Polluted Markets

August 18, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post on August 18, 2008.

The US subprime crisis has some valuable lessons for China, the foremost being that market socialism is no magic wand for wealth creation. When the US Congress created Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two giant mortgage‐​financing companies, and gave them the status of “government‐​sponsored enterprises”, the stage was set for a major moral hazard problem.

By creating for‐​profit joint stock companies, with an implicit guarantee that Washington would step in if they were in distress, the two enterprises were able to raise funds more cheaply than their rivals and securitise vast pools of home mortgages.

While home prices were rocketing and investment bankers and rating agencies were making top fees creating collateralised debt obligation bonds, which included subprime mortgages, few people were paying much attention to the potential for disaster.

A combination of loose monetary policy, lax risk assessment, and the ability to easily shift risk off the balance sheets of conventional mortgage lenders by securitisation led to a perfect storm last year, as the housing bubble burst.

Because of Fannie and Freddie’s government‐​sponsored enterprise status, they are not subject to the same capital adequacy standards as other financial institutions. Consequently, the ratio of assets (loans and investments) to net worth is extremely high, which means that the ratio of their liabilities (debt and guarantees) to net worth is also high. Such leverage means high profits when housing prices are rising, but insolvency when prices crash.

Although Fannie and Freddie’s shareholders have taken a beating, the US Treasury has promised to support share prices “if necessary” and make the implicit guarantee to protect bondholders explicit by providing credit, along with the Federal Reserve. The lesson is that, when government pollutes capital markets by implicitly guaranteeing debt, market participants recognise that they will be protected if the enterprises run into difficulty. That is why foreign investors, including the People’s Bank of China, hold more than US$1.3 trillion of Fannie and Freddie bonds.

In a global financial system, moral hazard means that by socialising risk in a particular sector, overall financial risk increases. Instead of concentrating risk on owners and investors, a government safety net socialises capital markets, allowing errors of judgment to accumulate while profits are being made. When the asset price bubble bursts, the safety net falls onto taxpayers.

The subprime crisis is, at its base, a crisis of markets tainted by government intervention, along with the failure of the Fed to tighten monetary policy. It is also a failure of regulation to effectively monitor lending practices in the subprime market.

It is ironic that the Basel capital adequacy requirements, which were supposed to prevent excessive risk‐​taking, helped create the demand for securitising home mortgages and creating collateralised debt obligations. Often, well‐​intended regulations have unintended consequences. That is why it is essential to get the institutions and incentives right from the start and let competitive markets exercise their discipline.

China’s financial sector is far more tainted by market socialism than is the US market. China is heavily involved in credit allocation, and various state entities hold large stakes in the big banks. Most listed stocks are state‐​owned enterprises, and political connections are essential in entering the capital markets. Consequently, corruption is still a major problem.

When the government creates state‐​sponsored enterprises or holds the keys to access financial markets, there is an incentive to use political connections and pay “tribute” to obtain and retain those valuable “economic rights”. Fannie and Freddie have spent large sums to maintain their special status, while those who want access to funds in China must also pay tribute. Moving to a financial system where owners and investors, not taxpayers, bear responsibility for losses creates rather than destroys wealth.

About the Author
James A. Dorn

Vice President for Monetary Studies, Senior Fellow, and Editor of Cato Journal