Saturday, March 27, 2010

Government Caused the Meltdown
... The first part of the book examines the government’s policy blunders, beginning with the very notion of federal housing policy. The Constitution says nothing about housing, but in 1938 Congress and President Roosevelt created the Federal National Mortgage Association, usually called “Fannie Mae.” They did so because they thought it was a good idea to promote home ownership and figured that establishing a “government sponsored entity” to buy mortgages from lenders would do that. Of course, there were millions of Americans who owned houses prior to the creation of Fannie. There was no problem that needed to be solved, but the politicians thought it would be a popular move, so they went ahead, never contemplating that getting the government into the home-financing business would one day lead to disaster.

Fannie’s mortgage-backed securities were sold to investors worldwide, most of whom assumed that the paper was sound, backed by the U.S. government. Woods writes, “Everybody knew that if the GSEs [Fannie and its younger sibling, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation or “Freddie Mac,” are known as government-sponsored enterprises — GSEs] ran into trouble, they would be bailed out at taxpayer expense.” They ran into enormous trouble and were bailed out, but hardly anyone has had the guts to blame these political pets and call for their abolition.

Another of the culprits Woods identifies is the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which used political leverage to compel banks to make more loans “in their communities.” This law (again, outside the constitutional authority of Congress but enacted anyway) was a power play to force banks to make loans they would not otherwise choose to, directing capital in ways that please the activists and politicians. Under the Clinton administration, this statute was used to compel banks to meet quotas of home loans to high-risk people. At the same time, Clinton forced Fannie and Freddie to purchase high-risk mortgages. Woods shows, in short, that political pressure was used to undermine the traditionally cautious lending standards in the mortgage industry.

Politicians in both parties took delight in crowing that home ownership was increasing, especially among minority voting groups, without realizing that home ownership is not necessarily good for everyone. For persons with low and unsteady incomes, home ownership can be a costly mistake, as later proved to be the case for millions who had taken out loans they couldn’t repay.

By themselves, however, Fannie, Freddie, and the CRA could have done only minor economic damage. Woods identifies the main villain in this drama as the Federal Reserve System. For years, the Fed under long-time chairman Alan Greenspan pumped up the money supply so as to drive interest rates down to artificially low levels. Artificially low interest rates tricked people into acting differently than they otherwise would have. Home ownership and housing construction looked like great investments during the years 2002 to 2006 because of the outpouring of credit from the Fed, steered by politicians toward the housing market. If interest rates had remained at market levels, the housing bubble could not have grown to the enormous size it did. ...