Mortgages for the people

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My latest column, about subprime lending, is up online and in the issue of Time with the Cliffs Notes versions of the Bible on the cover. Here’s how it begins:

In early March, Boston College management professor Alicia Munnell gave a lecture at Yale on pension policy. “I was there, talking about retirement things,” Munnell recalls, “and somebody looked at me and said, ‘Are you responsible for the collapse of the subprime market?'” The question wasn’t entirely out of left field. As director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Munnell co-authored a bombshell 1992 study that concluded that mortgage lenders systematically discriminated against blacks and Hispanics–even when one adjusted for income and creditworthiness.

Munnell’s work propelled her into a big job in the Clinton Administration and led to new legislation and regulations aimed at pressuring banks to increase their presence in poor and minority neighborhoods. These new laws had the desired effect: home ownership among minorities, and Americans in general, began to rise steadily–the first such sustained increase since the 1950s. In 1998, 57% of black mortgage applicants were turned down; by 2004 the figure had dropped to 26.8%. For low-income applicants, mortgage denials went from 44.3% in 1998 to a low of 19.8% in 2003.

That was one remarkable result of the surge in subprime mortgage loans to borrowers with iffy credit records. The other remarkable result is that it is ending really badly–in a wave of foreclosures that could, at worst, cost billions, throw millions of people out of their homes and cause a recession. Read more.

Since committing the piece to print, I’ve been worrying a bit about its somewhat waffly conclusion–that sure, things got out of hand, but subprime lending has done a lot of good as well. But I have yet to come up with a better one.

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