Thursday, December 22, 2011

Was It Wall Street or the Government?

A recent Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) that were integral to the housing boom and bust, now formally argues that these two organizations committed massive fraud, which underrepresented their exposure to subprime mortgages and contributed to the economic meltdown.

The Wall Street Journal expounds how this investigation blows holes in the argument, often proffered by anti-capitalist Democrats, that Wall Street is solely to blame:
Democrats have spent years arguing that private lenders created the housing boom and bust, and that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac merely came along for the ride. This was always a politically convenient fiction, and now thanks to the unlikely source of the Securities and Exchange Commission we have a trail of evidence showing how the failed mortgage giants turbocharged the crisis. 
That's the story revealed Friday by the SEC's civil lawsuits against six former Fannie and Freddie executives, including a pair of CEOs. The SEC says the companies defrauded investors because they "knew and approved of misleading statements" about Fan and Fred's exposure to subprime loans, and it chronicles their push to expand the business.
And while the GSEs were somewhat independent from the legislature and the bureaucracy, the paper trail seems to go further back. At least some of the incentive for the alleged fraud was directly caused by government's social policy of getting every American his or her own house - regardless of the ability to afford it.
The Beltway story of the crisis claims that Congress's affordable housing mandates had nothing to do with it. But the SEC's lawsuit shows that Fannie degraded its underwriting standards to increase its market share in subprime loans. According to the SEC suit, for instance, in 2006 Fannie Mae adjusted its widely used automated underwriting system, "Desktop Underwriter." Fannie did so as part of its "Say Yes" strategy to "provide more 'approve' messages . . . for larger volumes of loans with lower FICO [credit] scores and higher LTVs [loan-to-value] than previously permitted."
Unfortunately, this is what happens when the government meddles in private-markets for social engineering purposes - prices (and risk) get mispriced, bubbles are grown, and then busts bring the economy down. And while this does not fully absolve Wall Street (fraud did occur and non-criminal stupid decisions were made) or the consumer (the role that greedy homeowners played in buying too much house or refinancing to buy flat-screen TVs and BMWs is unfortunately overlooked), it does shed light on the harm government can do. Sometimes trying to help people ends up with a worse outcome than doing nothing, especially if all potential consequences are not considered from the outset.

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