A Washington Post article on plans to privatize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac likely misled many readers about their role in the housing bubble and the nature of the new system of housing finance being pushed in Congress. The piece told readers;
"The companies [Fannie and Freddie], which were seized by the federal government in 2008, were widely blamed with exacerbating the financial crisis by buying millions of risky loans and passing on the risk to consumers."
While Fannie and Freddie did help to inflate the bubble and got stuck ensuring many bad loans, the worst mortgages were securitized by private investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. This point is important not only as a matter of historical accuracy, but it also is central to the problem with the new system being proposed.
In effect the new system would allow Goldman and Citi to issue subprime mortgage backed securities (MBS) with a government guarantee. They obviously had no problem selling MBS composed of junk mortgages with no guarantee. Under the new system they would be able to tell investors that in a worse case scenario they would lose no more than 10 percent of their investment.
This creates a moral hazard problem that virtually guarantees future problems. As happened in the bubble years, the issuers can make large profits by securitizing garbage and then leaving the government with the overwhelming majority of the risk.
At one point the piece quotes Senator Tim Johnson, the chair of the banking committee:
"There is near unanimous agreement that our current housing finance system is not sustainable in the long term and reform is necessary."
It would have been worth pointing out that such an agreement reflects the politics on the issue, not the economics. The United States saw a boom in homeownership over the three decades from when Fannie Mae was created in 1938 to when it was privatized in 1968. There is no economic reason that Fannie and Freddie could not be run as public companies indefinitely. However the financial industry sees securitizing mortgages as a huge source of potential profits. The fact that the financial industry is a powerful political force and a large contributor to political campaigns is the basis for the near unanimous agreement on privatizing Fannie and Freddie, it has little to do with the merits of the new system.
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