Archives: October, 2009

Fixing Fannie Is Essential

This past week witnessed continued debate in congressional committees over changes to our financial regulatory system.  Perhaps catching the most attention was Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s appearance before House Financial Services. 

Sadly missing from all the noise this week was any discussion over reforming those entities at the center of the housing bubble and mortgage meltdown:  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

While many, including Bernanke, have identified the “global savings glut” as a prime force behind the historically low interest rates that drove the housing bubble, often missed in this analysis is the critical role played by Fannie and Freddie as channels of that savings glut.  After all, the Chinese Central Bank was not plowing its reserves into Countrywide stock; it was putting hundreds of billions of its dollar reserves into Fannie and Freddie debt.  Fannie and Freddie were the vehicle that carried excess world savings into the United States.

Had this massive flow of global capital been invested in productive activities, or even just prime mortgages, it is unlikely tha we would have seen such a large housing bubble.  Instead, what did Fannie and Freddie do with its Chinese funds?  It invested those funds in the subprime mortgage market.  At the height of the bubble, Fannie and Freddie purchased over 40 percent of private-label subprime mortgage-backed securities.  Fannie and Freddie also used those funds to lower the underwriting standards of the “prime” whole mortgages it purchased, turning much of the Alt-A and subprime market into what looked to the world like prime mortgages.

Given the massive leverage (at one point Freddie was leveraged 200 to 1) and shoddy credit quality of mortgages on their books, why were the Chinese and other investors so willing to trust their money to Fannie and Freddie?  Because they were continually told by U.S. officials that their losses would be covered.  At the end of the day, Fannie and Freddie were not bailed out in order to save our housing market; they were bailed out in order to protect the Chinese Central Bank from taking any losses on its Fannie/Freddie investments.  Adding insult to injury is the fact that the Chinese accumulated these large dollar holdings in order to suppress the value of their currency, enabling Chinese products to be more competitive with American-made products.

While foreign investors have been willing to put considerable money into Wall Street, without the implied guarantees of Fannie and Freddie, trillions of dollars of global capital flows would not have been funneled into the U.S. subprime mortgage market.  As Washington seems intent on continuing to mortgage America’s future to the Chinese, that at minimum it seems that fixing Fannie and Freddie might help insure that something more productive is done with that borrowing.

Pawlenty

I am very fearful that the Republicans will nominate another Bush-style candidate for 2012. With the government running trillion-dollar deficits, the country needs a hard-line budget-cutter as the next president.

Politico reports: “Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been quietly assembling the blueprint of a presidential campaign and will announce Thursday the support of a group of high-level political strategists and donors, complemented by a handful of top new media consultants.”

I gave Pawlenty a “B” in my fiscal report card on the governors last year. Here’s what I said about him:

Tim Pawlenty pledged not to raise taxes when he ran for governor, but his tax record in office is more mixed than that. He backed a $200 million tax increase on cigarette consumers in 2005 and a $109 million corporate tax increase in 2008. He has also supported substantial increases in fees and charges. Pawlenty has provided some targeted tax relief and imposed temporary limits on local property tax increases, but he has not focused on pro-growth tax rate reductions. Nonetheless, Pawlenty’s veto record is impressive, including rejecting a gasoline tax increase, a hike in the top personal income tax rate, and various bloated spending bills. Pawlenty has delivered fairly restrained budgets over the years and kept spending growth to modest increases.

This year, Pawlenty has proposed spending restraint and he has vetoed tax increases. He has also called for cutting the state corporate income tax rate. Still, I’m uneasy about him, so I sure hope the party’s fiscal conservatives thoroughly vet the fellow before he advances too far.

The Emperor’s Green Clothes

According to Thursday’s New York Times, “the Obama administration announced on Wednesday that it was moving forward on new rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from hundreds of power plants and large industrial facilities.”

President Obama has said that he prefers a comprehensive legislative approach to regulating emissions and stemming global warming, not a piecemeal application of rules, and that he is deeply committed to passage of a climate bill this year.

But he has authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to begin moving toward regulation, which could goad lawmakers into reaching an agreement.

In the book that popularized the phrase “the Imperial Presidency,” historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. focused overwhelmingly on the vast growth of presidential power in foreign affairs. But as an inveterate New Dealer, Schlesinger had a blind spot where it came to the Emperor’s burgeoning powers at home.

The Supreme Court’s virtual abandonment of the nondelegation doctrine after 1935 paved the way for the modern administrative state, in which Congress all too eagerly cedes legislative power to the executive branch. As the Obama administration’s latest actions on global warming show, the Imperial Presidency comes in green, too. From my column in the Washington Examiner this week:

James Madison believed that there could be “no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person.” And yet, here we are, with those powers united in the person of a president who has pledged to heal the planet and stop the oceans’ rise.

The Times article makes clear that Obama won’t push his authority under the Clean Air Act (or the Supreme Court’s interpretation thereof in Mass. v. EPA) as far as he might, yet: “By raising the standard to 25,000 tons, the new rule exempts millions of smaller sources of carbon dioxide emissions like bakeries, soft drink bottlers, dry cleaners and hospitals.” Instead, the administration plans to use its power under the CAA as a hammer to hold over Congress’s head, pushing it to act on cap and trade.

