The Santelli Screed Hits Wrong Target on Mortgage Bailout

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Dean Baker  
Truthout, March 2, 2009

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Commodity trader Rick Santelli made himself into a national hero of sorts with his televised diatribe about being forced to pay the mortgages of “losers” who could not afford, or would not pay, the full cost of their mortgage. Santelli apparently hit a chord among those who want to blame deadbeat homeowners for the country’s economic woes.

At the risk of spoiling a promising artistic and commercial venture, people should know that Mr. Santelli is firing at the wrong target. The big gainers from the latest plan to help homeowners are not “loser” homeowners, but rather banks and investors who will earn far more on their loser loans than would otherwise have been possible.

This is easy to see if we just adhere to the most basic rule in policy analysis: follow the money. When we follow the money, we see that the government checks do not go to homeowners.

The government checks are all made out to banks and loan servicers. In millions of cases where homeowners were not keeping up with their mortgages, the government will send checks to banks and investors that make up for much of the shortfall. In addition, the government could send them several thousand dollars more for their efforts in allowing people to stay in their home.

While this policy is supposed to help homeowners, in many cases the best thing for these homeowners would be to move into one of the millions of vacant housing units. In most markets they would pay a much lower share of their income for housing if they were renters rather than owners.

Furthermore, with house prices dropping at more than a 20 percent annual rate, the Cubs have a better chance of winning the World Series than these folks have of accumulating any equity in their home. Most of the homeowners who have their mortgages subsidized under this program are looking at short sales, in two, three, or four years.

Santelli’s screed is part of a continuing effort to blame the poor and minority communities for the economic meltdown. There are millions of people who think the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) was responsible for bad mortgages, when most of these mortgages were either made by institutions that were not covered by the CRA or were loans that would not have been covered by the Act even if the institution was covered. Of course the idea that government bureaucrats were forcing banks to make loans that were hugely profitable at the time is laughable on its face.

At some point Santelli and his followers are going to have to deal with reality. The problem is not poor and moderate income homeowners or African Americans or Latinos. The perps in this case where rich bankers, the vast majority of whom were white males.

Their enablers in policy circles were not the bleeding hearts trying to help the poor, but the Wall Street envoys from both political parties; people like Henry Paulson, Robert Rubin, and of course Alan Greenspan. The people who sank the economy were the rich and powerful, not the poor and minorities.

If Santelli wants to really be the friend of hardworking homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages, he might try yelling about the bank bailouts. According to the latest news reports, the taxpayers just sent another $30 billion to AIG, almost half as much as President Obama set aside to subsidize mortgage payments.

The checks to AIG and other financial institutions may be necessary to keep the banking system operating, but we certainly have the right to demand that the shareholders and bank executives don’t profit from the bailouts. It would be great if Mr. Santelli would speak up about the real beneficiaries from these scams – the bank executives and wealthy shareholders. But, the big-mouthed commodity trader probably doesn’t have the courage to attack anyone with real power.


Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy. He also has a blog on the American Prospect, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues.