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Archive for the ‘Fannie Mae’ Category

I have Republican friends who don’t trust Michael Bloomberg because he switched parties and Democratic friends who don’t trust him for the same reason. I tell all of them that it’s more important to focus on his policy agenda rather than his partisan identification.

Though that’s not a happy topic, at least from a libertarian perspective. For instance, I recently criticized his very bad tax plan.

And when he was mayor, I dinged him for his regressive views on the 2nd Amendment and his nanny-state approach to lifestyle choices.

Today, let’s consider his view on housing finance, which has generated controversy since video has surfaced with Bloomberg stating that the financial system got in trouble because anti-redlining policies required banks to make loans to customers in poor neighborhoods.

Other candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren, argue that this makes Bloomberg a supporter of racist practices (with the obvious implication that he might actually be a racist).

I’m reluctant to make such accusations, especially when I tracked down this longer version of the video and discovered that Bloomberg merely listed a bunch of policies that contributed to the housing bubble and financial crisis.

Redlining was the first thing he mentioned, but he also cites the Federal Reserve (dispenser of easy money) and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (dispensers of housing subsidies).

In the latter part of his answer, he focused on “securitization,” which is what happens when mortgages are bundled together and sold to investors (as “mortgage-backed securities”).

Much of what he says isn’t controversial.

But I want to point out a sin of omission.

Bloomberg mentioned Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but only in passing. This is troubling because these two government-created entities, as explained in this video, deserve much of the blame for both the bubble and the subsequent crisis.

Yes, the Federal Reserve also deserves criticism for flooding the economy with too much liquidity.

But it was the government’s housing intervention, specifically Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, that channeled much of that excess liquidity into the housing market.

Simply stated, financial institutions were willing to make sloppy loans because they knew those mortgages could be bundled into securities and sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Though many banks were steered into also investing in mortgage-backed securities thanks to other misguided government regulations.

P.S. The wise approach, needless to say, is to shut down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as part of an agenda to end government intervention in the housing sector.

P.P.S. Obama was bad on this issue and Trump is bad on this issue, so I won’t be surprised if Bloomberg also is bad on this issue if he gets to the White House.

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The 2008 financial crisis was largely the result of bad government policy, including subsidies for the housing sector from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

This video is 10 years old, but it does a great job of explaining the damaging role of those two government-created entities.

The financial crisis led to many decisions in Washington, most notably “moral hazard” and the corrupt TARP bailout.

But the silver lining to that dark cloud is that Fannie and Freddie were placed in “conservatorship,” which basically has curtailed their actions over the past 10 years.

Indeed, some people even hoped that the Trump Administration would take advantage of their weakened status to unwind Fannie and Freddie and allow the free market to determine the future of housing finance.

Those hopes have been dashed.

Cronyists in the Treasury Department unveiled a plan earlier this year that will resuscitate Fannie and Freddie and recreate the bad incentives that led to the mess last decade.

This proposal may be even further to the left than proposals from the Obama Administration. And, as Peter Wallison and Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute explained in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, this won’t end well.

…the president’s Memorandum on Housing Finance Reform…is a major disappointment. It will keep taxpayers on the hook for more than $7 trillion in mortgage debt. And it is likely to induce another housing-market bust, for which President Trump will take the blame.The memo directs the Treasury to produce a government housing-finance system that roughly replicates what existed before 2008: government backing for the obligations of the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac , and affordable-housing mandates requiring the GSEs to encourage and engage in risky mortgage lending. …Most of the U.S. economy is open to the innovation and competition of the private sector. Yet for no discernible reason, the housing market—one-sixth of the U.S. economy—is and has been controlled by the government to a far greater extent than in any other developed country. …The resulting policies produced a highly volatile U.S. housing market, subject to enormous booms and busts. Its culmination was the 2008 financial crisis, in which a massive housing-price boom—driven by the credit leverage associated with low down payments—led to millions of mortgage defaults when housing prices regressed to the long-term mean.

Wallison also authored an article that was published this past week by National Review.

He warns again that the Trump Administration is making a grave mistake by choosing government over free enterprise.

