From The New York Times
:“We can put light where there’s darkness, and hope where there’s despondency in this country. And part of it is working together as a nation to encourage folks to own their own home.”
— President Bush, Oct. 15, 2002
The global financial system was teetering on the edge of collapse when President Bush and his economics team huddled in the Roosevelt Room of the White House for a briefing that, in the words of one participant, “scared the hell out of everybody.”
It was Sept. 18. Lehman Brothers had just gone belly-up, overwhelmed by toxic mortgages. Bank of America had swallowed Merrill Lynch in a hastily arranged sale. Two days earlier, Mr. Bush had agreed to pump $85 billion into the failing insurance giant American International Group.
The president listened as Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, laid out the latest terrifying news: The credit markets, gripped by panic, had frozen overnight, and banks were refusing to lend money.
Then his Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., told him that to stave off disaster, he would have to sign off on the biggest government bailout in history.
Mr. Bush, according to several people in the room, paused for a single, stunned moment to take it all in.
“How,” he wondered aloud, “did we get here?”
Eight years after arriving in Washington vowing to spread the dream of homeownership, Mr. Bush is leaving office, as he himself said recently, “faced with the prospect of a global meltdown” with roots in the housing sector he so ardently championed.
There are plenty of culprits, like lenders who peddled easy credit, consumers who took on mortgages they could not afford and Wall Street chieftains who loaded up on mortgage-backed securities without regard to the risk.
But the story of how we got here is partly one of Mr. Bush’s own making, according to a review of his tenure that included interviews with dozens of current and former administration officials.
From his earliest days in office, Mr. Bush paired his belief that Americans do best when they own their own home with his conviction that markets do best when let alone.
He pushed hard to expand homeownership, especially among minorities, an initiative that dovetailed with his ambition to expand the Republican tent — and with the business interests of some of his biggest donors. But his housing policies and hands-off approach to regulation encouraged lax lending standards.
Mr. Bush did foresee the danger posed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage finance giants. The president spent years pushing a recalcitrant Congress to toughen regulation of the companies, but was unwilling to compromise when his former Treasury secretary wanted to cut a deal. And the regulator Mr. Bush chose to oversee them — an old prep school buddy — pronounced the companies sound even as they headed toward insolvency.
As early as 2006, top advisers to Mr. Bush dismissed warnings from people inside and outside the White House that housing prices were inflated and that a foreclosure crisis was looming. And when the economy deteriorated, Mr. Bush and his team misdiagnosed the reasons and scope of the downturn; as recently as February, for example, Mr. Bush was still calling it a “rough patch.”
The result was a series of piecemeal policy prescriptions that lagged behind the escalating crisis.
“There is no question we did not recognize the severity of the problems,” said Al Hubbard, Mr. Bush’s former chief economics adviser, who left the White House in December 2007. “Had we, we would have attacked them.”
Looking back, Keith B. Hennessey, Mr. Bush’s current chief economics adviser, says he and his colleagues did the best they could “with the information we had at the time.” But Mr. Hennessey did say he regretted that the administration did not pay more heed to the dangers of easy lending practices. And both Mr. Paulson and his predecessor, John W. Snow, say the housing push went too far.
“The Bush administration took a lot of pride that homeownership had reached historic highs,” Mr. Snow said in an interview. “But what we forgot in the process was that it has to be done in the context of people being able to afford their house. We now realize there was a high cost.”
For much of the Bush presidency, the White House was preoccupied by terrorism and war; on the economic front, its pressing concerns were cutting taxes and privatizing Social Security. The housing market was a bright spot: ever-rising home values kept the economy humming, as owners drew down on their equity to buy consumer goods and pack their children off to college.
Lawrence B. Lindsay, Mr. Bush’s first chief economics adviser, said there was little impetus to raise alarms about the proliferation of easy credit that was helping Mr. Bush meet housing goals.
“No one wanted to stop that bubble,” Mr. Lindsay said. “It would have conflicted with the president’s own policies.”
