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.