29.9.08

ANATOMY OF A BUBBLE. Steven Horwitz of St. Lawrence University goes into detail.

To call the housing and credit crisis a failure of the free market or the product of unregulated greed is to overlook the myriad government regulations, policies, and political pronouncements that have both reduced the "freedom" of this market and channeled self-interest in ways that have produced disastrous consequences, both intended and unintended. Let me briefly recap goverment's starring role in our little drama.

For starters, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are "government sponsored enterprises". Though technically privately owned, they have particular privileges granted by the government, they are overseen by Congress, and, most importantly, they have operated with a clear promise that if they failed, they would be bailed out. Hardly a "free market." All the players in the mortgage market knew this from early on. In the early 1990s, Congress eased Fannie and Freddie's lending requirements (to 1/4th the capital required by regular commercial banks) so as to increase their ability to lend to poor areas. Congress also created a regulatory agency to oversee them, but this agency also had to reapply to Congress for its budget each year (no other financial regulator must do so), assuring that it would tell Congress exactly what it wanted to hear: "things are fine." In 1995, Fannie and Freddie were given permission to enter the subprime market and regulators began to crack down on banks who were not lending enough to distressed areas. Several attempts were made to rein in Fannie and Freddie, but Congress didn't have the votes to do so, especially with both organizations making significant campaign contributions to members of both parties. Even the New York Times as far back as 1999 saw exactly what might happen thanks to this very unfree market, warning of a need to bailout Fannie and Freddie if the housing market dropped.

Complicating matters further was the 1994 renewal/revision of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977. The CRA requires banks to to make a certain percentage of their loans within their local communities, especially when those communities are economically disadvantaged. In addition, Congress explicitly directed Fannie and Freddie to expand their lending to borrowers with marginal credit as a way of expanding homeownership. What all of these did together was to create an enormous profit and political incentives for banks and Fannie and Freddie to lend more to riskier low-income borrowers. However well-intentioned the attempts were to extend omeownership to more Americans, forcing banks to do so and artificially lowering the costs of doing so are a huge part of the problem we now find ourselves in.

At the same time, home prices were rising making those who had taken on large mortgages with small down payments feel as though they could handle them and inspiring a whole variety of new mortagage instruments. What's interesting is that the rise in prices affected most strongly cities with stricter land-use regulations, which also explains the fact that not every city was affected to the same degree by the rising home values. These regulations prevented certain kinds of land from being used for homes, pushing the rising demand for housing (fueled by the considerations above) into a slowly responding supply of land. The result was rapidly rising prices. In those areas with less stringent land-use regulations, the housing price boom's effect was much smaller. Again, it was regulation, not free markets, that drove the search for profits and was a key contributor to the rising home prices that fueled the lending spree.

While all of this was happpening, the Federal Reserve, nominally private but granted enormous monopoly privileges by government, was pumping in the credit and driving interest rates lower and lower. This influx of credit further fueled the borrowing binge. With plenty of funds available, thanks to your friendly monopoly central bank (hardly the free market at work), banks could afford to continue to lend riskier and riskier.

The final chapter of the story is that in 2004 and 2005, following the accounting scandals at Freddie, both Freddie and Fannie paid penance to Congress by agreeing to expand their lending to low-income customers. Both agreed to acquire greater amounts of subprime and Alt-A loans, sending the green light to banks to originate them.

From 2004 to 2006, the percentage of loans in those riskier categories grew from 8% to 20% of all US mortgage originations. And the quality of these loans were dropping too: downpayments were getting progressively smaller and more and more loans carried low starter interest rates that would adjust upward later on. The banks were taking on riskier borrowers, but knew they had a guaranteed buyer for those loans in Fannie and Freddie, back, of course, by us taxpayers.

He calls it an open letter to the Left, which I suspect is a reference to faith-based colleagues in other departments. It is also a primer on several deeper insights from economics. Go. Read. Understand.

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