Mortgages, Foreclosures & The Disgrace of Journalism

It was long ago when I received a degree in journalism.

I wanted to study journalism because it gave me an opportunity to travel and to meet interesting people. I have been a correspondent on Capitol Hill and at the White House, I have lived on an offshore drilling rig in pursuit of a story, I have spoken to an endless number of business leaders, senators and representatives and I have traveled to just-about every state.

There is also another aspect to journalism, the idea that reporters, columnists and the media in general are uniquely equipped to watch the government, corporations and institutions at work — and to freely report when such entities do right or wrong. The usual expression is that journalists should comfort the afflicted…and afflict the comfortable.

Jon Stewart is generally referred to as a comedian. His “Daily Show” is typically seen as entertainment. So-called serious journalists often look down their noses at Mr. Stewart.

They’re fools.

Every journalism school in the country should be studying the conversation between Jon Stewart and Wall Street commentator Jim Cramer. And so should every borrower, investor, senator, representative, regulator, shareholder, saver, and homeowner.

The Interview

Steward did exactly what journalists are supposed to do, he asked tough questions, in public, based on research and common sense. He took Cramer and the financial network, CNBC, to task for failing to fully tell the public of the risks and follies being pursued on Wall Street. Stewart essentially said the business media in general had been handmaidens and enablers of the banks and brokerages, largely repeating the what they said, doing inadequate research and rarely giving time or attention to the red flags which were so obvious.

Cramer, who is loud, bright and often insightful, had an open opportunity to defend his position. Look at the uncensored video of the show and judge what he said for yourself.

Everyone Was Responsible

At this point the claim is usually made that “everybody” is responsible for the current financial meltdown. Lenders loaned too much, borrowers borrowed too much, regulators regulated too little and journalists could only cover current events which, for several years, saw little but rising home values and stock prices.

The unstated point, of course, is that if EVERYONE was responsible than no one was specifically responsible.

This is junk.

You didn’t have to be a soothsayer to see what was coming.

Most community banks and credit unions refused to offer so-called “affordability” mortgage products, the loans with negative amortization, huge prepayment penalties and high-cost back-ends. Most homebuyers bought responsibly and borrowed no more than they could afford. They fully documented their income.

Many states wanted to halt rapacious lenders but could not because the lenders acted under the authority of the federal government and the federal government said the states could not over-ride federal authority, an authority established by the National Bank Act and confirmed by the Supreme Court in the 2007 Watters case.

Oh, and when was the National Bank Act enacted? That would be 1864.

The Real Issues

The real issues are very simple:

First, without exception every loan is supposed to be underwritten according to baseline program standards. This is the lender’s responsibility and a lot of lenders either repeatedly and routinely got it wrong or purposely failed to stop loans that should never have been made, highly-profitable errors that produced large executive bonuses, fat paychecks for loan officers and grossly overvalued stock.

Second, the Federal Reserve, under the Home Ownership Equity Protection Act (HOEPA), legislation passed in 1994, has the right under Section 129 to ban “unfair and deceptive acts or practices (UDAP).” In other words, had the Fed simply said that option ARMs, interest-only loans and stated-income loan applications were “unfair” and “deceptive” we could have prevented the current mortgage meltdown. It doesn’t matter what any other branch of government did or did not do, the Federal Reserve had an opportunity to stop the financial crisis and it absolutely failed to do so.

Third, in 2003 five federal agencies announced that they had “a plan to identify and eliminate outdated, unnecessary or unduly burdensome regulations imposed on insured depository institutions.” An official from the Office of Thrift Supervision brought a chainsaw to rip through mounds government paperwork. Could anyone miss the symbolism? Could any lender not understand that the new government policy was hands off, anything goes?

On The Record

I have repeatedly told readers since as far back as 2004 that “nontraditional” loans and practices were dangerous. Not just for borrowers but also for lenders and their shareholders.

I wish I had been wrong.

Every time I have written about rip-off mortgages I have gotten numerous emails from lenders telling me I didn’t “understand” the system.

High credit scores, they said, were a substitute for the lack of documentation. But credit scores are history, they don’t tell us what happens when mortgage payments rise 50 or 100 percent. They also didn’t say that lenders and loan officers got more money when they sold a loan with a stated-income loan application.

“Nontraditional” loan products simply reflected a new understanding of financial instruments, they said. You have to know about the secondary market, derivatives and mortgage-backed securities, I was told. And you have to look at the rates and the ability to provide financing for just about any buyer. Of course, more loan volume means more commissions and profits, something not usually mentioned.

You can see the uncensored Jim Cramer interview on the Daily Show by pressing here.

And to Jon Stewart, my congratulations — journalists ought to be ashamed that you had to do their job for them.

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