Treasury’s plan for releasing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from their conservatorships is missing only one thing: a good reason for doing it. The dangers the two companies will create for the U.S. economy will far outweigh whatever benefits Treasury sees. Under the plan, Fannie and Freddie will be fully recapitalized… The Treasury says the purpose of their recapitalization is to protect the taxpayers in the event that the two firms fail again. But that makes little sense. The taxpayers would not have to be protected if the companies were adequately capitalized and operated without government backing. Indeed, it should have been clear by now that government backing for private profit-seeking firms is a clear and present danger to the stability of the U.S. financial system. Government support enables companies to raise virtually unlimited debt while taking financial risks that the market would routinely deny to firms that operate without it. …their government support will allow them to earn significant profits in a different way — by taking on the risks of subprime and other high-cost mortgage loans. That business would make effective use of their government backing and — at least for a while — earn the profits that their shareholders will demand. …This is an open invitation to create another financial crisis. If we learned anything from the 2008 mortgage market collapse, it is that once a government-backed entity begins to accept mortgages with low down payments and high debt-to-income ratios, the entire market begins to shift in that direction. …why is the Treasury proposing this plan? There is no obvious need for a government-backed profit-making firm in today’s housing finance market. FHA could assume the important role of helping low- and moderate-income families buy their first home. …Why this hasn’t already happened in a conservative administration remains an enduring mystery.

I’ll conclude by sharing some academic research that debunks the notion that housing would suffer in the absence of Fannie and Freddie.

A working paper by two economists at the Federal Reserve finds that Fannie and Freddie have not increased homeownership.

The U.S. government guarantees a majority of mortgages, which is often justified as a means to promote homeownership. In this paper, we estimate the effect by using a difference-in-differences design, with detailed property-level data, that exploits changes of the conforming loan limits (CLLs) along county borders. We find a sizable effect of CLLs on government guarantees but no robust effect on homeownership. Thus, government guarantees could be considerably reduced,with very modest effects on the homeownership rate. Our finding is particularly relevant for recent housing finance reform plans that propose to gradually reduce the government’s involvement in the mortgage market by reducing the CLLs.

For those who care about the wonky details, here’s the most relevant set of charts, which led the Fed economists to conclude that, “There appears to be no positive effect of the CLL increases in 2008 and no negative effect of the CLL reductions in 2011.”

And let’s not forget that other academic research has shown that government favoritism for the housing sector harms overall economic growth by diverting capital from business investment.

The bottom line is that Fannie and Freddie are cronyist institutions that hurt the economy and create financial instability, while providing no benefit except to a handful of insiders.

As I suggested many years ago, they should be dumped in the Potomac River. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is choosing Obama-style interventionism over fairness and free markets.

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What’s the worst thing the government does?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve argued that giving U.S. tax dollars to the OECD is the worst item in the budget, on a per-dollar-spent basis.

And I’ve expressed scathing disdain for the horrid practice of civil asset forfeiture. There are also really destructive features of the tax system, such as FATCA and the death tax.

But you could make a strong case for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well.

These two government-created corporations not only reduce long-run growth by distorting the allocation of capital, they also bear considerable responsibility for last decade’s financial crisis since they played a major role in fueling the housing bubble.

The U.K.-based Economist describes America’s interventionist regime as a form of socialism.

…the mortgage system…is…largely nationalised and subject to administrative control. …America’s mortgage-finance system, with $11 trillion of debt, is probably the biggest concentration of financial risk to be found anywhere. …The supply of mortgages in America has an air of distinctly socialist command-and-control about it. …The structure of these loans, their volume and the risks they entail are controlled not by markets but by administrative fiat. …the subsidy for housing debt is running at about $150 billion a year, or roughly 1% of GDP. A crisis as bad as last time would cost taxpayers 2-4% of GDP, not far off the bail-out of the banks in 2008-12. …the securitisation of loans, most of which used to be in the private sector, is now almost entirely state-run. …There are at least 10,000 relevant pages of federal laws, regulatory orders and rule books. …In the land of the free, where home ownership is a national dream, borrowing to buy a house is a government business for which taxpayers are on the hook.

In other words, our system of housing finance is mucked up by government intervention (very much akin to the way healthcare is a mess because of government).

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that Fannie and Freddie have been in “conservatorship” every since they got a big bailout last decade. And that means the two cronyist firms are now somewhat constrained. They can’t lobby, for instance (though Republicans and Democrats still seek to expand subsidies in response to campaign cash from other housing-related lobbyists).

But the worst news is that there are people in the Trump Administration who want to go back to the bad ol’ pre-bailout days.

The Wall Street Journal opined on the issue as Trump prepared to take office. The editorial noted that the implicit government guarantee for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac led to an explicit bailout.

