One year later: A meltdown retrospective

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Today marks a year since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history. As President Obama delivers a major speech on Wall Street saying he is determined to prevent a repeat of the crisis that nearly brought down the global financial system, the Center looks back at its year of covering the meltdown.

Following the collapse of Lehman, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke scrambled to avoid further financial failures. The government poured billions into banks, investment funds, and insurance companies, through the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.

As the Center documented in our landmark report, Who’s Behind the Financial Meltdown, many of the lenders who received TARP funds were originators of the very subprime loans that devastated the American economy. Through an analysis of 7.5 million mortgage records from 2005-2007, the Center identified the Top 25 subprime lenders in the country — the companies making the high cost loans that were aggressively marketed, bundled into securities, and sold on Wall Street, in a game of financial hot potato that came to a crashing end a year ago.

The findings of the Center’s report were striking. At least 21 of the top 25 subprime lenders were financed by banks that received bailout money — through direct ownership, credit agreements, or huge purchases of loans for securitization. Eleven of the lenders have made payments to settle claims of widespread lending abuses. Four of those have received bank bailout funds, including American International Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc.

The Center also found that legislators and regulators should have seen this coming. A full decade before the crash, fair lending advocates and lawyers were warning that subprime loans would not just lead to foreclosure, and would not just harm communities. They told Congress, in repeated hearings, that unregulated subprime loans would destroy retirement funds and threaten the stability of the American economy. As we now know, those warnings were largely ignored.

Following the May 2009 release of the Financial Meltdown report, the Center explored the role of non-bank mortgage companies in the crisis. An analysis of federal mortgage data found that fully half of all subprime loans were made by non-bank mortgage companies, subject to little oversight and regulation. Further reporting uncovered that these nonbank lenders were not required to file reports of suspicious activities to the federal government, unlike almost every other player in the financial services realm, from banks to casinos to check cashers. Shortly after the Center’s story on the reporting gap, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network announced proposed changes that would require nonbank lenders to file the so-called Suspicious Activity Reports.

The Center has also covered the administration efforts to slow the tsunami of foreclosures still inundating American cities from Philadelphia to Riverside, Calif. Our recent report on the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, found that many big subprime players stand to collect billions for their efforts to modify bad mortgages. Of the 25 top participants in the $75 billion program, at least 21 were heavily involved in the subprime lending industry. Most specialized in servicing subprime loans, but several both serviced and originated the loans. In other words, companies that made bad subprime loans in the first place could collect up to $21 billion for their attempts to fix the foreclosure problem.

Foreclosures remain high. According to RealtyTrac data, there were 1.9 million foreclosure filings in the first six months of this year. That means in the last six months one in every 84 homes had at least one foreclosure filing. In the first quarter of 2009, 7.2 percent of mortgages were seriously delinquent, according to a Mortgage Bankers Association survey, compared with 6.3 percent in the previous quarter and 1.9 percent in the first three months of 2005.

Subprime mortgages are failing at a far higher rate than mortgages in general.

More than 36 percent of adjustable-rate, subprime mortgages were considered seriously delinquent in the first quarter of 2009, compared with 33.8 percent the previous quarter and 5.2 percent in the first quarter of 2005.

And one year on from the collapse of Lehman, many of the loans that crippled the financial system could still be made today. High-cost, no documentation subprime loans are still perfectly legal. But that could be changing, as the proposal for the Consumer Financial Protection Agency and other re-regulation plans move forward. The Center will be keeping a close eye on the financial industry in the months to come.

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