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.
Huge deficit spending, a supposed stimulus bill, and financial bailouts by the Bush administration failed to stave off a deep recession. President Obama continued his predecessor’s policies with an even bigger stimulus, which helped push the deficit over the unimaginable trillion dollar mark. Prosperity hasn’t returned, but the president is persistent in his interventionist beliefs. In his speech yesterday, he told the country that we must "spend our way out of this recession."
While a dedicated segment of the intelligentsia continues to believe in simplistic Kindergarten Keynesianism, average Americans are increasingly leery. Businesses and entrepreneurs are hesitant to invest and hire because of the uncertainty surrounding the President’s agenda for higher taxes, higher energy costs, health care mandates, and greater regulation. The economy will eventually recover despite the government’s intervention, but as the debt mounts, today’s profligacy will more likely do long-term damage to the nation’s prosperity.
Some leaders in Congress want a new round of stimulus spending of $150 billion or more. The following are some of the ways that money might be spent from the president’s speech:
- Extend unemployment insurance. When you subsidize something you get more it, so increasing unemployment benefits will push up the unemployment rate, as Alan Reynolds notes.”
- More infrastructure spending. This will lead to misallocation of resources since only markets can allocate resources efficiently. Governments allocate capital on the basis of politics instead of economics.
- "Cash for Caulkers." This would be like Cash for Clunkers except people would get tax credits to make their homes more energy efficient. Any program modeled off “the dumbest government program ever” should be put back on the shelf.
- More Small Business Administration lending. A little noticed SBA program created by the stimulus bill offered banks an “unprecedented” 100 percent guarantee on loans to small businesses. The program has an anticipated default rate of 60 percent. Small businesses need lower taxes and fewer regulations, not a government program that perpetuates more moral hazard.
- More aid to state and local governments. State and local government should be using the recession to implement reforms that will prevent them from going on another unsustainable spending spree when the economy recovers. Also, we need fewer state and local government employees – not more – as they’re becoming an increasing burden on taxpayers.
The president said his administration was “forced to take those steps largely without the help of an opposition party which, unfortunately, after having presided over the decision-making that led to the crisis, decided to hand it to others to solve." Mr. President, nobody has forced you to do anything. You’ve chosen to embrace – and expand upon – the big spending policies that were a hallmark of your predecessor’s administration.
Perhaps the worst feature of the bailouts and the stimulus has been that, whatever their merits as short terms fixes, they have done nothing to improve economic policy over the long haul; indeed, they compound past mistakes.
Here is a good example:
For months, troubled homeowners seeking to lower their mortgage payments under a federal plan have complained about bureaucratic bungling, ceaseless frustration and confusion. On Thursday, the Obama administration declared that the $75 billion program is finally providing broad relief after it pressured mortgage companies to move faster to modify more loans.
Five hundred thousand troubled homeowners have had their loan payments lowered on a trial basis under the Making Home Affordable Program.
The crucial words in the story are "$75 billion" and "pressured."
No one should object if a lender, without subsidy and without pressure, renegotiates a mortgage loan. That can make sense for both lender and borrower because the foreclosure process is costly.
But Treasury's attempt to subsidize and coerce loan modifications is fundamentally misguided. It means many homeowners will stay in homes, for now, that they cannot really afford, merely postponing the day of reckoning.
Treasury's policy is also misguided because it presumes that everyone who owned a house before the meltdown should remain a homeowner. Likewise, Treasury's view assumes that all the housing construction over the past decade made good economic sense.
Both presumptions are wrong. U.S. policy exerted enormous pressure for increased mortgage lending in the years leading up to the crisis, thereby generating too much housing construction, too much home ownership and inflated housing prices.
The right policy for the U.S. economy is to stop preventing foreclosures, to stop subsidizing mortgages, and to let the housing market adjust on its own. Otherwise, we will soon see a repeat of the fall of 2008.
The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsiblilty Act will probably be approved by the House of Representatives today, and to push it along the bill's sponsor, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), makes clear for whom he is working:
Let's remember whose voices really matter here. It's time to listen to our students and our families.
First of all, do the voices of taxpayers not matter at all? You know, the folks who are going to foot the bill for all this largesse? Oh yeah -- concentrated benefits, diffuse costs. And have students and their families really been trees falling in the wilderness with no one to hear them? With inflation-adjusted aid per full-time-equivalent student (table 3) rising from $4,454 in 1987 to $10,392 in 2007 -- a 134 percent increase -- it sure doesn't seem so.