Today, millions of Americans are facing foreclosure, homeownership rates are virtually no higher than when Mr. Bush took office, Fannie and Freddie are in a government conservatorship, and the bailout cost to taxpayers could run in the trillions. A Policy Gone Awry
Advocating homeownership is hardly novel; the Clinton administration did it, too. For Mr. Bush, it was part of his vision of an “ownership society,” in which Americans would rely less on the government for health care, retirement and shelter. It was also good politics, a way to court black and Hispanic voters.
But for much of Mr. Bush’s tenure, government statistics show, incomes for most families remained relatively stagnant while housing prices skyrocketed. That put homeownership increasingly out of reach for first-time buyers . . . .
So Mr. Bush had to, in his words, “use the mighty muscle of the federal government” to meet his goal. He proposed affordable housing tax incentives. He insisted that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac meet ambitious new goals for low-income lending.
Concerned that down payments were a barrier, Mr. Bush persuaded Congress to spend up to $200 million a year to help first-time buyers with down payments and closing costs.
And he pushed to allow first-time buyers to qualify for federally insured mortgages with no money down. Republican Congressional leaders and some housing advocates balked, arguing that homeowners with no stake in their investments would be more prone to walk away . . . . Many economic experts, including some in the White House, now share that view.
The president also leaned on mortgage brokers and lenders to devise their own innovations. “Corporate America,” he said, “has a responsibility to work to make America a compassionate place.”
And corporate America, eyeing a lucrative market, delivered in ways Mr. Bush might not have expected, with a proliferation of too-good-to-be-true teaser rates and interest-only loans that were sold to investors in a loosely regulated environment.
“This administration made decisions that allowed the free market to operate as a barroom brawl instead of a prize fight,” said L. William Seidman, who advised Republican presidents and led the savings and loan bailout in the 1990s. “To make the market work well, you have to have a lot of rules.”
But Mr. Bush populated the financial system’s alphabet soup of oversight agencies with people who, like him, wanted fewer rules, not more.Like Minds on Laissez-Faire
The president’s first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission promised a “kinder, gentler” agency. The second was pushed out amid industry complaints that he was too aggressive. Under its current leader, the agency failed to police the catastrophic decisions that toppled the investment bank Bear Stearns and contributed to the current crisis, according to a recent inspector general’s report.
In the 2004 election cycle, mortgage bankers and brokers poured nearly $847,000 into Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign, more than triple their contributions in 2000, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Among the Republican Party’s top 10 donors in 2004 was Roland Arnall. He founded Ameriquest, then the nation’s largest lender in the subprime market, which focuses on less creditworthy borrowers. In July 2005, the company agreed to set aside $325 million to settle allegations in 30 states that it had preyed on borrowers with hidden fees and ballooning payments. It was an early signal that deceptive lending practices, which would later set off a wave of foreclosures, were widespread.
Andrew H. Card Jr., Mr. Bush’s former chief of staff, said White House aides discussed Ameriquest’s troubles, though not what they might portend for the economy. Mr. Bush had just nominated Mr. Arnall as his ambassador to the Netherlands, and the White House was primarily concerned with making sure he would be confirmed.
“Maybe I was asleep at the switch,” Mr. Card said in an interview.
Brian Montgomery, the Federal Housing Administration commissioner, understood the significance. His agency insures home loans, traditionally for the same low-income minority borrowers Mr. Bush wanted to help. When he arrived in June 2005, he was shocked to find those customers had been lured away by the “fool’s gold” of subprime loans. The Ameriquest settlement, he said, reinforced his concern that the industry was exploiting borrowers.
In December 2005, Mr. Montgomery drafted a memo and brought it to the White House. “I don’t think this is what the president had in mind here,” he recalled telling Ryan Streeter, then the president’s chief housing policy analyst.
It was an opportunity to address the risky subprime lending practices head on. But that was never seriously discussed. More senior aides, like Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s chief political strategist, were wary of overly regulating an industry that, Mr. Rove said in an interview, provided “a valuable service to people who could not otherwise get credit.” While he had some concerns about the industry’s practices, he said, “it did provide an opportunity for people, a lot of whom are still in their houses today.”
