Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were created during the New Deal by the Roosevelt administration in order increase home ownership. With government backing and price controls, the supply of housing was artificially increased, with the funds coming from the taxpayer.
Even when Fannie and Freddie were made into government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) in the 1960s, they were still provided the financial support of the Federal Government. Because of their implicit government guarantees, these policy-based suppliers came to dominate the housing market.
As GSEs, Fannie and Freddie purchased 44% of subprime mortgage securities and were the biggest buyer of Countrywide loans. They became an industry duopoly, owning or guaranteeing about half the $12 trillion mortgage market. Risk was socialized, spread across all taxpayers through government guarantee, while profit was concentrated and private. This is a prototype case of government thriving on “concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.”
The ability to do this is what drives government expansion, taking from the masses and channeling the money to a minority – or special – interest. With these special interests, campaigns were launched, politicians entrenched and bureaucracy expanded. Hence Fannie and Freddie represent a massive rent seeking operation, to funnel money into the hands of officials at the expense of the taxpayer.
And yet none of this was sustainable, because it wasn’t profitable. Inevitably there would be collapse. Fannie and Freddie engaged in Enron-style accounting, and mafia-like corporatist tactics. It was their privileged status that led to the corruption, and that distorted the housing market and helped to inflate the housing bubble (also made possible by loose monetary policy).
The government takeover only makes all of these things worse. In the short run there is relief that a market collapse won’t occur imminently, but like the Soviet Union during perestroika, the fear of pain during reform can only lead to the delay of collapse and a more painful landing. Further concentration can only cause further waste, as competition, profit guidance and valuable price signals give way to bureaucracy, rent-seeking, inflation and misdirected investment.
As nationalized firms, Fannie and Freddie are government agencies, relying entirely on public funding. They have no reason to keep costs low, and every reason to allow short-term political objectives to guide their choices instead. Indeed, the Treasury has made it very clear that they will specifically move away from profit guidance. Treasury secretary Paulson said on Sunday that the entities “will no longer be managed with a strategy to maximize common shareholder returns.”
Paulson has promised that the fees they charge banks for loan securitization services will be examined “with an eye toward mortgage affordability,” even as they are neck deep in bankruptcy. This reminds me, again, of the logic of perestroika – instead of freeing prices up and allowing some market adjustment, so that the economy could finally get on track, a compromise was made. Prices would be “based on social costs,” companies were allowed to “take into consideration cost-effectiveness” but “speculative price increases aimed at excessive profit” were forbidden.
The logic of the expanding U.S. government is becoming just as warped. The socialization of risk caused the housing crisis, and the response is to nationalize. Risky lending driven by policy not profit caused the collapse and the “reforms” will reduce fees and shun profitability. If we keep moving in this direction, we’ll pass through our own reverse perestroika, and end up a socialist state.