Fan and Fred’s owners feasted for decades on an implied taxpayer guarantee before the housing crisis. Since everyone knew the two government-created mortgage giants would receive federal help in a crisis, they were able to run enormous risks and still borrow cheaply as they came to own or guarantee $5 trillion of mortgage paper. When the housing market went south, taxpayers had to stage a rescue in 2008 and poured nearly $190 billion into the toxic twins.

As part of that bailout and the subsequent “conservatorship,” Fannie and Freddie still get to operate, and they still have a big implicit subsidy that allows near-automatic profits (at least until and unless there’s another big hiccup in the housing market), but the Treasury Department gets those profits.

Needless to say, this upsets the shareholders. They bought stock so they could get a slice of the undeserved profits generated by the Fannie/Freddie cronyist business model.

They claim going back to the pre-bailout days would be a form of privatization, but the WSJ editorial correctly warns that it’s not pro-free market to allow these two government-created companies to distort housing markets with their government-granted favors, preferences, and subsidies.

…the expectation that Treasury secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin is going to revive the Beltway model of public risk and private reward. …private shareholders of these so-called government-sponsored enterprises keep pretending that something other than the government is responsible for their income streams. As if anyone would buy their guarantees—or give them cheap financing—if Uncle Sam weren’t standing behind them. …what they really want is to liberate for themselves the profits that flow from a duopoly backed by taxpayers. …We’re all for businesses getting out of government control—unless they’re playing with taxpayer money. Americans were told that Fannie and Freddie were safe for years before the last crisis. The right answer is to shut them down.

Amen. Not just shut them down, dump them in the Potomac River.

The Wall Street Journal then revisited the issue early last year, once again expressing concern that the Treasury Secretary wants to go back to the days of unchecked cronyism.

Fannie Mae is again going hat in hand to taxpayers… Washington should take this news as a kick in the keister to finally start winding down the mortgage giant and its busted brother, Freddie Mac . But the Trump Administration seems to be moving in the opposite direction. …The pair, now in “conservatorship,”…were left in limbo. Hedge funds bought up their shares, betting they could pressure Washington into bringing back the old business model of public risk and private reward. …Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told the Senate Banking Committee: “I think it’s critical that we have a 30-year mortgage. I don’t believe that the private markets on their own could support it.” But many countries have robust housing markets and ownership rates without a 30-year mortgage guarantee. Mr. Mnuchin sounds like his predecessor, Democrat Jack Lew. Wasn’t Donald Trump elected to eliminate crony capitalism?

This issue is now heating up, with reports indicating that the Treasury Secretary is pushing to restore the moral hazard-based system that caused so much damage last decade.

The Trump administration is at war with itself over who should take the lead in the reform of the government-backed mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac… The battle centers on whether the Treasury Department should continue to advocate what it views as a plan for the future of the mortgage companies or cede control of those efforts to the incoming chief of the Federal Housing Financial Agency (FHFA), economist Mark Calabria.

The good news is that Trump has nominated a sensible person to head FHFA, which has some oversight authority over Fannie and Freddie.

And it’s also good news that some of the economic people at the White House understand the danger of loosening the current limits on Fannie and Freddie.

White House economic officials…are seeking to prevent a repeat of the risk-taking activities by the companies that contributed to the mortgage bubble, leading to its 2008 collapse and $200 billion government bailout. These officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also say any reform must have the blessing of Calabria, a long-time libertarian economist and frequent critic of the outfit’s pre-crisis business model. ..He is also wary of returning Fannie and Freddie to their previous incarnations as private companies that have shareholders, but also receive backing from the federal government if they get in trouble as they did in 2008.

But it seems that the Treasury Department has some officials who – just like their predecessors in the Obama Administration – learned nothing from the financial crisis.

They want to give Fannie and Freddie free rein, perhaps in order to help some speculator buddies.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and his top house advisor Craig Phillips, have so far taken the lead… In January, acting director of the Federal Housing Agency Joseph Otting privately told employees about plans…, referring to Mnuchin’s past statements on the matter… Mnuchin also has business ties with at least one of the major investors in the GSE’s stock that has benefited amid the speculation… Paulson – who has stakes in the GSE’s preferred class of stock — has also submitted a proposal… A key feature of the framework touted by Mnuchin, Phillips, Otting and Paulson is that both Fannie and Freddie would have some backing from the federal government in times of emergency while remaining public companies, a business model similar to the one the GSEs operated with before 2008.

Given the Treasury Department’s bad performance on other issues, I’m not surprised that they’re on the wrong side on this issue as well.

