Tag: distortion

No Hope or Change When it Comes to Fannie Mae

The Washington Post is reporting that President Obama has assigned his staff with the task of designing a new set of government guarantees behind the U.S. mortgage market. Although as the Post also reports the “approach could even preserve Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” That’s correct. Despite their role in driving the housing bubble and the already $160 billion in taxpayer losses, President Obama appears to be considering just putting the same failed system in place. Of course, we’ll be promised that it will all work better this time.

Perhaps most offensive is that the Post reports that Obama “officials don’t want to punish the thousands of Fannie and Freddie employees who have specialized knowledge about the mortgage market.” Seriously? What about the many blameless employees of AIG, Lehman Brothers, or Bear Stearns? Or New Century for that matter. Did the janitors and receptionists at those firms really cause the crisis? The truth is that the employees of Fannie and Freddie have been lining their pockets at the expense of the taxpayer for years. What the Administration is really saying is that they wouldn’t want all the political operatives at these favored firms to lose their perks. After all, Obama officials will need somewhere to land after 2012 and Goldman Sachs has only so many slots.

What’s most depressing is that you can’t say Obama hasn’t been given the facts. As the Post makes clear, his economic advisers spelled out the case against massive subsidies for the mortgage market. Austan Goolsbee, chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, points out: by subsidizing mortgage investments, the government drives capital away from other types of investments. If Obama truly wants to help the middle and working class, then he’d want capital to flow into investments that increase labor productivity, which is the ultimate source of wage growth.  Running up asset prices, like houses, does not make us wealthier in the long run.

But then what should I expect. The President has already entered campaign mode. It would be nice to see the economics win over the politics. But it looks like such a thing will have to wait for another administration.

Distortions versus Outlays

My friend Gawain Kripke at Oxfam posted a very good blog entry yesterday on the proposed cuts to agriculture subsidies. In it, Gawain elaborates on a point that I made briefly in a previous post about Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget plan: that cutting so-called direct payments—those that flow to farmers regardless of how much or even whether they produce—is only part of the picture.

Here’s Gawain’s main point:

Most farm subsidies are price-dependent, meaning they are bigger if prices are low and smaller if prices are high. Prices are hitting historic highs for many commodities, which means the bulk of these subsidies are not paying out very much money. Over time, the price-dependent subsidies have been the bulk of farm subsidies. They also distort agriculture markets by encouraging farmers to depend on payments from the government rather managing their business and hedging risks.

So—these days there’s only about $5b in farm payments being made, and these payments are not considered as damaging in international trade terms because they are not based on prices…

Still, Congress will probably make some cuts. But these cuts won’t really be reform and won’t produce much long-term savings unless they tackle the price-dependent subsidies. Taking a whack at those subsidies could save taxpayers money later and make sure our farm programs don’t hurt poor farmers in developing countries. (emphasis added)

I will be delighted if direct payments are abolished, thereby saving American taxpayers about $5 billion a year. But we should not be content with that, nor should we fool ourselves that we have tackled the main distortions in agricultural markets. If the price- and production-linked programs are not abolished, too, then taxpayers and international markets will pay the price if/when commodity prices fall.