William K. Black - professor of economics and law, and the senior regulator during the S & L crisis - explained last month before to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission why banks gave home loans to people who they knew couldn't repay. The whole piece is a must-read, but here are excerpts from the introduction:
The data demonstrate conclusively that most liar’s loans were fraudulent, which means that there were millions of fraudulent mortgage loans because liar’s loans became common (Credit Suisse estimates that they represented 49% of new originations by 2006). The data also demonstrate that even minimal underwriting of the loan files was sufficient to detect the overwhelming majority of such fraudulent liar’s loans. No honest, rational lender would make large numbers of liar’s loans. The epidemic of mortgage fraud was so large that it hyper-inflated the housing bubble, which allowed refinancing to further extend the life of the bubble (and the depth of the ultimate Great Recession.
In the cases where there have been even minimal investigations (New Century, Aurora/Lehman, Citi, WaMu, Countrywide, and IndyMac) senior lender officials were aware that liar’s loans were typically fraudulent. The lenders could not make an honest business out of selling overwhelmingly fraudulent mortgages.
Liar’s loans were done for the usual reason – they optimized (fictional) short-term accounting income by creating a “sure thing” (Akerlof & Romer 1993). A fraudulent lender optimizes short-term fictional accounting income and longer term (real) losses by following a four-part recipe:
A. Extreme Growth
B. Making bad loans at a premium yield
C. Extreme leverage
D. Grossly inadequate loss reserves
Note that this same recipe maximizes fictional profits and real losses. This destroys the lender, but it makes senior officers that control the lender wealthy. This explains Akerlof & Romer’s title – Looting: The Economic Underworld of Bankruptcy for Profit. The failure of the firm is not a failure of the fraud scheme. (Modern bailouts may even recapitalize the looted bank and leave the looters in charge of it.)
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