In fairness, the bill's proponents have paid lip service to taxpayers, saying with straight and utterly deceptive faces that SAFRA won't cost taxpayers a dime. The thing is, not only is this totally unsupportable according to several Congressional Budget Office analyses, it completely ingores that tax money is covering all of the costs of the bill. SAFRA would simply transfer taxpayer ducats from backing ostensibly private loans to loans directly from Washington, as well as lots of other federal expenditures.
And then there's this: SAFRA supporters can talk all they want about helping students and families, but increasing grants and loans ultimately just hurts college-goers. Why? Because colleges and universities raise their prices to capture every additional penny of aid, as basic economics makes clear they would. So the only people politicians are ultimately helping are colleges, and by appearing to care ever so much about likely voters, themselves.
The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) is expected to head to the full House of Representatives for a vote tomorrow, and as it does there is yet another Congressional Budget Office estimate upping its expected cost. The bill that sponsor George Miller (D-CA) shamelessly says will be a taxpayer-money saver continues to be exposed as very much the opposite.
As you might recall, Miller has been touting SAFRA as legislation that would fund all kinds of new or expanded federal programs while allocating $10 billion to deficit reduction. But the CBO has never agreed with that. First, the CBO identified a likely net cost to taxpayers of about $6 billion over ten years, and that was without including any deficit reduction. Then it estimated that SAFRA would cost an additional $33 billion after accounting for lending risk. And now, CBO estimates that the cost of expanding Pell grants could be almost $11 billion greater than originally estimated. If you add all of those things together, the cost of SAFRA has flipped from a promised $10 billion savings to a $50 billion loss.
In fairness, the last estimate comes from a change in the baseline used for Pell outlays, going from March to August 2009. The increased cost estimate could very well reflect a higher-than-usual Pell expense because of the economic downturn, and the additional cost would not materialize if and when things improve. Nonetheless, this just adds to a very clear message about SAFRA: Far from relieving taxpayers, it's going to deliver yet one more punishing blow.
The housing boom and bust that occurred earlier in this decade resulted from efforts by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the government sponsored enterprises with implicit backing from taxpayers — to extend mortgage credit to high-risk borrowers. This lending did not impose appropriate conditions on borrower income and assets, and it included loans with minimal down payments. We know how that turned out.
Did U.S. policymakers learn their lessons from this debacle and stop subsidizing mortgage lending to risky borrowers? NO. Instead, the Federal Housing Authority lept into the breach:
The FHA insures private lenders against defaults on certain home mortgages, an inducement to make such loans. Insurance from the New Deal-era agency has enabled lending to buyers who can't make a big down payment or who want to refinance but have little equity. Most private lenders have sharply curtailed credit to those borrowers.
In the past two years, the number of loans insured by the FHA has soared and its market share reached 23% in the second quarter, up from 2.7% in 2006, according to Inside Mortgage Finance. FHA-backed loans outstanding totaled $429 billion in fiscal 2008, a number projected to hit $627 billion this year.
And what is the result of this surge in FHA insurance?
The Federal Housing Administration, hit by increasing mortgage-related losses, is in danger of seeing its reserves fall below the level demanded by Congress, according to government officials, in a development that could raise concerns about whether the agency needs a taxpayer bailout.
This is madness. Repeat after me: TANSTAAFL (There ain't no such thing as a free lunch).
C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z
One of the best laugh lines always has been "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you." Certainly that's true when it comes to consumer protection.
In the name of saving customers from the evil, rapacious credit card companies Congress plans on limiting access to credit. It also is working to hike costs for people with good credit.
Reports the New York Times:
Now Congress is moving to limit the penalties on riskier borrowers, who have become a prime source of billions of dollars in fee revenue for the industry. And to make up for lost income, the card companies are going after those people with sterling credit.
Banks are expected to look at reviving annual fees, curtailing cash-back and other rewards programs and charging interest immediately on a purchase instead of allowing a grace period of weeks, according to bank officials and trade groups.
“It will be a different business,” said Edward L. Yingling, the chief executive of the American Bankers Association, which has been lobbying Congress for more lenient legislation on behalf of the nation’s biggest banks. “Those that manage their credit well will in some degree subsidize those that have credit problems.”
This makes a lot of sense. We're worried about bad debt, bad mortgages, and bad loans. So Congress is going to penalize people with good credit who carefully manage their financial affairs. Of course!
It has long been evident that Congress has the reverse Midas touch. Everything congressmen touch turns to, well, this is a family-oriented blog. You can fill in the blank.
If Congress wants to help consumers, the best thing it could do is take an extended recess.