Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Obama’s Fannie and Freddie Amnesia

Peter Wallison calls attention to President Obama’s amnesia regarding events that precipitated Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s collapse. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Wallison points out that in 2005 then-Senator Obama joined with his Democratic colleagues in stopping legislation that would have helped rein in the government-sponsored housing duo’s risky behavior:

The bill would have established a new regulator for Fannie and Freddie and given it authority to ensure that they maintained adequate capital, properly managed their interest rate risk, had adequate liquidity and reserves, and controlled their asset and investment portfolio growth.

These authorities were necessary to control the GSEs’ risk-taking, but opposition by Fannie and Freddie—then the most politically powerful firms in the country—had consistently prevented reform.

The date of the Senate Banking Committee’s action is important. It was in 2005 that the GSEs—which had been acquiring increasing numbers of subprime and Alt-A loans for many years in order to meet their HUD-imposed affordable housing requirements—accelerated the purchases that led to their 2008 insolvency. If legislation along the lines of the Senate committee’s bill had been enacted in that year, many if not all the losses that Fannie and Freddie have suffered, and will suffer in the future, might have been avoided.

The president’s complicity in the housing collapse hasn’t stopped him from pinning the blame on Republicans, “special interests,” and Wall Street “fat cats.” As he does with other problems, the president blames everyone except himself and his party.

As I recounted in a Cato Policy Analysis, Fannie and Freddie epitomized the tawdry relationship between businesses that receive special federal breaks and policymakers. Democrats, including Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, played a key role in facilitating Fannie and Freddie’s destructive activities. Emanuel, a then recent senior adviser to President Clinton, was appointed by Clinton to Freddie Mac’s board of directors, where he earned $320,000 in compensation and sold company stock worth more than $100,000.

Then there’s the current Office of Management and Budget director, Peter Orszag. In 2002, Fannie Mae commissioned a paper authored by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, Jonathan Orszag, and Peter Orszag, who was then at the Brookings Institution. The study concluded that “the probability of default by the GSEs is extremely small.” Oops.

Given the company Obama keeps, it’s not surprising that the administration still hasn’t come up for a plan on what to do with Fannie and Freddie.

The administration has intentionally not incorporated Fannie and Freddie into the federal budget in order to hide the cost to taxpayers. And on Christmas Eve the administration quietly announced that the government would cover all of Fannie and Freddie’s losses beyond the original $400 billion limit through 2012. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the final cost to taxpayers for bailing out Fannie and Freddie will approach that figure, although Wallison calls that projection “optimistic.”

See this essay for more on the problems the federal government causes in the housing market.

Lehman’s Failure Taught Us Nothing

Several commentators have reacted to Senator McConnell’s floor statement regarding the Dodd bill as a defense of “doing nothing”.  And accordingly argue that such a position would be, in the words of Simon Johnson, both dangerous and irresponsible.  This familiar canard is based upon the oft repeated assertion that the failure of Lehman proved that we cannot simply let large financial companies enter bankruptcy.

The simple, but important, fact is that we have no idea what would have happened had we let AIG and Bear go into bankruptcy proceedings.  Nor do we know what would have happened if Lehman had been saved.  Macroeconomics does not have the luxury of running natural experiments to determine the impact of a corporate failure.   Scholars have an obligation to accurately reflect the uncertainties in the debate.  Those that assert Lehman proved anything, are being at best disingenuous, and at worst, dishonest.

Let us, however, put forth a few things we do know:

  1. We know none of Lehman’s counterparties failed as a result of Lehman’s failures.  Just as we know none of AIG”s counterparties would have failed if they did not get 100 cents on the dollar from their CDS positions.  So where exactly is the proof of contagion?
  2. We know we had a nasty housing bubble.  We were going to lose millions of jobs in construction and real estate regardless of what we did.  We knew financial institutions heavily invested in housing would suffer.  How exactly would saving Lehman have prevented any of that?

The debate over ending bailouts and too-big-to-fail will not progress, we will not learn a thing, if we let simple, empty assertion pass as fact.  Much of the public remains angry at Washington because those responsible, such as Bernanke and Geithner, have never laid out a believable or plausible narrative for the bailouts.  It always comes back to “panic.”  If we are ever to hope to return to being a country governed by the rule of law, rather than the whims of men, then we need a lot more of an explanation than “panic.”

