Opinion

Phony Fannie-Freddie reform empowers the left

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John Berlau
Senior Fellow, CEI
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      John Berlau

      John Berlau is director of the Center for Investors and Entrepreneurs at <a href="http://cei.org/">CEI</a>. He is also a contributor to OpenMarket.org. Berlau has written about the impact of public policy on entrepreneurship for many publications including The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, Investor's Business Daily, and National Review. He has been the guest on many radio and television programs including MSNBC's "The Situation" with Tucker Carlson and CNBC's "Street Signs" with Ron Insana, and the Your World with Neil Cavuto on Fox News.

      Berlau previously was Washington correspondent for Investor's Business Daily and a staff writer for Insight magazine, published by The Washington Times. In 2002, he recevied Sandy Hume Memorial Award for Excellence in Political Journalism from Washington's National Press Club . He was a media fellow at the Hoover Institution in 2003. Berlau graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1994 with degrees in journalism and economics. He is the author of the book Eco-Freaks (Nelson Current, 2006), which has been in Amazon's top 100 best-selling non-fiction books.

Ever since the phrase appeared in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” and its variations, have become familiar expressions. A corollary is that garbage by any other name would stink just as badly, if not worse.

The latter seems applicable to the “reform” of the government-sponsored housing enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac just introduced by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Ranking Member Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). The media often describe this plan as “ending” Fannie and Freddie.

And yes, it does “end” them in the sense that there will no longer be entities named Fannie and Freddie. But most of their functions would simply be transferred to a new giant government entity called the Federal Mortgage Insurance Corporation. Not only would the government’s role in subsidizing and micromanaging housing not be reduced, in some ways it would substantially be increased.

The legislation would create, for the first time, an explicit taxpayer guarantee of the GSEs’ $5.6 trillion in debt. The “affordable housing trust fund,” a slush fund for “housing advocacy” groups such as ACORN until it was closed due to Fannie and Freddie’s financial woes, would be reopened and parked in the new FMIC.

Worst of all, and sending the worst possible signal to potential private sector investors in the housing market, Fannie and Freddie common and preferred shareholders would be wiped out permanently under the bill’s Section 604.

First, let’s recap briefly the history of the GSEs and their role as the proximate cause of the financial crisis. Fannie was created as the Federal National Mortgage Association, a government agency, in 1938 and spun off as a government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) in 1968. Freddie was created as a sister GSE two years later.

Even though they had private shareholders, they always retained government privileges. The president still appointed some of their board members, they were exempt from state and local taxes, and, importantly, they each had a line of credit with the Treasury.

Though these lines were “only” $2 billion, Competitive Enterprise Institute Founder and then-President (and now Chairman) Fred Smith warned presciently at a congressional hearing back in 2000 that “as long as the pipeline is there, it is like it is very expandable. … It could be $200 billion tomorrow.” (The transcript is here. Smth’s statement, in response to questioning by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), appears on page 193.)

It turns out the only flaw in Smith’s prediction was in underestimating the amount taxpayers would spend bailing the entities out when the Bush administration put them under a conservatorship at the height of the financial crisis in 2008. While the Obama administration estimates the cost at $188 billion, a figure often used in the media, the Congressional Budget Office puts the figure at $317 billion, according to a “fair value” accounting.

But the GSE’s real cost to taxpayers and the economy came from Fannie and Freddie’s role in partnering with banks in the creation of destructive new subprime mortgages as early as the 1990s. As I documented by creating a Fannie-Freddie “Kevin Bacon Game” based on published reports, “the GSEs had co-starring or at least supporting roles providing invaluable assistance to bad actors in the private sector” including Countrywide Financial, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers.”

As Peter Wallison, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a dissenting commissioner on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission created by Congress, put it last fall in the Wall Street Journal, in September 2008, “[H]alf of all mortgages in the U.S. — 28 million loans — were subprime or otherwise risky and low-quality,” and of these, “74% were on the books of government agencies, principally the GSEs.”

But the Johnson-Crapo “reform” mostly just shifts these books around. Like an earlier bill drafted by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), the plan purports to replace Fannie and Freddie with the FMIC, a government-backed mortgage insurer with political appointees. Much is made of how, as in Corker-Warner, private investors will take at least 10 percent of the first loss on mortgage-backed securities the FMIC insures.

But that still leaves 90 percent of the loss to be absorbed by the FMIC. As AEI’s Wallison writes, ”When the government backs any system — whether through deposit insurance, flood insurance, pension benefits or anything else — the beneficiaries have only limited interest in the risks they are taking.”