Tag: fannie mae

Obama’s Housing Speech: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

Yesterday, President Obama went to what was perhaps ground-zero of the housing crisis: Phoenix. He laid out his vision for the role of housing in building a middle class, as well as his solutions for avoiding bubbles.    

On the rhetorical side, the president certainly laid out some principles that anyone would be hard-pressed to disagree with. For instance, he characterized the business mode of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as “heads we win, tails you lose”–which of course it was. The president was correct in calling it “wrong.”  If only then-Senator Obama had aided the efforts to reform Fannie and Freddie by Senator Richard Shelby and others, perhaps this mess could have been avoided. But, hey–better late than never.  

The president is also correct in highlighting the issue of local barriers that increase the cost of housing. Both Cato’s Randy O’Toole and I have written regularly on this topic. You don’t get bubbles without supply constraints. But then every president since Reagan, at least, has pointed to this problem and yet it has only gotten worse. If the president has a substantial plan to bring down regulatory barriers in places like California, then I would love to see it.

Perhaps most importantly, the president recognized that what we had was a housing bubble, and the solution isn’t to “just re-inflate” it. As the president urged, we must “turn the page on the bubble-and-bust mentality” behind the housing crisis. That was the good, and again I applaud the president for recognizing those facts.  

Unfortunately, what details we have of his vision are not exactly consistent with these facts–which are bad and ugly. The president wants “no more leaving taxpayers on the hook for irresponsibility or bad decisions,” but then he implies that government should continue to stand behind risk in the housing market. The primary purpose of FHA, which the president commends, is to allow lenders to pass along the costs of their mistakes to the taxpayer.  

Mr. President, there is only one way to take the taxpayer off the hook:  get the government out of the mortgage market.  Anything short of that will continue to undermine the incentive for lenders to make responsible loans.  

Defending Cato from Paul Krugman’s Inaccurate Assertions

Writing for the New York Times, Paul Krugman has a new column promoting more government spending and additional government regulation. That’s a dog-bites-man revelation and hardly noteworthy, of course, but in this case he takes a swipe at the Cato Institute.

The financial crisis of 2008 and its painful aftermath…were a huge slap in the face for free-market fundamentalists. …analysts at right-wing think tanks like…the Cato Institute…insisted that deregulated financial markets were doing just fine, and dismissed warnings about a housing bubble as liberal whining. Then the nonexistent bubble burst, and the financial system proved dangerously fragile; only huge government bailouts prevented a total collapse.

Upon reading this, my first reaction was a perverse form of admiration. After all, Krugman explicitly advocated for a housing bubble back in 2002, so it takes a lot of chutzpah to attack other people for the consequences of that bubble.

But let’s set that aside and examine the accusation that folks at Cato had a Pollyanna view of monetary and regulatory policy. In other words, did Cato think that “deregulated markets were doing just fine”?

Hardly. If Krugman had bothered to spend even five minutes perusing the Cato website, he would have found hundreds of items by scholars such as Steve Hanke, Gerald O’Driscoll, Bert Ely, and others about misguided government regulatory and monetary policy. He could have perused the remarks of speakers at Cato’s annual monetary conferences. He could have looked at issues of the Cato Journal. Or our biennial Handbooks on Policy.

The tiniest bit of due diligence would have revealed that Cato was not a fan of Federal Reserve policy and we did not think that financial markets were deregulated. Indeed, Cato scholars last decade were relentlessly critical of monetary policy, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Community Reinvestment Act, and other forms of government intervention.

Heck, I imagine that Krugman would have accused Cato of relentless and foolish pessimism had he reviewed our work  in 2006 or 2007.

I will confess that Cato people didn’t predict when the bubble would peak and when it would burst. If we had that type of knowledge, we’d all be billionaires. But since Krugman is still generating income by writing columns and doing appearances, I think it’s safe to assume that he didn’t have any special ability to time the market either.

Krugman also implies that Cato is guilty of historical revisionism.

…many on the right have chosen to rewrite history. Back then, they thought things were great, and their only complaint was that the government was getting in the way of even more mortgage lending; now they claim that government policies, somehow dictated by liberals even though the G.O.P. controlled both Congress and the White House, were promoting excessive borrowing and causing all the problems.

I’ve already pointed out that Cato was critical of government intervention before and during the bubble, so we obviously did not want government tilting the playing field in favor of home mortgages.

