensions, saving, taxation, portfolio choice, and executive compensation.

In July 2003, Samwick joined the staff of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, serving for a year as its chief economist and helping to direct the work of about 20 economists in support of the three Presidential appointees on the Council.

Visit: Andrew Samwick's Page

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