WASHINGTON — The Bush administration backed off proposed crackdowns on no-money-down, interest-only mortgages years before the economy collapsed, buckling to pressure from some of the same banks that have now failed. It ignored remarkably prescient warnings that foretold the financial meltdown, according to a review of regulatory documents.
"Expect fallout, expect foreclosures, expect horror stories," California mortgage lender Paris Welch wrote to U.S. regulators in January 2006, about a year before the housing implosion cost her a job.
Bowing to aggressive lobbying — along with assurances from banks that the troubled mortgages were okay — regulators delayed action for nearly a year. By the time new rules were released late in 2006, the toughest of the proposed provisions were gone and the meltdown was under way.
"These mortgages have been considered more safe and sound for portfolio lenders than many fixed rate mortgages," David Schneider, home loan president of Washington Mutual, told federal regulators in early 2006. Two years later, WaMu became the largest bank failure in U.S. history.
The administration's blind eye to the impending crisis is emblematic of a philosophy that trusted market forces and discounted the need for government intervention in the economy. Its belief has ushered in the most massive government intervention since the 1930s.
"We're going to be feeling the effects of the regulators' failure to address these mortgages for the next several years," said Kevin Stein of the California Reinvestment Coalition, who warned regulators to tighten lending rules before it was too late.
Many of the banks that fought to undermine the proposals by some regulators are now either out of business or accepting billions in federal aid to recover from a mortgage crisis they insisted would never come. Many executives remain in high-paying jobs, even after their assurances were proved false.
In 2005, faced with ominous signs the housing market was in jeopardy, bank regulators proposed guidelines for banks writing risky loans. Today, in the midst of the worst housing recession in a generation, the proposal reads like a list of what-ifs:
• Regulators told bankers exotic mortgages were often inappropriate for buyers with bad credit.
• Banks would have been required to increase efforts to verify that buyers actually had jobs and could afford houses.
• Regulators proposed a cap on risky mortgages so a string of defaults wouldn't be crippling.
• Banks that bundled and sold mortgages were told to be sure investors knew exactly what they were buying.
• Regulators urged banks to help buyers make responsible decisions and clearly advise them that interest rates might skyrocket and huge payments might be due sooner than expected.