What's missing from Obama's financial reforms
Government's distortion of the housing market needs fixing as much as Wall Street.
He also needs to put new curbs on another street: Pennsylvania Avenue.
A prime cause for the housing bubble that led buyers, mortgage brokers, banks, hedge funds, and investors to lose their senses about risk – and bring the world economy to its knees – lies with Washington's housing policy, and the powerful industry lobbies that push it.
Over the decades, Congress, the Federal Reserve, and successive administrations have cranked up the property market with various favors until owning a home became a social necessity and the government had a stake in making sure home prices defy market gravity by always rising. Even after this crisis began, lawmakers included a large tax credit for first-time home buyers in the stimulus package.
The long accumulation of home-buying benefits and the creation of a false impression that houses are safe investments contributed to a bubble that burst in 2006-07, popping every other bubble wedded to it and exposing flaws in financial institutions that also bought into this wild risk-taking.
Mr. Obama only obliquely hinted at this fundamental cause in his speech Wednesday in announcing the reforms. He cited "structural weaknesses" and schemes that were "built on a pile of sand." By not tackling this most fundamental root of the crisis, however, his reforms will only go so far to keep the finance industry and consumers from making similar mistakes.
Yes, his proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency might help would-be home buyers avoid buying a mortgage they can't understand or afford.
Yes, his reforms will improve the work of investment rating agencies that failed to assess the risk of mortgages that were "bundled" into securities.