Commenting on the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mess, Paul Krugman asserts in his column today:
Fannie and Freddie had nothing to do with the explosion of high-risk lending a few years ago, an explosion that dwarfed the S.& L. fiasco. In fact, Fannie and Freddie, after growing rapidly in the 1990s, largely faded from the scene during the height of the housing bubble.
Partly that’s because regulators, responding to accounting scandals at the companies, placed temporary restraints on both Fannie and Freddie that curtailed their lending just as housing prices were really taking off. Also, they didn’t do any subprime lending, because they can’t: the definition of a subprime loan is precisely a loan that doesn’t meet the requirement, imposed by law, that Fannie and Freddie buy only mortgages issued to borrowers who made substantial down payments and carefully documented their income.
Where to begin? First let’s stipulate that Fannie and Freddie never did “any subprime lending” … but not for the reason Krugman states. Freddie and Fannie never do any lending: They buy mortgages from lenders only, so that those lenders have more cash to make other loans (like subprime ones). But Krugman is either lying or being intentionally obtuse when he says “Fannie and Freddie buy only mortgages issued to borrowers who made substantial down payments and carefully documented their income.” The Washington Post reports:
In 1995, President Bill Clinton’s HUD agreed to let Fannie and Freddie get affordable-housing credit for buying subprime securities that included loans to low-income borrowers. The idea was that subprime lending benefited many borrowers who did not qualify for conventional loans. HUD expected that Freddie and Fannie would impose their high lending standards on subprime lenders.
In 2000, as HUD revisited its affordable-housing goals, the housing market had shifted. With escalating home prices, subprime loans were more popular. Consumer advocates warned that lenders were trapping borrowers with low “teaser” interest rates and ignoring borrowers’ qualifications.
HUD restricted Freddie and Fannie, saying it would not credit them for loans they purchased that had abusively high costs or that were granted without regard to the borrower’s ability to repay. Freddie and Fannie adopted policies not to buy some high-cost loans.
That year, Freddie bought $18.6 billion in subprime loans; Fannie did not disclose its number.
But by 2004, when HUD next revised the goals, Freddie and Fannie’s purchases of subprime-backed securities had risen tenfold. Foreclosure rates also were rising.
For Wall Street, high profits could be made from securities backed by subprime loans. Fannie and Freddie targeted the least-risky loans. Still, their purchases provided more cash for a larger subprime market.
“That was a huge, huge mistake,” said Patricia McCoy, who teaches securities law at the University of Connecticut. “That just pumped more capital into a very unregulated market that has turned out to be a disaster.”
In 2003, the two bought $81 billion in subprime securities. In 2004, they purchased $175 billion — 44 percent of the market. In 2005, they bought $169 billion, or 33 percent. In 2006, they cut back to $90 billion, or 20 percent. Generally, Freddie purchased more than Fannie and relied more heavily on the securities to meet goals.
Let’s review that last paragraph again. Krugman is trying to convince his readers that Freddie and Fannie are only innocent bystanders in the housing bubble. Fannie and Freddie purchased 44 percent of the subprime securities in 2004. Does that sound like the behavior of an innocent bystander to you?