Tobias Peter of the American Enterprise Institute outlines the correct approach.

The GSEs, however, do very little that cannot be done – and is not already done – by the private sector. In addition, these institutions pose a significant financial risk to U.S. taxpayers. Weighing this cost against the minimal benefits makes the case that the GSEs should be eliminated. …regulators have tilted the playing field in favor of the GSEs. …GSE borrowers can thus take on more debt to offset higher prices. With inventories lower than ever, this extra debt ends up driving prices even higher, creating a vicious cycle of more debt, higher prices, greater risk and, ironically, more demand for the GSEs. What keeps the GSEs in business are the same failed housing policies that brought us the last financial crisis. The GSEs are not needed in the housing market – and they have become detrimental to the market’s long-term health. They could be eliminated… This would create space for the re-emergence of an active private mortgage-backed securities market that ensures a safer and more stable housing finance system with access for all while letting taxpayers off the hook.

Mr. Peter is correct.

Here’s a flowchart that shows what happened and the choice we now face.

At the risk of stating the obvious, real privatization is the right approach. This would mean an end to the era of special favors and subsidies.

  • No taxpayers guarantees for mortgage-backed securities
  • No special exemption from complying with SEC red tape.
  • No more special tax favors such as special exemptions.

Sadly, I’m not holding my breath for any of this to happen.

The real battle in DC is between conservatorship and fake privatization (which really should be called turbo-charged and lobbyist-fueled cronyism).

And if that’s the case, then the obvious choice is to retain the status quo.

P.S. This is a secondary issue, but it’s worth noting that Fannie and Freddie like to squander money. Here are some excerpts from a report published by the Washington Free Beacon.

Fannie Mae is charging taxpayers millions for upgrades to its new headquarters, including $250,000 for a chandelier. The inspector general for the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which acts as a conservator for the mortgage lender, recently noted $32 million in questionable costs in an audit for Fannie Mae’s new headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. …The inspector general reported that costs for the new headquarters have “risen dramatically,” to $171 million, up from $115 million when the consolidated headquarters was announced in 2015. …After the inspector general inquired about the chandelier, officials scrapped plans for a $150,000 “hanging key sculpture,” and $985,000 for “decorative screens” in a conference room.

The bottom line is that Fannie and Freddie, at best, undermine prosperity by diverting money from productive investment, and, at worst, they saddle the nation with financial crisis.

They should be shut down, not resuscitated.

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Remember the financial crisis and market meltdown from late last decade? That wasn’t a fun time, and we’re still dealing with some of the fallout.

Let’s specifically look at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two privately owned but government-created housing finance institutions (also known as government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs). Fannie and Freddie received giant bailouts during the crisis, but they weren’t shut down. Instead, they have continued to operate, continued to benefit from implicit government subsidies, and continued to dominate housing finance because of their government-protected status.

Under the conditions of the bailouts, however, the excess cash generated by this government-subsidized duopoly have gone to the Treasury rather than to shareholders (incidentally, I wrote “excess cash” rather than “profit” because I think of the latter as money that is fairly earned in a competitive marketplace, whereas the earnings of the GSE’s are the result of an artificial, subsidized, and protected system).

In any event, the bailout will have been repaid at some point in the near future, so the government has to decide the next step. Should Fannie and Freddie be allowed to simply go back to their old model?

As you might expect, Cato’s expert on the issue, Mark Calabria, has a lot to say about the issue. In a column co-authored with Alex Pollock of the American Enterprise Institute, he proposes a set of reforms.

Nobody wants the old Fannie and Freddie back; nobody wants them to stay on indefinitely in conservatorship. What is required are practical steps forward.

Mark and Alex identify specific requirements that should be met before allowing Fannie and Freddie off the leash, starting with basic capital requirements and other reforms so the GSEs are less likely to create instability and excessive risk.

Take away Fannie and Freddie’s capital arbitrage and set their equity capital requirements in line with other financial institutions of similar size. Equity of at least 5 percent of total assets should be their required leverage capital ratio. …Given their undiversified business, something more might be prudent. In any case, the hyper-leverage which allowed Fannie and Freddie to put the whole financial system at risk needs to be permanently ended. …Designate them as the Systemically Important Financial Institutions (SIFIs) they indubitably are. Fannie and Freddie…have conclusively demonstrated their ability to generate huge systemic risk.

They also say Fannie and Freddie should no longer have special privileges. If these GSEs want to act like private companies, the should be subjected to all the laws and rules that apply to private companies.