It’s also worth nothing that Cato has been dogmatically in favor of tax reform that would eliminate preferences for owner-occupied housing. That was our position 20 years ago. That was our position 10 years ago. And it’s our position today.

I also can’t help but comment on Krugman’s assertion that GOP control of government last decade somehow was inconsistent with statist government policy. One obvious example would be the 2004 Bush Administration regulations that dramatically boosted the affordable lending requirements for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which surely played a role in driving the orgy of subprime lending.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The burden of government spending almost doubled during the Bush years, the federal government accumulated more power, and the regulatory state expanded. No wonder economic freedom contracted under Bush after expanding under Clinton.

But I’m digressing. Let’s return to Krugman’s screed. He doesn’t single out Cato, but presumably he has us in mind when he criticizes those who reject Keynesian stimulus theory.

…right-wing economic analysts insisted that deficit spending would destroy jobs, because government borrowing would divert funds that would otherwise have gone into business investment, and also insisted that this borrowing would send interest rates soaring. The right thing, they claimed, was to balance the budget, even in a depressed economy.

Actually, I hope he’s not thinking about us. We argue for a smaller burden of government spending, not a balanced budget. And we haven’t made any assertions about higher interest rates. We instead point out that excessive government spending undermines growth by undermining incentives for productive behavior and misallocating labor and capital.

But we are critics of Keynesianism for reasons I explain in this video. And if you look at current economic performance, it’s certainly difficult to make the argument that Obama’s so-called stimulus was a success.

But Krugman will argue that the government should have squandered even more money. Heck, he even asserted that the 9-11 attacks were a form of stimulus and has argued that it would be pro-growth if we faced the threat of an alien invasion.

In closing, I will agree with Krugman that there’s too much “zombie” economics in Washington. But I’ll let readers decide who’s guilty of mindlessly staggering in the wrong direction.

Geithner Favors Fannie Mae Debtholders over Taxpayers … Again

You have to give Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner some credit for spin: today the Treasury announced “Further Steps to Expedite Wind Down of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” The only problem is that the steps announced largely put the taxpayer at greater risk in order to protect holders of Fannie and Freddie debt.

Essentially, the Treasury has amended its agreements with Fannie and Freddie so that the companies no longer have to pay a fixed dividend to the U.S. taxpayer, but instead “every dollar of profit” from the companies to the taxpayer. The problem is that the Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSE) have never had a year where their profits would have covered the dividend payments, so while we can debate if the taxpayer will recover anything from the GSEs, shifting to just collecting profits definitely means the taxpayer’s potential recoupment is lower.

The GSE’s regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) was at least a little more honest in its announcement of the changes, stating that, “as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shrink, the continued payment of a fixed dividend could have called into question the adequacy of the financial commitment contained in the PSPAs.”  Read “financial commitment” to mean protecting debtholders from loss.

How does the change protect debtholders over taxpayers? It reduces the ability of FHFA to place Fannie or Freddie into a receivership, under which FHFA could impose losses on creditors. Under Section 1145 of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act, FHFA has the discretion of appointing a receiver if one the GSEs displays an “inability to meet obligations,” which would include dividend payments. By essentially taking away that lever from FHFA, Treasury has greatly reduced any chance of a receivership. Sadly, I believe a receivership was the only thing that would force Congress to also deal with Fannie and Freddie. Treasury’s actions have been a massive win for the broken status quo.

Don’t let the rest of the Treasury announcement fool you. Yes, Treasury has both agreed to reduce the GSEs’ portfolios and to require the GSEs to submit an “annual taxpayer protection plan,” but both of these efforts are little more than fig-leafs to cover Treasury’s protection of GSE creditors at the expense of taxpayers. After all, the first commandment in the Geithner bible, as witnessed during the 2008 bailouts, is that debtholders shall take no losses, regardless of the expense to the taxpayer.

GSE Loan Limits Fell…and Home Sales Went Up

On October first, the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac maximum loan limit fell (from around $729,000 to $625,000). The Senate later voted to extend that limit until December 2013. Some House members, such as Rep. John Campbell (R-CA) warned that if the loan limits were not raised back to their previous levels, our housing market would “crater.” And of course the special interests in the real estate industry all but implied that if the taxpayer did not remain on the hook, then we’d all be living in caves before too long.

