By Edward Zelinsky
Like many of us, President Obama is a Warren Buffett fan. Most prominently, the president advocates, as a matter of tax policy, the so-called “Buffett Rule.” This rule responds to Mr. Buffett’s observation that his effective federal income tax rate is lower than the tax rate of Mr. Buffett’s secretary. In President Obama’s formulation, the Buffett Rule calls for taxpayers making at least $1,000,000 annually to pay federal income tax at a 30% bracket.
In his most recent letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, Mr. Buffett makes another provocative observation. However, Mr. Obama has so far ignored this most recent observation from the Oracle of Omaha. Addressing the nation’s continuing housing malaise, Mr. Buffett wrote:
A largely unnoted fact: Large numbers of people who have “lost” their house through foreclosure have actually realized a profit because they carried out refinancings earlier that gave them cash in excess of their cost. In these cases, the evicted homeowner was the winner, and the victim was the lender.
In contrast, the dominant narrative about the national mortgage crisis focuses upon the banks which, the narrative goes, knowingly induced homeowners to borrow money the banks knew the borrowers could not repay. The banks then sold the resulting mortgages to unsuspecting investors who were misled by the banks and by the rating agencies which put their respective seals of approval on these unsound mortgages. Banks subsequently compounded their misdeeds by engaging in widespread abuse while foreclosing on the homes subject to these mortgages.
This anti-bank narrative underpins the recent settlement among the federal government, the states and five major lending institutions (Bank of American, JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo and Ally Financial, previously known as GMAC). Under this settlement, the banks will give a total of $25 billion to homeowners who have been foreclosed upon or who are in danger of being foreclosed upon.
This anti-bank narrative has had legs because there is much truth to it. We now know, for example, that many banks lent money with optimistic public faces at the same time that bank executives knew the loans were unsound and overly-risky.
However, Mr. Buffett’s comments reveal the incompleteness of the anti-bank narrative; many borrowers were culpable along with the banks. It takes two parties — a lender and a borrower — to make a bad loan. Most Americans know a friend, relative, or neighbor who opportunistically gamed the mortgage system during the pre-recession bubble, borrowing against the bubble’s continuation and spending the borrowed funds for personal consumption. As Mr. Buffett suggests, to declare that borrower a victim is to mislabel a willing player in the nation’s mortgage debt fiasco.
We must develop a complete understanding of the causes of the Great Recession including the failures (and worse) of regulators, public officials, and financial institutions and their managers. In this context, Mr. Buffett has again advanced public debate by highlighting the role of opportunistic borrowing and borrowers. This is a Buffett-inspired debate which, so far, Mr. Obama has declined to join.
Edward A. Zelinsky is the Morris and Annie Trachman Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. He is the author of The Origins of the Ownership Society: How The Defined Contribution Paradigm Changed America. His monthly column appears here.