End all their securities law exemptions. …End all their preferences in banking law and regulation. …End their exemption from state and local income taxes. …End all their exemptions from consumer protection rules. …Open up their charters to competition just like banking charters.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, the former heads of the FDIC and Wells Fargo, William Isaac and Richard Kovacevich, point out that President-Elect Trump wants to do the right thing and shrink the risky role of government.

…the president-elect want[s] to privatize the home-mortgage market and “will get it done reasonably fast.” That’s good news for American homeowners, the economy and taxpayers who were forced to foot the bill after the 2008 subprime mortgage meltdown. …this is not a radical proposal. The private sector provides mortgages in most major countries, and there is little difference in the share of homeownership between the U.S. and other developed countries. No other country has the equivalent of the private-public model of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—crony capitalism at its best.

Isaac and Kovacevich explain why the old approach is unacceptable.

…many politicians and industry participants believe that housing cannot prosper without government support. We disagree. The U.S. cannot afford to go through another financial crisis, which started with subprime mortgages and would never have been so large if the residential mortgage industry had been market-based. Subprime mortgages have existed for decades. But they were a small percentage of the mortgage market until Fannie and Freddie reduced credit standards to increase their market share and meet low-income homeownership targets mandated by Congress. By 2007 nearly 50% of mortgages originated in the U.S. were subprime and “alt-A” types with government agencies guaranteeing about 70% of those… Without these government guarantees, the subprime bubble and financial crisis would have never happened. Bank regulators and industry experts warned Congress for decades about Fannie and Freddie and their increasingly large and risky portfolios, but Congress failed to act.

They then point out how we can move to a system based instead on market, and that any subsidies and handouts should be limited and transparent.

The solution is straightforward: The public-private hybrid of Fannie and Freddie—“government-sponsored entities”—should be abolished, their existing business sold or liquidated, and the mortgage market privatized. …The current $686,000 cap on new mortgages guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie should be reduced by $100,000 a year. This would put the companies out of originating new mortgages within seven years. …if the government still wants to subsidize mortgages for low-income families and minorities, the cost should be on budget and transparent. The Federal Housing Administration already does this.

By the way, a private system wouldn’t mean an end to conventional mortgages.

Others speculate that, without Fannie and Freddie, mortgage rates would skyrocket and the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage would vanish. We disagree. Nonconventional or “jumbo” 30-year mortgages not guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie have existed for decades. In the decade preceding the financial crisis, the interest rate on these jumbo mortgages averaged only about 0.25% higher than similar guaranteed mortgages, a difference of a little over $40 a month on a $200,000 mortgage. Shouldn’t Americans, like homeowners throughout the world, pay a tax-deductible $40 extra a month so taxpayers aren’t on the hook for hundreds of billions to bail out Fannie and Freddie?

Amen. Fannie and Freddie never should have been created in the first place.

And today, with the memory of their disastrous impact still fresh in our minds, we should do everything possible to shut down these corrupt GSEs. I’ve argued for this position over and over and over again.

Sadly (but not surprisingly), there are many people who want to move policy in the wrong direction. The Obama Administration has pushed for more risky housing handouts, often aided and abetted by Republicans who care more about pleasing lobbyists rather than protecting taxpayers.

And it goes without saying that Fannie and Freddie are proposing more handouts in order to create a bigger constituency that will advocate for their preservation.

Kevin Williamson of National Review looks at a crazy idea to create more risk from Fannie Mae.

…government-sponsored mortgage giant Fannie Mae roll[ed] out a daft new mortgage proposal that would allow borrowers without enough income to qualify for a mortgage to count income that isn’t theirs on their mortgage application. …Claiming that the money you are using for a down payment is yours when it has been lent to you by a family member or a friend was a crime… Fannie Mae, the organized-crime syndicate masquerading as a quasi-governmental entity, has other ideas. Under its new and cynically misnamed “HomeReady” program, borrowers with subprime credit don’t need to show that they have enough income to qualify for the mortgage they’re after — they simply have to show that all the people residing in their household put together have enough income to qualify for that mortgage. We’re not talking just about husbands and wives here, but any group of people who happen to share a roof and a mailing address. …That would be one thing if all these people were applying for a mortgage together, and were jointly on the hook for the mortgage payments. But that isn’t the case. HomeReady will permit borrowers to claim other people’s income for the purpose for qualifying for a mortgage, but will not give mortgage lenders any actual claim against that additional income. This is madness.

