The NYT had a column by Jim Parrot and Mark Zandi on reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. (Jim Parrott is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and the owner of Falling Creek Advisors, a financial consulting firm. Mark Zandi is the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.) The article argues that the problem with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was that they were considered too big to fail. It therefore puts forward the case for ending their monopoly on issuing government guaranteed mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

This argument seriously misrepresents the issues with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The real problem was that they issued trillions of dollars in MBS that were implicitly backed up by the government. At the time they failed in the summer of 2008, the generally held view in financial circles was that the government would be obligated to honor their MBS regardless of whether or not it kept Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in business. In other words, the issue was not the $180 billion bailout (about which elite types routinely and misleadingly say we made a profit) the issue was the huge amount of bad MBS that helped propel the housing bubble.

This was a direct result of the perverse incentives created by a system where private shareholders and top executives stood to profit by passing risk off to the government. This incentive does not exist today. This incentive does not exist today. (The line is repeated because policy folks have a hard time understanding it.) As long as Fannie and Freddie are essentially public companies, that do not offer high returns to shareholders and pay outlandish salaries to CEOs, no one has incentive to take excessive risks.

This changes if we allow private banks to issue mortgage backed securities with the guarantee of the government. This would mean that Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and the rest would be able to issue the same sort of subprime MBS they did in the bubble years with assurance that even in a worst case scenario the government would reimbursement investors for almost the full value of their investment. This is a great recipe for pumping up financial sector profits and another housing bubble. It does not make sense as public policy. 

 

Addendum

This piece provides some background on the most likely reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.