Litan Warns Dodd Bill Would Harm Startups

I haven’t been following the debate over Sen. Dodd’s financial overhaul closely enough to have an opinion on the overall package, but Mike Masnick flags one aspect of the legislation that seems really troubling. Bob Litan explains:

Under existing law, startup companies can raise money easily and quickly from “accredited investors” – individuals with substantial wealth or income. There is no need for the companies or the investors to gain approval from any state or regulatory official.

All of this would change if Section 926 of the Dodd bill is included in any final reform legislation. That section would require, for the first time, companies seeking angel investment to make a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which would have 120 days to review it. This would both raise the cost of seeking angels and delay the ability of companies to benefit from their funding.

The negative impact of the SEC filing requirement would be aggravated by the proposed doubling of the net worth or income thresholds required for investors to be “accredited.”

It’s hard to overstate how important a favorable regulatory climate is to the success of startups. Some of the most important startups have been founded by 20-somethings without the resources to hire lawyers or navigate regulatory bureaucracies. And startups frequently find themselves within weeks of insolvency before they have a big breakthrough. Having a crucial round of funding delayed by four months can be the difference between success and failure. If this description of the bill is accurate (and I have no reason to doubt that it is), this provision would be very bad for the future of high-tech innovation in the United States.

Dynamic Marketplace, Nimble Legislature

Years ago, when I worked on Capitol Hill, a colleague invited me to attend a meeting with some university professors who had a new idea for regulation of the telecommunications sector.

“Bits,” they said. “All regulation should center on bits.”

With convergence on IP-based communications, the regulatory silos dominating telecommunications would soon be more than anachronistic. Indeed, they would be a burden on the telecom sector. Bits were the fundamental unit of measure for the coming telecommunications era, and regulation should be formed around that reality.

My colleague and I looked at each other, amused.

Figuring out the substance is 5% of the problem. The other 95% is pulling together a sufficient coalition and muting opposition to your reform. More than a decade after this meeting and with “convergence” a rather old and obvious idea, the telecom regulatory regime is unchanged.

Like these professors did with telecom, many people can imagine legislative solutions to problems in the privacy era. I often don’t agree that their solutions are good, but nonetheless the capacity to imagine a suitable regulation is only 5% of the problem. Whether a good idea can be reduced to legislative language, passed in the same form, and implemented in its original spirit—all these are reasons to be wary of the legislative enterprise. What happens if something goes wrong?

Take the example of the privacy notices that the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act requires financial institution to send to consumers each year. At the time it passed, I argued that it was an anti-marketing law much more than a privacy law. I haven’t seen anyone argue that financial privacy has flourished since it passed. I have also expressed doubts about notice and its utility for consumers many times, including in this long post, part of an abandoned debate with Cato colleague Julian Sanchez.

But putting aside these substantive issues, I don’t think anybody believed when Gramm-Leach-Bliley passed that consumers should get annual privacy notices from financial services providers that don’t share information in the ways the law was meant to affect.

But it did require those notices, and after the law passed in late 1999, those privacy notices started to go out:

“It’s 2000, and we don’t share information about you.”

“It’s 2001, and we’re still not sharing information about you.”

“It’s 2002—still not sharing information.”

“It’s 2003—we continue to not share information about you.”

“Hey, friend, here in 2004, we’re not sharing information about you!”

And so on, and so on, and so on—meaningless notices that could only confuse consumers.

So I was amused to see yesterday—more than ten years later—that the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3506, the “Eliminate Privacy Notice Confusion Act.” If would allow financial services providers that don’t share personal information in ways relevant to the GLB Act to stop sending those meaningless notices every year.

It took Congress ten years to correct a simple, obvious mistake—something nobody intended to put into the law. How many years would it take to correct privacy law on which opinion was divided?

Online privacy is more difficult and changing than financial privacy. The weakness of artificial “privacy notice” to affect consumer awareness and behavior is starting to dawn on people. But even if we did know the right answers, I would be wary of writing them into law.

A dynamic market needs a nimble legislature overseeing it. There’s just no such thing. Prefer the market.