Today, administration officials say it is fair to ask whether Mr. Bush’s ownership push backfired. Mr. Paulson said the administration, like others before it, “over-incented housing.” ‘We Told You So’
Armando Falcon Jr. was preparing to take on a couple of giants.
A soft-spoken Texan, Mr. Falcon ran the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, a tiny government agency that oversaw Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two pillars of the American housing industry. In February 2003, he was finishing a blockbuster report that warned the pillars could crumble.
Created by Congress, Fannie and Freddie — called G.S.E.’s, for government-sponsored entities — bought trillions of dollars’ worth of mortgages to hold or sell to investors as guaranteed securities. The companies were also Washington powerhouses, stuffing lawmakers’ campaign coffers and hiring bare-knuckled lobbyists.
Mr. Falcon’s report outlined a worst-case situation in which Fannie and Freddie could default on debt, setting off “contagious illiquidity in the market” — in other words, a financial meltdown. He also raised red flags about the companies’ soaring use of derivatives, the complex financial instruments that economic experts now blame for spreading the housing collapse.
Today, the White House cites that report — and its subsequent effort to better regulate Fannie and Freddie — as evidence that it foresaw the crisis and tried to avert it. Bush officials recently wrote up a talking points memo headlined “G.S.E.’s — We Told You So.”
But the back story is more complicated. To begin with, on the day Mr. Falcon issued his report, the White House tried to fire him.
At the time, Fannie and Freddie were allies in the president’s quest to drive up homeownership rates; Franklin D. Raines, then Fannie’s chief executive, has fond memories of visiting Mr. Bush in the Oval Office and flying aboard Air Force One to a housing event. “They loved us,” he said.
So when Mr. Falcon refused to deep-six his report, Mr. Raines took his complaints to top Treasury officials and the White House. “I’m going to do what I need to do to defend my company and my position,” Mr. Raines told Mr. Falcon.
Days later, as Mr. Falcon was in New York preparing to deliver a speech about his findings, his cellphone rang. It was the White House personnel office, he said, telling him he was about to be unemployed.
His warnings were buried in the next day’s news coverage, trumped by the White House announcement that Mr. Bush would replace Mr. Falcon, a Democrat appointed by Bill Clinton, with Mark C. Brickell, a leader in the derivatives industry that Mr. Falcon’s report had flagged.
It was not until 2003, when Freddie became embroiled in an accounting scandal, that the White House took on the companies in earnest. Mr. Bush decided to quit the long-standing practice of rewarding supporters with high-paying appointments to the companies’ boards — “political plums,” in Mr. Rove’s words. He also withdrew Mr. Brickell’s nomination and threw his support behind Mr. Falcon, beginning an intense effort to give his little regulatory agency more power.
Mr. Falcon lacked explicit authority to limit the size of the companies’ mammoth investment portfolios, or tell them how much capital they needed to guard against losses. White House officials wanted that to change. They also wanted the power to put the companies into receivership, hoping that would end what Mr. Card, the former chief of staff, called “the myth of government backing,” which gave the companies a competitive edge because investors assumed the government would not let them fail.
By the spring of 2005 a deal with Congress seemed within reach, Mr. Snow, the former Treasury secretary, said in an interview.
Michael G. Oxley, an Ohio Republican and then-chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, had produced what Mr. Snow viewed as “a pretty darned good bill,” a watered-down version of what the president sought. But at the urging of Mr. Card and the White House economics team, the president decided to hold out for a tougher bill in the Senate.
Mr. Card said he feared that Mr. Snow was “more interested in the deal than the result.” When the bill passed the House, the president issued a statement opposing it, effectively killing any chance of compromise. Mr. Oxley was furious.
“The problem with those guys at the White House, they had all the answers and they didn’t think they had to listen to anyone, including the Treasury secretary,” Mr. Oxley said in a recent interview. “They were driving the ideological train. He was in the caboose, and they were in the engine room.”
[S]ome former White House and Treasury officials continue to debate whether Mr. Bush’s all-or-nothing approach scuttled a measure that, while imperfect, might have given an aggressive regulator enough power to keep the companies from failing.
