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Many warnings of housing bust ignored

Subprime problems noted as early as 2002

A local congressman, a Woodstock housing expert, and a Harvard banker each had front-row seats to the housing crisis as it unfolded over years.

All of them say the crisis could have been tempered, or maybe avoided altogether, if warning signs were heeded and common-sense measures were in place.

"Absolutely this could have been avoided," said Sue Rose, McHenry County Housing Authority community service director. "I think when we started seeing the first trickle of foreclosures coming in, the money should have been tightened up immediately or stopped altogether."

Some in Washington spent years, to no avail, warning about the potential problem. As early as 2002, U.S. Treasury employee Sheila Bair and Federal Reserve Governor Ned Gramlich began warning the Fed about a lack of regulation on subprime lenders.

But signs were missed and ignored. In 2005, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan warned that there was "froth," or "a lot of local bubbles" in the housing market, but emphasized he saw no signs of a nationwide bubble. Despite the comment, Greenspan and the Fed did nothing to discourage these local bubbles from growing.

Risky subprime mortgages became so widespread that lenders coined the term "neutron loan," after the neutron bomb, because "it kills the people and leaves the house."

Bair in 2006 became chairwoman of the FDIC and tried to use her new role, along with Gramlich, to tighten regulations on subprime lenders, without success.

To Harvard State Bank President Roger Lehmann, a banker of 51 years, that lack of scrutiny on lenders is one of the main catalysts for the bust.

"They were ordered to close that mortgage, get that commission," Lehmann said. "With a bank, you live with your loans. If you're a broker, you make the loan, you sell it off, with no future responsibility."

To U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Egan, the mess could have been averted had the basic underwriting standard of ensuring proof of income been followed.

"Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could have said they wouldn't accept a loan signed to them unless there was proof of the earnings of the [borrower]. It was so simple," Manzullo said.

But to Manzullo, some of the most important warning signs were ignored not at the federal level, but at the signature and handshake level.

"There were people closing who knew the buyers couldn't make the first payment. They knew. They should have stopped that closing," Manzullo said.

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