Now Is the Time to End the Mortgage Interest Deduction

If there is one, almost universal, point of agreement on drivers of the financial crisis, it is that our financial system simply had way too much leverage.  Much of that discussion has focused on financial institutions, leading many to suggest increased capital standards, so that banks have more equity and less debt.  Often lost in the mix is the excessive leverage on the part of home owners.

We know, for instance, that the number one predictor of mortgage default is whether the borrower has equity or not.  And while that should lead us to debate appropriate downpayment requirements, at least when the government backs the mortgage, we should not forget that our tax code encourages excessive leverage on the part of home buyers.  And there’s no bigger incentive to get a bigger mortgage than the mortgage interest deduction.

Some might say we can’t risk removing any props from the housing market.  My friends at the National Association of Realtors, for instance, have in the past argued that full removal would decrease home prices by up to 15 percent.  Such an estimate depends on the level of interest rates (the higher are mortgage rates, the higher the value of the deduction and the greater the impact on house prices).  With the current low level of mortgage rates, the negative price impact should be around 5 percent.

Given the already close to 30% national decline in prices, a further 5% would be less noticeable now than at a time when prices start to rise again.  In addition, a 5% decline would attract more buyers into the market.  Housing is just like any other good – when there’s too much, the best way to clear the market, perhaps the only way, is to drop prices.  Getting rid of the deduction would make housing all the more affordable.  And given current low mortgage rates,there would be far less distortions to do so now.  Of course, all of this should be done in a budget neutral manner, lowering marginal tax rates across the board, which would have its own benefits to the economy.

Obama Proposes Further Delay on Fannie & Freddie

President Obama seems to be slowly waking up to the fact that the American public has grown tired of the endless bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  The public has also rejected the talking point that Fannie and Freddie were simply victims of a 100 year storm in the housing market.  So what’s Obama’s response?  To ask for public comment and have public forums.

This strategy is clearly one of delaying and avoiding any reform of Fannie and Freddie while pretending to care about the issue.  Where was the public comment and forums on the Volcker rule?  Seemingly the standard is that fixing the real causes of the financial crisis should be delayed and debated while efforts like the Dodd bill, which do nothing to avoid future financial crises, should be rushed without debate or comment.

Even more disingenious is couching reform of Fannie and Freddie under the rubic of “fixing mortgage finance”.  This is no more than an attempt to take the focus away from Fannie and Freddie and shift it to “abusive lending” and other non-causes of the crisis.

This isn’t rocket science.  The role of Fannie and Freddie in the financial crisis is well understood.  The only thing missing is the willingness of Obama and Congress to stand up to the special interests and protect the taxpayer against future bailouts.

Did the IMF Deliberately Exaggerate the 2008 Financial Crisis?

This month, two vice-presidents of the Czech National Bank (CNB) have made very serious allegations against the International Monetary Fund. Below is the summary of their claims so far:

  1. Speaking to the Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard on April 2, Mojmir Hampl, the vice-president of the CNB, said that the IMF under Dominique Strauss-Kahn “wanted to expand its role in Eastern Europe and obtain new financial resources.” Hampl claimed that the IMF exaggerated problems with the financial systems in Eastern Europe. “We have always emphasized that the instability of the financial system [in 2008] was a Western European problem. That proved correct… According to a recent EU report, only nine out of 27 EU member states did not have to introduce any financial stabilization measures [during the crisis]. All nine were new [mostly Eastern European] member states.”
  2. Hampl’s claim was echoed by his colleague, CNB vice-president Miroslav Singer, in today’s edition of the Czech daily Hospodarske Noviny. According to Singer, “I cannot say nice things about the IMF’s role in the 2008 crisis.” The Financial Times, Singer continued, carried a lot of nonsensical stories about the state of the Czech financial sector prior to the crisis. Instead of dispelling those stories, the IMF produced a study about the Czech Republic based on incorrect data and then leaked it to the Financial Times.  “It is difficult to be certain… that the IMF wanted to harm the Czechs, Slovaks or Poles on purpose… More likely it was a combination of panic, lack of expertise and a desire to see problems everywhere.”

If true, these claims raise troubling questions about the incentives behind the largest increase of resources in the Fund’s history.