Mr. Snow, for one, calls Mr. Oxley “a hero,” adding, “He saw the need to move. It didn’t get done. And it’s too bad, because I think if it had, I think we could well have avoided a big contributor to the current crisis.”Unheeded Warnings
The New Century Financial Corporation, a huge subprime lender whose mortgages were bundled into securities sold around the world, was headed for bankruptcy in March 2007. Mr. Thomas, an economic analyst for President Bush, was responsible for determining whether it was a hint of things to come.
As Mr. Thomas began digging into New Century’s failure that spring, he became fixated on a particular statistic, the rent-to-own ratio.
Typically, as home prices increase, rental costs rise proportionally. But Mr. Thomas sent charts to top White House and Treasury officials showing that the monthly cost of owning far outpaced the cost to rent. To Mr. Thomas, it was a sign that housing prices were wildly inflated and bound to plunge, a condition that could set off a foreclosure crisis as conventional and subprime borrowers with little equity found they owed more than their houses were worth.
It was not the Bush team’s first warning. The previous year, Mr. Lindsay, the former chief economics adviser, returned to the White House to tell his old colleagues that housing prices were headed for a crash. But housing values are hard to evaluate, and Mr. Lindsay had a reputation as a market pessimist, said Mr. Hubbard, adding, “I thought, ‘He’s always a bear.’ ”
In retrospect, Mr. Hubbard said, Mr. Lindsay was “absolutely right,” and Mr. Thomas’s charts “should have been a signal.”
Instead, the prevailing view at the White House was that the problems in the housing market were limited to subprime borrowers unable to make their payments as their adjustable mortgages reset to higher rates. That belief was shared by Mr. Bush’s new Treasury secretary, Mr. Paulson.
Mr. Paulson, a former chairman of the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs, had been given unusual power; he had accepted the job only after the president guaranteed him that Treasury, not the White House, would have the dominant role in shaping economic policy. That shift merely continued an imbalance of power that stifled robust policy debate, several former Bush aides say.
Throughout the spring of 2007, Mr. Paulson declared that “the housing market is at or near the bottom,” with the problem “largely contained.” That position underscored nearly every action the Bush administration took in the ensuing months as it offered one limited response after another.
By that August, the problems had spread beyond New Century. Credit was tightening, amid questions about how heavily banks were invested in securities linked to mortgages. Still, Mr. Bush predicted that the turmoil would resolve itself with a “soft landing.”
The plan Mr. Bush announced on Aug. 31 reflected that belief. Called “F.H.A. Secure,” it aimed to help about 80,000 homeowners refinance their loans. Mr. Montgomery, the housing commissioner, said that he knew the modest program was not enough — the White House later expanded the agency’s rescue role — and that he would be “flying the plane and fixing it at the same time.”
That fall, Representative Rahm Emanuel, a leading Democrat, former investment banker and now the incoming chief of staff to President-elect Barack Obama, warned the White House it was not doing enough. He said he told Joshua B. Bolten, Mr. Bush’s chief of staff, and Mr. Paulson in a series of phone calls that the credit crisis would get “deep and serious” and that the only answer was big, internationally coordinated government intervention.
“You got to strangle this thing and suffocate it,” he recalled saying.
Instead, Mr. Bush developed Hope Now, a voluntary public-private partnership to help struggling homeowners refinance loans. And he worked with Congress to pass a stimulus package that sent taxpayers $150 billion in tax rebates.
In a speech to the Economic Club of New York in March 2008, he cautioned against Washington’s temptation “to say that anything short of a massive government intervention in the housing market amounts to inaction,” adding that government action could make it harder for the markets to recover. Dominoes Start to Fall
Within days, Bear Sterns collapsed, prompting the Federal Reserve to engineer a hasty sale. Some economic experts, including Timothy F. Geithner, the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank (and Mr. Obama’s choice for Treasury secretary) feared that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could be the next to fall.
Mr. Bush was still leaning on Congress to revamp the tiny agency that oversaw the two companies, and had acceded to Mr. Paulson’s request for the negotiating room that he had denied Mr. Snow. Still, there was no deal.
