When lending is motivated by politics, losses are not far behind.
Years ago, in the summer of 1980, I worked as an intern in the Federal Home Loan Bank Board at the Department of Agriculture. I was a senior in college majoring in business and had been accepted to the University of Chicago doctoral program. I didn’t want to take the internship because I wanted to take more courses over the summer to help prepare me for the rigors of grad school, but my college advisor had openly worried that I was far too serious for a young person. He strongly encouraged me to accept the internship and take a break from academics before I immersed myself in graduate school, and buried myself once again in all things economics!
I agreed, but only after I had arranged to take 6 credits of independent study in D.C. I chose to examine the Negative Income Tax program, one of the largest social experiments in U.S. history. More on that at another time. Today, I want to talk about what I learned from being an employee of the U.S. federal government.
The first thing I learned was that the “problem” with government work is not the people; well, not all the people. There was one man who spent his entire day going back and forth to feed quarters to the parking meter rather than pay for public transportation or do his work. He represented the worst in government employees. Most all of the others I met were hard-working and honest people, trying to do a good job and make a difference.
No, I learned that the real problem was the way the “work” was done in government. I worked for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB) that summer, which was one of the largest lenders in the world. The FHLBB was responsible for small business, rural, agricultural, and economic development lending. My job was to review loan applications from community groups, fairs, farmers’ markets, and various municipal organizations to make sure that they were complete.
We did not analyze the applicants for creditworthiness. Instead, if the application was correct and complete, and satisfied the application process, it was approved. The FHLBB, which was publicly trashed by the first President Bush as being largely responsible for the savings and loan crisis, was abolished and replaced by the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) under the Department of the Treasury in 1989.
The OTS eventually expanded its oversight to companies that were not banks, including Washington Mutual, American International Group (AIG), and IndyMac, all implicated in the current U.S. financial crisis.
Little did I know back in 1980 that I was witnessing, from the inside, a government lending process that would lead to the most significant financial crisis since the Great Depression. Looking back, the outcome was perfectly predictable: when politics replaces profits as the motivation of the lender, it should be no surprise that losses result.
By Sherry Jarrell