It was easy enough to make such outlandish statements in the absence of data. Now we have some data, and from of all people, the real estate industry. According to the National Association of Realtors (full disclosure: I worked there about 10 years ago):

Total existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, rose 1.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.97 million in October from a downwardly revised 4.90 million in September, and are 13.5 percent above the 4.38 million unit level in October 2010. [emphasis added]

You read that correctly. The loan limits fell and then home sales actually rose, which is the opposite of crater. I’m not claiming that the decline in loan limits caused home sales to increase, but I am claiming that the housing market did not crater, as was predicted.

‘Monstrous Moral Hybrids’

Sunday’s dinner of the Society for Development of Austrian Economics featured a keynote from George Mason University economics professor Richard Wagner. The talk brought back a lot of memories for me. Wagner was chair of my dissertation committee and it was in his graduate public finance class (back in 1992?) that I first gave any thought to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac when I wrote a paper on government sponsored enterprises. Little did I know I’d spend much of the following years working to reform Fannie and Freddie.

During his talk, Wagner invoked a term first used by Jane Jacobs: “monstrous moral hybrids.” I suspect Jacobs used the term to describe how Robert Moses managed to wield unaccountable power over development in New York City (Caro’s account of Moses, Power Broker, still being the single best read on city government). Ms. Jacobs describes two distinct moral syndromes,  commercial and guardian. Obviously commercial pertains to the market, while guardian can pertain to government. The monstrous moral hybrids are when we get the worst of both instincts combined in one entity. For instance, I generally view competition as a good thing; however, competition underwritten by government guarantees will almost always lead to disaster. Its competition without the discipline of failure.

I  repeatedly watched, while working in Senate, Fannie/Freddie invoke their “private” nature in order to avoid regulation while invoking their “public” nature to gain protection and privilege. The result was little accountability from either the market or the government (our largest banks currently enjoy a smaller version). Of course, one of the primary differences in debates over financial regulation is the degree to which one believes that either the market or government provides accountability. Setting aside those debates, we should all be able to agree that companies should be either private or government. That the mixing of the two, government sponsored enterprises, is a recipe for avoiding accountability and transparency. But then I suspect that might have been the intent all along. Monstrous moral hybrids by design.

What’s a Conservatorship Good For?

A central reason that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have not played a bigger role in rescuing homeowners, or otherwise handing out “freebies,” is that these two companies are in conservatorship.

Conservatorship is almost like a bankruptcy proceeding, or a receivership in the banking context, but without the power to impose losses. I’ve been criticized for believing that a conservatorship requires Fannie’s regulator to “conserve” the company, and not simply allow it to be used as a slush fund. The basis of said criticism is that FHFA, Fannie’s regulator, has a broad public mission, which could include handing out freebies to underwater borrowers.

Matt Yglesias suggests that “clearly the purpose of creating the FHFA and taking Fannie and Freddie into conservatorship can’t have been to minimize direct taxpayer financial losses on agency debt.” Now, Matt makes a lot of Congress being vague in the statute. And he is correct about it being vague, in some areas, but it isn’t here.

As one of the two people (the other being Peggy Kuhn) who actually drafted that section of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA) during my time as staff on the Senate Banking Committee, I can clearly say the purpose of the drafters, in terms of conservatorship, was to nurse those companies back to health. Again, how do I know that? Because I was there.

Of course, if one simply read that section of the statute, Section 1145 of HERA, which amends Section 1367 of the 1992 GSE Act, one would clearly see what the purpose, duties, and role of a conservatorship actually is. For instance, what does the law say the powers of a conservatorship are? They are to ”take such action as may be—(i) necessary to put the regulated entity in a sound and solvent condition; and (ii) appropriate to carry on the business of the regulated entity and preserve and conserve the assets and property of the regulated entity.”

Now, I don’t see anything in there about handing out freebies to underwater borrowers. Citing an agency-written mission statement or a vague “purposes” at the beginning of an act is no substitute for actually reading the provisions of a statute.

End the Mortgage Interest Deduction

The mortgage interest income tax deduction is popular among homeowners (read: likely voters) despite its role in distorting housing and related markets, its contribution to the housing bubble and its enabling of additional household debt. Never mind that there isn’t much evidence that the deduction boosts home ownership in the United States. Consider also that the tax break largely benefits affluent homeowners living in expensive urban areas.

As Mark Calabria notes in today’s Cato Daily Podcast, it’s well past time for the mortgage interest deduction to be replaced by lower marginal tax rates for all earners.