Home Sweet Wall Street
This story originally appeared at Truthdig. Robert Scheer is the author of The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street (Nation Books).
A most dastardly deed occurred last Friday when the Obama administration issued a twenty-nine-page policy statement totally abandoning the federal government’s time-honored role in helping Americans achieve the goal of homeownership. Instead of punishing the banks that sabotaged the American ideal of a nation of stakeholders by “securitizing” our homesteads into poker chips to be gambled away in the Wall Street casino, Barack Obama now proposes to turn over the entire mortgage industry to those same banks.
The proposal, originated by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, involves nothing less than a total “winding down” of the eighty-year-old federal housing program, setting instead a new goal of a two-tiered America in which the masses are content to be mere renters of the American Dream. Such a deal for a country where, as the report concedes, “Half of all renters spend more than a third of their income on housing, and a quarter spend more than half.”
This is the same Geithner who during his tenure in the Clinton Treasury Department championed the total deregulation of the then-emerging market in collateralized debt obligations that sliced and diced people’s home mortgages into the toxic securities that created what his new report calls the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Later, as president of the New York Fed, he cheered on the banks as they went hog-wild, conning folks into buying homes they couldn’t afford and stuffing them into the incomprehensible securities that form the rot at the core of our bankrupt economy.
This is a made-in-the-US nightmare that we inflicted on the world, thanks to an explosion in those toxic securities brought on by the deregulation that most of the Obama economic brain trust supported when they worked for President Bill Clinton and during the ensuing bubble years when they enriched themselves. As the report admits: “The US is…the only high income country in which securitization plays a major role in housing finance.” Yet instead of ending that practice Obama now calls for more of the same: “The Administration believes the securitization market should continue to play a key role in housing finance.” Indeed, the plan’s goal of eliminating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will dry up the alternative public funding that has provided a source of mortgage support ever since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched Fannie Mae to check the power of the banks over mortgages. Now Obama proposes to eliminate that check and leave would-be homeowners to the tender mercy of the banking giants.
Of course Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also bear responsibility for the meltdown. They had morphed into for-profit enterprises and, just as with the Wall Street firms, the massive bonuses paid out to their top executives were contingent on the value of their stock prices, which in turn were fattened by the sale of those same toxic assets. As the Obama report puts it, “Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s profit-maximizing structure undermined their public mission.” What the administration should have proposed is to return the government-sponsored housing agencies to their original function as nonprofit entities supplementing, rather than aping, the practices of greedy bankers.
It wasn’t meant to end this way, and key Democrats, quite a few of them Clinton alums now in the Obama administration, bear the responsibility for the sad fate of Roosevelt’s dream. As the Obama proposal concedes: “Improving how housing was financed was an important part of these broader Depression-era reforms. In the 1930s, following severe mortgage market disruptions, widespread foreclosures, and sinking homeownership rates, the government created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), Fannie Mae, the Federal Home Loan Banks (FHLBs) and several decades later, Freddie Mac to help promote secure and sustainable homeownership for future generations of Americans. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac held true to their original mission for many years.” What the report then neglects to discuss is the demise of Roosevelt’s grand experiment at the hands of Democratic Party hustlers who turned the agencies away from their “original mission” and into their personal piggy banks while getting Democrats in Congress to approve regulations enabling their greed.
The folks around President Obama know this sad tale well because some of them were principal actors in the housing agencies’ betrayal of the public trust. Just take the case of Tom Donilon, whom Obama recently appointed to the highly sensitive position of national security adviser. It was Donilon who was the top legal counsel and lobbyist for Fannie Mae from 1999 to 2005, a period when the agency went off the tracks in backing Countrywide and other private-sector bandits in their irresponsible rip-off scams. “He was in charge of the lobbyists.… That process involved using the Hill to rein in the regulators,” noted Stephen Blumenthal, who, as director of the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, was hindered by Donilon’s lobbying. As the report concedes without mentioning Donilon’s role, “Over the years, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s aggressive lobbying efforts had successfully defeated efforts to bring them under closer supervision.”
Donilon, who received $10 million in the three years leading up to the scandal of 2004, when Fannie Mae was fined $400 million for juggling its books to enhance executive bonuses, will never have any trouble financing a home purchase. Not so the tens of millions of Americans who have lost their homes because of his reprehensible actions and the many more in the future who will be denied government support in trying to get a place of their own.
Robert Scheer is the author of The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street (Nation Books).