The Pecora Commission got to the root causes of the Depression and the HOLC addressed the aftermath. Hopefully Obama’s fraud task force and mortgage settlement are on the same course.
The news that President Obama has decided to establish a special new task force to investigate abusive and fraudulent lending practices during the housing boom, coupled with yesterday’s announcement of a $26 billion settlement aimed at providing relief to struggling home owners, will certainly be greeted as welcome developments by the millions of Americans still struggling under the weight of the Great Recession. But with many of the details of the practical application of the settlement still to be worked out, and with the task force having just been established, it is too early to tell how much relief will actually reach desperate homeowners or how many banks and/or individuals will face prosecution.
Given the devastation caused by the reckless and often fraudulent behavior of many of the nation’s leading banks, and the overwhelming need to stabilize the housing market and provide relief to millions of homeowners, one would hope that these measures would, at the very least, be as effective as the actions taken by the government roughly 80 years ago when we faced a very similar economic crisis.
Most Americans are well aware that the Great Depression was initiated by the collapse of the stock market in the fall of 1929. It was a collapse that came about in large part because of the bursting of a large speculative bubble that had built up over time in the reckless and virtually unregulated financial climate of the 1920s. What is less well known or understood are the many other factors that played a role in the onset of the Great Depression: the decline in agricultural prices, the maldistribution of wealth and income, the collapse of the banking sector, and an equally important urban mortgage crisis. Indeed, by the time Franklin Roosevelt took office in March of 1933, it is estimated that approximately 50 percent of all urban mortgages in the United States were delinquent or in foreclosure and that an average of 1,000 homes per day were being lost.
To deal with the housing emergency and to get to the bottom of what led to the economic crisis in the first place, FDR did two things. First, he fully supported the activities of the 1932 Senate Committee on Banking and Currency that was established to investigate the causes of 1929 crash. Once in office, he moved quickly to provide relief to home owners through the establishment of the Home Owners Mortgage Corporation (HOLC).
Thanks in large part to the zeal of Ferdinand Pecora, who was appointed to head the Senate committee investigating Wall Street in January 1933 and was quietly encouraged to carry out his work with vigor by President-elect Roosevelt, the “Pecora Commission” would uncover a whole series of unscrupulous practices in the banking and financial sector. These included interest-free loans to top executives at National City Bank (now Citibank); National City’s disposal of bad loans to Latin American countries by packing them into securities and selling them to unsuspecting investors; and J.P. Morgan’s list of influential “friends,” including former President Calvin Coolidge, all of whom were given the opportunity to purchase stock at sharply discounted prices.
These disclosures, coupled with additional revelations about excessive salaries, bonuses, and the fact that many financial elites — including the head of National City Bank — did not pay any income tax in the past year, outraged the public and helped inspire the Roosevelt administration and Congress to push through some of the most important banking and financial reforms in American history. These included the Glass Steagall Act, which separated commercial from investment banking and gave us the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the 1934 Securities and Exchange Act, which created the Securities and Exchange Commission.
In the meantime, to meet the urgent housing crisis, the HOLC, which was established within FDR’s first 100 days in office, provided direct relief to families facing foreclosure by buying out their existing mortgages and replacing them with new ones. The new ones weren’t based on the typical non-amortized loan of seven to ten years, but rather on the far more affordable amortized mortgage of between 25 and 30 years. Over the course of its brief three-year history, the HOLC refinanced over one million homes — roughly 20 percent of all the urban mortgages in the U.S. In the process, it revolutionized American home ownership through the institutionalization of the 30-year mortgage. It also did not cost the American taxpayer any money, as the HOLC turned a small profit when it finally closed its books in 1951.
Taken together, the measures inspired by the Pecora Commission and the relief brought to millions of American homeowners helped restore investor confidence, resuscitate the financial sector, and lay the foundations upon which our banking, financial, and housing sectors rested from more than half a century.
In making yesterday’s announcement, President Obama alluded to both the new task force and the bank settlement by stating that with these measures “we begin to turn a page on an era of recklessness that has left so much damage in its wake.” Eighty years ago, the twin combination of a federal investigation and direct action by the government helped alleviate the anger and anguish of the millions of Americans who suffered as the result of the greed and avarice of the wealthy few. Let us hope that the president’s new task force and the agreement with our nation’s major banks will do the same.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.