Commentary

Too Big to Fail, or to Survive

Critics of the Congressional housing package complain that we are now committing taxpayers to huge new outlays to rescue Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That view is wrong: Congressional inaction over the past 15 years had already committed taxpayers to the bailout.

Congress could and should have required Fannie and Freddie — which enjoy a peculiar and highly advantageous status as quasi-public agencies and quasi-private companies — to maintain more capital, but didn’t. Now the costs from Congressional inaction are becoming painfully apparent, and they cannot be avoided. To permit the two mortgage giants to default would set off a worldwide crisis. But we can decide what should become of Freddie and Fannie after this crisis. The best option is one getting little mention in Washington: get rid of them.

Whatever the amount of the bailout…the real question is not immediate survival of the loan giants but their long-term future.”

Because the government cannot permit Fannie and Freddie to default, their obligations are part and parcel of the full-faith-and-credit obligations of the United States. Thus, the national debt, usually viewed as the $5 trillion held by the public, is really $10 trillion once we add the Fannie and Freddie obligations and the mortgage-backed securities they guarantee.

For now, the Congressional Budget Office has entered a “place holder” of $25 billion to cover the bailout costs over the next two years but recognizes that this is a guess. The important issue is not the 2009 outlay, but the total that will be required eventually. Even if the two firms are technically insolvent, the market will continue to buy their obligations readily, for it understands that they are fully backed by the government.

Given this faith on the part of the marketplace, there will be no immediate catastrophe that would force the federal government to provide additional capital to Fannie and Freddie. The situation is similar to the one in the 1980s, when many savings and loans were technically insolvent yet had no difficulty attracting deposits, as they were covered by federal deposit insurance. So the federal government has the option of delaying any ultimate resolution of the Fannie-Freddie mess, as it did with the savings and loans 20 years ago, in hopes that the two giants can dig themselves out of the hole. Still, it seems more likely that — again, just as in the 1980s — the longer we delay, the higher the eventual taxpayer cost will be.

Freddie Mac, according to its own fair-value accounts for the end of March, is technically insolvent — the estimated market value of its liabilities is greater than the estimated market value of its assets. Fannie Mae has a small positive net worth. In coming quarters, these figures may deteriorate because of accounting adjustments (some of the assets are questionable) and continuing defaults on mortgages. The eventual losses could run to several hundred billion dollars.

Whatever the amount of the bailout, even if “only” $25 billion, the real question is not immediate survival of the loan giants but their long-term future. Instead of being regarded as too big to fail, we should look at them as too big to liquidate quickly.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are not essential to the mortgage market; if they were put out of business in an orderly fashion over 5 to 10 years, the market would pick up the business they abandon. Fannie and Freddie exist to provide guarantees for mortgage-backed securities trading in the market. The business is simply insurance.

There are lots of insurance businesses around: property, auto, life and many others. These markets work fine without any government-sponsored enterprises. They are not highly concentrated into a small number of dominant players whose failure would threaten the entire economy; rather, lots of companies compete and spread the risk. Indeed, there are well-established firms in mortgage insurance, but their growth has been stunted by the special advantages Fannie and Freddie enjoy.

In fact, there has already been a test case for how the mortgage market would function without Fannie and Freddie. After an accounting scandal in 2005, regulators severely constrained their activities. The nation’s total residential mortgage debt outstanding rose by $1.176 trillion in that year, even though Fannie’s and Freddie’s stakes rose by only $169 billion, just 14.4 percent of the total. In essence, the market barely noticed that the two agencies’ private competitors were providing 85 percent of the increase in mortgage debt in 2005.

There are more general economic reasons for liquidating Fannie and Freddie, the biggest being that it is very dangerous to maintain such a large role in any market for only two operators. Markets work best when numerous firms compete against each other.

And then there is moral hazard. Knowing they had a federal backstop, Fannie and Freddie held too little capital and the market financed their activities at interest rates very close to those enjoyed by the government. Now we are living through the result. Does it make sense to reconstitute them so that they can engage in a repeat performance?

Some believe that tighter regulation is the answer. I am skeptical of that because I know the extent to which the regulatory system is tied up in Fannie’s and Freddie’s political activities. I find it deeply troubling that Fannie and Freddie, essentially in receivership to the secretary of the Treasury today, continue to employ lobbyists and hand out campaign contributions to influence the legislative debate over their own futures. Fannie and Freddie paid out more than $170 million to lobbyists over the last decade — more than General Electric spent. Government departments cannot hire lobbyists or give money to campaigns — why should Fannie and Freddie, now wards of the government, be permitted to do so?

The long-term health of the mortgage market is too important to be left to only two firms. If Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac can survive as vigorous competitors without the special government privileges they’ve long enjoyed, fine. But if they insist on coming back to life as public-private hybrids with all sorts of unfair federal advantages, we’ll only be setting ourselves up for more disasters. The wisest move, in the end, is to carefully let them wither away.

William Poole, a fellow at the Cato Institute, was the chief executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis from 1998 to 2008.