Late yesterday Portfolio.com reported that a bunch of powerful Washington politicians were given below market loans by Countrywide Financial. Among those receiving “special” loans that saved them thousands of dollars were former HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson and Senate Banking chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT).
Rounding up the morning’s news for his readers, online left leader Matt Stoller summarized the Portfolio story and then blithely comments: “Go free market!” Go free market?!? This story has nothing to do with the free market and everything to do with the inevitable rent seeking behavior that rational firms participate in when the federal government is given vast regulatory powers over their industry.
For example Dodd is currently the chief sponsor of legislation that progressives like Stoller claim is needed to “do something” about the current mortgage crisis. But the legislation Dodd has authored would also, surprise, surprise, save Countrywide Financial from billions in losses. But it should be no surprise that Countrywide is looking for the government to bail them out of this mess … after all it was government market intervention that helped cause it. The government sponsored entity Fannie Mae is the biggest buyer of Countrywide loans.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac do not actually lend money to borrowers. Instead, they make their money by purchasing loans, bundling them together and then selling them as mortgaged back securities. Due to their quasi-government status, Freddie and Fannie are exempt from state and local taxes and can borrow money at lower rates than their competitors. With these advantages, Freddie and Fannie have cornered the market on mortgage securitization. Most years, Freddie and Fannie help finance 40% of all U.S. mortgages. In the first quarter of 2008, they handled 80% of the market. If Fannie and Freddie were private entities, they would be a considered a monopoly by Department of Justice anti-trust guidelines.
Fannie and Freddie are neck deep in the subprime industry as well. In 1995 Fannie and Freddie convinced the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to let them get affordable-housing credit for buying subprime securities that included risky loans to low-income borrowers. In 2003 Fannie and Freddie bought $81 billion in subprime securities. In 2004 they bought $175 billion — 44% of the subprime market. Now Fannie and Freddie are in the same financial hole as Countrywide. They suffered $9 billion in mortgage-related losses last year and are sitting on another $19 billion in additional losses they have not yet fully acknowledged.
Fannie and Freddie’s enabling of the subprime crisis and Countrywide’s cheap loan giving practices are exactly why this country needs less government intervention and more free markets.