March 6, 2015
Ray Brescia recently posted the final version of The Community Reinvestment Act: Guilty, but not as Charged to SSRN. The article wades into a seemingly technical debate that has extraordinary political and ideological implications: did misguided liberal policies push financial institutions to engage in the risky lending practices that led to the financial crisis. I never gave this argument much credit because the supposed chain of causation seemed too attenuated to me. Nonetheless, the debate has had legs among some policy analysts. The article generally agrees with my own — admittedly impressionistic — views of the matter. It also argues that the CRA needs to be modernized to reflect how mortgage credit is extended in the 21st century. The abstract reads,
Since its passage in 1977, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) has charged federal bank regulators with “encourag[ing]” certain financial institutions “to help meet the credit needs of the local communities in which they are chartered consistent with safe and sound” banking practices. Even before the CRA became law – and ever since – it has become a flashpoint. Depending on your perspective, this simple and somewhat soft directive has led some to charge that it imposes unfair burdens on financial institutions and helped to fuel the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 and the financial crisis that followed. According to this argument, the CRA forced banks to make risky loans to less-than creditworthy borrowers. Others defend the CRA, arguing that it had little to do with the riskiest subprime lending at the heart of the crisis.
Research into the relationship between the mortgage crisis and the CRA generally vindicates those in the camp that believe the CRA had little to do with the risky lending that fueled these crises. At the same time, recent research by the National Bureau of Economic Research attempts to show that the CRA led to riskier lending, particularly in the period 2004-2006, when the mortgage market was overheated.
This paper reviews this and other existing research on the subject of the impact of the CRA on subprime lending to assess the role the CRA played in the mortgage crisis of 2007 and the financial crisis that followed. This paper also takes the analysis a step further, and asks what role the CRA played in failing to prevent these crises, particularly their impact on low- and moderate-income communities: i.e., the very communities the law was designed to protect. Based on a review of the best existing evidence, the initial verdict of not guilty – that the CRA did not cause the financial crisis, as some argue – still holds up on appeal. At the same time, as more fully described in this piece, an appreciation for the weaknesses inherent in the law’s structure, when combined with an understanding of the manner in which it was enforced by regulators, lead one to a different conclusion; although the CRA did not cause the crisis, it failed to prevent the very harms it was designed to prevent from befalling the very communities it is supposed to protect.
The defects in the CRA that emerge from this review, in total, suggest not that the CRA was too strong, but, rather, too weak. They also point to important reforms that should be put in place to strengthen and fine-tune the CRA to ensure that it can meet its important goal: ensuring that financial institutions meet the needs of low- and moderate-income communities, communities for which access to capital and banking services on fair terms is a necessary condition for economic development, let alone economic survival. Such reforms could include expanding the scope of the CRA to cover more financial institutions, creating a private right of action that would grant private and public litigants an opportunity to enforce the law through the courts, and having regulators enforce the CRA in such a way that will put more pressure on banks to modify more underwater mortgages.
I doubt that this article will be the final word on this topic, both because the existing empirical work seems inconclusive and also because the topic is one that has important ideological implications for the right and the left (‘government caused the financial crisis’ versus ‘corporate greed run amok caused the crisis’). Nonetheless, this article provides a thorough critique of one of the leading empirical studies of the topic.| Permalink