But eventually, Obama could push that authority even further. According to a comprehensive legal analysis issued by NYU Law School’s Center for Policy Integrity“if Congress fails to act, President Obama has the power under the Clean Air Act to adopt a cap-and-trade system.” (Emphasis mine). (Note in the link above that Matt Yglesias, dedicated opponent of Bush’s war-on-terror executive power grabs, doesn’t seem exactly upset at the prospect of cap-and-trade via executive fiat.)

True, such a move would be litigated to death, and the forests of paperwork it would generate might result in a carbon footprint larger than whatever it abated. Nonetheless, we ought to be disturbed by the notion that in a democratic country the president could make such a move without an up or down vote from Congress. And, as I suggest in the Examiner piece, it ought to make conservatives question their longtime conviction that presidential control over administrative agencies is a reliable method for decreasing the country’s regulatory burden:

After 9/11, the phrase “unitary executive theory” (UET) came to stand for the idea that the president can do whatever he pleases in the national security arena. But it originally stood for a humbler proposition: UET’s architects in the Reagan administration argued that the Constitution’s grant of executive power to the president meant that he controlled the executive branch, and could therefore rein in aggressive regulatory agencies.

In an era when Republicans held a virtual lock on the Electoral College, that idea had some appeal. But as Elena Kagan, now President Obama’s Solicitor General, pointed out in a 2001 Harvard Law Review article, there’s little reason to think that “presidential supervision of administration inherently cuts in a deregulatory direction.”

… [A]s Kagan notes, after the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, President Clinton used his regulatory authority unilaterally to show progress, pushing “a distinctly activist and pro-regulatory agenda.” As Obama’s popularity erodes, he may come to like the idea of being the “decider.”

From the Oxymoron File: The Neutral Subsidy

Peter Van Doren points me to some revealing passages in a new article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. In “Subsidizing Creativity through Network Design: Zero-Pricing and Net Neutrality,” Robin S. Lee and Tim Wu caution against tiered pricing for Internet access services, writing:

[U]nless sufficient bandwidth and quality of service can be guaranteed for the “free” Internet, there is a risk that … tiering will serve to sidestep de facto prohibition on termination fees… . [A] priced-priority system could simply become a de facto fee charged for all content providers if the “free” Internet was of sufficiently poor quality and consumers shifted their usage behavior accordingly… . [T]his might dampen the introduction of new content and services and eliminate the subsidy for content innovation currently provided by net neutrality.

Locking in net neutrality by regulation would lock in a subsidy to content providers. Lee and Wu prefer it, and many of us may like the results, but it’s hard to call a subsidy regime “neutral.”

Thursday Links

Sixty Years On, China Has Prosperity, Still Needs Freedom

China’s rise from an isolated state-controlled economy in 1949 to the world’s third largest economy with a vibrant nonstate sector is something to celebrate on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Under Deng Xiaoping, China’s transition from plan to market began in earnest in December 1978. For more than 30 years now, China has gradually removed barriers to a market system and increased opportunities for voluntary exchanges. Special economic zones, the end of communal farming, the rise of township and village enterprises, and the massive increase in foreign trade have enabled millions of people to lift themselves out of abject poverty.

Economic freedom has increased personal freedom, but the Chinese Communist Party has no intention of giving up its monopoly on power. China’s future will depend to a large extent on the path of political reform. Further strengthening of private property rights, including land rights, would create new wealth and a growing voice for limiting the power of government. It is doubtful that in another 60 years there will be single-party rule in China.

Come Hear Uncle Sam’s Band, Playing to the Rising Tide of Debt

A $600,000 federal grant is chump change compared to overall government spending, and I recognize that picking on individual awards generally isn’t worth the effort because there are bigger fish to fry.  But every once in a while I think it’s alright to highlight a particularly ridiculous grant award for the purpose of illustrating that the federal government’s ability to spend money on virtually anything it wants has broader negative implications.  So when I read this morning that the Institute of Museum and Library Services (an independent federal agency) gave UC Santa Cruz’s library $615,175 to archive Grateful Dead memorabilia online, I just couldn’t help myself.

The title of my post refers to a lyric from the Dead song “Uncle John’s Band.”  According to the lyrics, Uncle John’s Band’s motto is “don’t tread on me.”  “Don’t tread on me” was a motto of the American patriots during the Revolutionary War and was prominently featured below a coiled rattlesnake on the famous Gadsden flag.

The Gadsden flag, which I proudly own and used to hang in my Senate office, has regained popularity and can now be seen at TEA Party protests around the country.  While some would like to dismiss the TEA partiers as racists, the resurgence of the Gadsden flag indicates to me that a healthy number of folks simply recognize the American tradition of being leery of an all-powerful centralized authority.  It’s safe to say that those patriots of yesterday could have never imagined that the small, limited federal government they created would turn into the overbearing $3.7 trillion Leviathan it is today.  What a long, strange trip it’s been indeed.