As the current financial crisis has unfolded, an argument that the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) is at its root has gained a foothold. This argument draws on the fact that the CRA encourages commercial banks and savings institutions (collectively known as banking institutions) to help meet the credit needs of lower-income borrowers and borrowers in lower-income neighborhoods.1/ Critics of the CRA contend that the law pushed banking institutions to undertake high-risk mortgage lending.
This article discusses key features of the CRA and presents results from our analysis of several data sources regarding the volume and performance of CRA-related mortgage lending. On balance, the evidence runs counter to the contention that the CRA lies at the root of the current mortgage crisis.
Before we turn to our analysis of CRA lending data, we have two important points to note regarding the CRA and its possible connection to the current mortgage crisis.
The first point is a matter of timing. The current crisis is rooted in the poor performance of mortgage loans made between 2005 and 2007. If the CRA did indeed spur the recent expansion of the subprime mortgage market and subsequent turmoil, it would be reasonable to assume that some change in the enforcement regime in 2004 or 2005 triggered a relaxation of underwriting standards by CRA-covered lenders for loans originated in the past few years. However, the CRA rules and enforcement process have not changed substantively since 1995.2/ This fact weakens the potential link between the CRA and the current mortgage crisis.
Our second point is a matter of the originating entity. When considering the potential role of the CRA in the current mortgage crisis, it is important to account for the originating party. In particular, independent nonbank lenders, such as mortgage and finance companies and credit unions, originate a substantial share of subprime mortgages, but they are not subject to CRA regulation and, hence, are not directly influenced by CRA obligations. (We explore subprime mortgage originations in further detail below.)
The CRA may directly affect nonbank subsidiaries or affiliates of banking institutions. Banking institutions can elect to have their subsidiary or affiliate lending activity counted in CRA performance evaluations. If the banking institution elects to include affiliate activity, it cannot be done selectively. For example, the institution cannot "cherry pick" loans that would be favorably considered under the law while ignoring loans to middle- or higher-income borrowers.
In the next section, we discuss the data analysis we undertook to assess the merits of the claims that the CRA was a principal cause of the current mortgage market difficulties. The analysis focuses on two basic questions. First, what share of subprime mortgage originations is related to the CRA? Second, how have CRA-related subprime loans performed relative to other loans? We believe the answers to these two questions will shed light on the role of the CRA in the subprime crisis.
CRA-related lending volume and distribution
In analyzing the available data, we consider two distinct metrics of lending activity: loan origination activity and loan performance. With respect to the first question posed above concerning loan originations, we determine which types of lending institutions made higher-priced loans, to whom those loans were made, and in what types of neighborhoods the loans were extended.3/ This analysis therefore depicts the fraction of subprime mortgage lending that could be related to the CRA.
Using loan origination data obtained pursuant to the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA), we find that in 2005 and 2006, independent nonbank institutions—institutions not covered by the CRA—accounted for about half of all subprime originations. (See Table 1.) Also, about 60 percent of higher-priced loan originations went to middle- or higher-income borrowers or neighborhoods, populations not targeted by the CRA. (See Table 2.) In addition, independent nonbank institutions originated nearly half of the higher-priced loans extended to lower-income borrowers or borrowers in lower-income areas (share derived from Table 2).
In total, of all the higher-priced loans, only 6 percent were extended by CRA-regulated lenders (and their affiliates) to either lower-income borrowers or neighborhoods in the lenders' CRA assessment areas, which are the local geographies that are the primary focus for CRA evaluation purposes. The small share of subprime lending in 2005 and 2006 that can be linked to the CRA suggests it is very unlikely the CRA could have played a substantial role in the subprime crisis.
To the extent that banking institutions chose not to include their affiliates' lending in their CRA examinations, the 6 percent share overstates the volume of higher-priced, lower-income lending that CRA examiners would have counted.4/ It is possible, however, the examiners might have considered at least some of the lower-income lending outside of CRA assessment areas if institutions asked that it be considered in their CRA performance evaluations. No data are available to assess this possibility; however, the majority of the higher-priced loans made outside of assessment areas were to middle- or higher-income borrowers. In our view, this suggests it is unlikely that the CRA was a motivating factor for such higher-priced lending. Rather, it is likely that higher-priced lending was primarily motivated by its apparent profitability.
It is also possible that the remaining share of higher-priced, lower-income lending may be indirectly attributable to the CRA due to the incentives under the CRA investment test. Specifically, examiners may have given banks "CRA credit" for their purchases of lower-income loans or mortgage-backed securities containing loans to lower-income populations, which could subsequently affect the supply of mortgage credit.
Although we lack definitive information on banks' CRA-induced secondary market activity, the HMDA data provide information on the types of institutions to which mortgages are sold. The data suggest that the link between independent mortgage companies and banks through direct secondary market transactions is weak, especially for lower-income loans. (See Table 3.) In 2006, only about 9 percent of independent mortgage company loan sales were to banking institutions. (Figure not shown in table.) And among these transactions, only 15 percent involved higher-priced loans to lower-income borrowers or neighborhoods. In other words, less than 2 percent of the mortgage originations sold by independent mortgage companies in 2006 were higher-priced, CRA-credit-eligible, and purchased by CRA-covered banking institutions.......................
Two basic points emerge from our analysis of the available data. First, only a small portion of subprime mortgage originations is related to the CRA. Second, CRA-related loans appear to perform comparably to other types of subprime loans. Taken together, the available evidence seems to run counter to the contention that the CRA contributed in any substantive way to the current mortgage crisis.