Over the previous two years, the White House had effectively set the agency adrift. Mr. Falcon left in 2005 and was replaced by a temporary director, who was in turn replaced by James B. Lockhart, a friend of Mr. Bush from their days at Andover, and a former deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration who had once run a software company.
On Mr. Lockhart’s watch, both Freddie and Fannie had plunged into the riskiest part of the market, gobbling up more than $400 billion in subprime and other alternative mortgages. With the companies on precarious footing, Mr. Geithner had been advocating that the administration seize them or take other steps to reassure the market that the government would back their debt, according to two people with direct knowledge of his views.
In an Oval Office meeting on March 17, however, Mr. Paulson barely mentioned the idea, according to several people present. He wanted to use the troubled companies to unlock the frozen credit market by allowing Fannie and Freddie to buy more mortgage-backed securities from overburdened banks. To that end, Mr. Lockhart’s office planned to lift restraints on the companies’ huge portfolios — a decision derided by former White House and Treasury officials who had worked so hard to limit them.
But Mr. Paulson told Mr. Bush the companies would shore themselves up later by raising more capital.
“Can they?” Mr. Bush asked.
“We’re hoping so,” the Treasury secretary replied.
That turned out to be incorrect, and did not surprise Mr. Thomas, the Bush economic adviser. Throughout that spring and summer, he warned the White House and Treasury that, in the stark words of one e-mail message, “Freddie Mac is in trouble.” And Mr. Lockhart, he charged, was allowing the company to cover up its insolvency with dubious accounting maneuvers.
But Mr. Lockhart continued to offer reassurances. In a July appearance on CNBC, he declared that the companies were well managed and “worsts were not coming to worst.” An infuriated Mr. Thomas sent a fresh round of e-mail messages accusing Mr. Lockhart of “pimping for the stock prices of the undercapitalized firms he regulates.”
Mr. Lockhart defended himself, insisting in an interview that he was aware of the companies’ vulnerabilities, but did not want to rattle markets.
“A regulator,” he said, “does not air dirty laundry in public.”
Soon afterward, the companies’ stocks lost half their value in a single day, prompting Congress to quickly give Mr. Paulson the power to spend $200 billion to prop them up and to finally pass Mr. Bush’s long-sought reform bill, but it was too late. In September, the government seized control of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
In an interview, Mr. Paulson said the administration had no justification to take over the companies any sooner. But Mr. Falcon disagreed: “They absolutely could have if they had thought there was a real danger.”
By Sept. 18, when Mr. Bush and his team had their fateful meeting in the Roosevelt Room after the failure of Lehman Brothers and the emergency rescue of A.I.G., Mr. Paulson was warning of an economic calamity greater than the Great Depression. Suddenly, historic government intervention seemed the only option. When Mr. Paulson spelled out what would become a $700 billion plan to rescue the nation’s banking system, the president did not hesitate.
“Is that enough?” Mr. Bush asked.
“It’s a lot,” the Treasury secretary recalled replying. “It will make a difference.” And in any event, he told Mr. Bush, “I don’t think we can get more.”
As the meeting wrapped up, a handful of aides retreated to the White House Situation Room to call Vice President Dick Cheney in Florida, where he was attending a fund-raiser. Mr. Cheney had long played a leading role in economic policy, though housing was not a primary interest, and like Mr. Bush he had a deep aversion to government intervention in the market. Nonetheless, he backed the bailout, convinced that too many Americans would suffer if Washington did nothing.
Mr. Bush typically darts out of such meetings quickly. But this time, he lingered, patting people on the back and trying to soothe his downcast staff. “During times of adversity, he bucks everybody up,” Mr. Paulson said.
It was not the end of the failures or government interventions; the administration has since stepped in to rescue Citigroup and, just last week, the Detroit automakers. With 31 days left in office, Mr. Bush says he will leave it to historians to analyze “what went right and what went wrong,” as he put it in a speech last week to the American Enterprise Institute.
Mr. Bush said he was too focused on the present to do much looking back.
“It turns out,” he said, “this isn’t one of the presidencies where you ride off into the sunset, you know, kind of waving goodbye.”