FDIC’s Bair Sets to Shatter CRA “Myth”

“I want to give you my verdict on CRA: NOT guilty,” said FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair, according to a press release by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Before the Consumer Federation of America, Bair said Thursday she wanted to clear up the “myth” that the Community Reinvestment Act caused the financial crisis — and she set out to do so with vigor. The Community Reinvestment Act — or CRA — is a federal law designed to encourage commercial banks and savings associations to meet the needs of borrowers in all segments of their communities, including low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. It has largely been criticized by conservative members of the GOP as promoting predatory lending practices. “Point in fact,” she said, “only one in four higher-priced first mortgage loans were made by CRA-covered banks during the hey-day years of subprime mortgage lending.  The rest were made by private independent mortgage companies and large bank affiliates not covered by CRA rules.” And “Let me ask you,” she proceeded. “Where in the CRA does it say to make loans to people who can’t afford to repay? Nowhere.” The facts are simple, Bair said. The lending practices that are causing problems today were driven by a desire for more market share and revenue growth, not because the government encouraged certain lending practices. Mark Hillman, a former majority leader in the Colorado state Senate tells a different tale. “Through CRA, banks were strong-armed to make risky loans and threatened with fines of up to $500,000 per violation if they didn’t reach government quotas,” he wrote in an op-ed published in late October. “Banks were encouraged to hire ‘community groups,’ like ACORN, to find ‘qualified’ borrowers.” Bair said CRA has always recognized there are limitations on the potential volume of lending in lower-income areas due to “safety and soundness” considerations, and that’s why the CRA never set out lending targets or goals. However, the CRA isn’t without imperfections, and now is the time to put more emphasis on the qualitative aspects of lending in CRA examinations, she said. Bair isn’t alone in her defense for CRA. Just two weeks ago, Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan said in a speech at the Enterprise Annual Network Conference that “CRA is not the culprit behind the subprime mortgage lending abuses, or the broader credit quality issues in the market place.” In closing remarks, Bair suggested that while the bulk of lending abuses were outside the banking sector, bank regulators must be more vigilant.  “Consumer protection by bank regulators is not an oxymoron,” she said. Write to Kelly Curran at kelly.curran@housingwire.com.

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