Phil Gramm Says the Banking Crisis Is (Mostly) Not His Fault

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Bob Daemmrich / Corbis

Phil Gramm

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The other factor was where Gramm's culpability came in: "the politicization of mortgage lending." Gramm trotted out the Republican bogeymen of the fall election campaign: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Community Reinvestment Act. But then he did something really interesting. He didn't give them all the blame.

Instead, he said they were simply part of a decades-long, bipartisan push — from Capitol Hill, the White House, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and even bank regulators — for ever more mortgage lending on ever easier terms. Gramm said he arrived in Washington in 1978 convinced as an economist that subsidizing housing and mortgage lending was a bad idea, but was soon won over to Washington's pro-housing consensus. During his 1990 U.S. Senate campaign, he said, polls revealed that 82% of Texas homeowners supported him over his Democratic opponent. After that, "You didn't have to convince me that homeownership was a good thing," he joked. (See pictures of Americans in their homes.)

The result was an environment in which official Washington seemed to believe that no home loan could be a bad home loan. "What we did and what we started was not just to push banks to make marginal loans, but to give them an excuse and to give them regulatory cover," he said. "Countrywide became HUD's poster child for what a good lender was like."

Gramm's solution is tougher mortgage regulation. Down payments should be at least 5%, borrowers should be required to provide tangible proof of income, adjustable rate mortgages should only be approved if the borrowers can afford to make the payments after the rates have adjusted upward, home equity loans should be restricted, etc.

The Great Deregulator has thus become a believer in regulation, at least in the messed up mortgage market. That's because the alternative to concluding that the mortgage market is in need of serious reform, Gramm said, is to conclude that financial capitalism doesn't work. And he's nowhere near ready to conclude that.

"Why are you just so afraid to say this whole system is bankrupt and the whole thing should just be reorganized?" someone from the audience asked after Gramm finished his lecture. "Why don't you just let it go?"

"First of all I think that's a good question," Gramm responded. But then he offered something of a personal credo: "I would be a little concerned about letting capitalism go, because it made me prosperous and free and it made my country prosperous and free."

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