Policy Analysis No. 679

The Subprime Lending Debacle: Competitive Private Markets Are the Solution, Not the Problem

By Patric H. Hendershott and Kevin Villani
June 20, 2011

The United States’ market-government hybrid mortgage system is unique in the world. No other nation has such heavy government intervention in housing finance. This hybrid system nurtured the excessively risky loans, financed with too much leverage, that fueled the U.S. housing bubble of the last decade and resulted in the systemic collapse of the global financial system.

The responsibility for the massive failures of the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, at the center of American housing finance and the private securitization system that supports housing finance, falls directly on regulators and indirectly on their political overseers. Private and GSE prudential regulators were given politically determined social lending goals that ultimately trumped prudential regulation, forcing the GSEs to fund subprime lending in competition with private label securitizers. The result was the extension of lower and lower quality loans, creating a race-to-the-bottom between the GSEs and private mortgage providers, all while regulators and politicians looked on approvingly. The financial crisis resulted when many of those loans turned sour in the latter part of the last decade.

We find no evidence that the United States housing market has unique characteristics requiring a hybrid GSE system, thus we conclude that the system and the political risks it is subject to are unnecessary. Any U.S. housing finance policy that does not safeguard prudential regulation from political influence by separating housing subsidy from finance and eliminating government- induced distortions will result in another systemic failure. To re-privatize the GSEs while maintaining their political goals, or to create new, specially chartered enterprises that pursue those goals, would exacerbate systemic risk.

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Patric H. Hendershott is a part-time chair in real estate economics and finance at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Previously he taught economics and finance at Purdue University and Ohio State University from 1969 to 1999. Kevin Villani is a consultant and former Freddie Mac chief economist.