Responding to their problems, the government in the 1980s began a gradual phasing out of interest rate ceilings on bank and S&L deposits. But while this helped the institutions attract deposits again, it produced large and widespread losses on S&Ls' mortgage portfolios, which were for the most part earning lower interest rates than S&Ls now were paying depositors. Again responding to complaints, Congress relaxed restrictions on lending so that S&Ls could make higher-earning investments. In particular, Congress allowed S&Ls to engage in consumer, business, and commercial real estate lending. They also liberalized some regulatory procedures governing how much capital S&Ls would have to hold.
Fearful of becoming obsolete, S&Ls expanded into highly risky activities such as speculative real estate ventures. In many cases, these ventures proved to be unprofitable, especially when economic conditions turned unfavorable. Indeed, some S&Ls were taken over by unsavory people who plundered them. Many S&Ls ran up huge losses. Government was slow to detect the unfolding crisis because budgetary stringency and political pressures combined to shrink regulators' staffs.
The S&L crisis in a few years mushroomed into the biggest national financial scandal in American history. By the end of the decade, large numbers of S&Ls had tumbled into insolvency; about half of the S&Ls that had been in business in 1970 no longer existed in 1989. The Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation, which insured depositors' money, itself became insolvent. In 1989, Congress and the president agreed on a taxpayer-financed bailout measure known as the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act (FIRREA). This act provided $50 billion to close failed S&Ls, totally changed the regulatory apparatus for savings institutions, and imposed new portfolio constraints. A new government agency called the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) was set up to liquidate insolvent institutions. In March 1990, another $78,000 million was pumped into the RTC. But estimates of the total cost of the S&L cleanup continued to mount, topping the $200,000 million mark.
Next Article: Lessons Learned From The Savings and Loan Crisis
This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.