Madness is certainly an accurate description. If you want to be more circumspect, economic illiteracy is another option.

The bottom line is that government-subsidized risk is not a good idea.

And also keep in mind that shutting down Fannie and Freddie is just part of the solution. So long as deposit insurance exists, we’re going to have some instability in the financial system. And so long as government wants to subsidize housing for people with poor credit, taxpayers will be on the hook for losses. And so long as there are biases in the tax code for debt over equity and residential real estate over business investment, the economy won’t grow as fast.

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Exactly one year ago, we looked at the best and worst policy developments of 2013.

Now it’s time for a look back at 2014 to see what’s worth celebrating and what are reasons for despair.

Here’s the good news for 2014.

1. Gridlock – I’ve been arguing for nearly three years that divided government is producing better economic performance. To be sure, it would have been difficult for the economy to move in the wrong direction after the stagnation of Obama’s first two years, but heading in the wrong direction at a slower pace is better than speeding toward European-style statism.

Indeed, the fact that policy stopped getting worse even boosted America’s relative competitiveness, so there’s a lot to be thankful for when politicians disagree with each other and can’t enact new laws.

David Harsanyi explains the glory of gridlock for The Federalist.

Gross domestic product grew by a healthy 5 percent in the third quarter, the strongest growth we’ve seen since 2003. Consumer spending looks like it’s going to be strong in 2015, unemployment numbers have looked good, buying power is up and the stock market closed at 18,000 for the first time ever. All good things. So what happened? …the predominant agenda of Washington was doing nothing. It was only when the tinkering and superfluous stimulus spending wound down that fortunes began to turn around. …spending as a percent of GDP has gone down. In 2009, 125 bills were enacted into law. In 2010, 258. After that, Congress, year by year, became one of the least productive in history. And the more unproductive Washington became, the more the economy began to improve. …Gridlock has caused an odd, but pervasive, stability in Washington. Spending has been static. No jarring reforms have passed — no cap-and-trade, which would have artificially spiked energy prices and undercut the growth we’re now experiencing. The inadvertent, but reigning, policy over the past four years has been, do no harm.

Amen. Though I should hasten to add that while gridlock has been helpful in the short run (stopping Obama from achieving his dream of becoming a second FDR), at some point we will need unified government in order to adopt much-needed tax reform and entitlement reform.

The key question is whether we will ever get good politicians controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

2. Restrained Spending – This is the most under-reported and under-celebrated news of the past few years, not just 2014.

Allow me to cite one of my favorite people.

In fiscal year 2009, the federal government spent about $3.52 trillion. In fiscal year 2014 (which ended on September 30), the federal government spent about $3.50 trillion. In other words, there’s been no growth in nominal government spending over the past five years. It hasn’t received nearly as much attention as it deserves, but there’s been a spending freeze in Washington. …the fiscal restraint over the past five years has resulted in a bigger drop in the relative size of government in America than what Switzerland achieved over the past ten years thanks to the “debt brake.” …The bottom line is that the past five years have been a victory for advocates of limited government.

And this spending restraint is producing economic dividends, though Paul Krugman somehow wants people to believe that Keynesian economics deserves the credit.

3. Limits on Unemployment Benefits – Although the labor force participation rate is still disturbingly low, the unemployment rate has declined and job creation numbers have improved.

The aforementioned policies surely deserve some of the credit, but it’s also worth noting that Congress wisely put a stop to the initiative-sapping policy of endlessly extending unemployment benefits. Such policies sound compassionate, but they basically pay people not to work and cause more joblessness.

Phil Kerpen of American Commitment elaborates, citing recent research from the New York Fed.

According to empirical research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York: “most of the persistent increase in unemployment during the Great Recession can be accounted for by the unprecedented extensions of unemployment benefit eligibility.” Those benefits finally ended at the end of 2013, triggering a sharp rise in hiring… Specifically, they found that the average extended unemployment benefits duration of 82.5 weeks for four years had the impact of raising the unemployment rate from 5 percent to 8.6 percent. …Good intentions are not enough in public policy.  It might seem kind and compassionate to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on “emergency” unemployment benefits forever, but the effect is to keep millions of people unemployed.  Results matter.

Phil’s right. If you pay people not to work, you’re going to get foolish results.

But the three above stories are not the only rays of sunshine in 2014. Honorable mention goes to North Carolina and Kansas for implementing pro-growth tax reforms.

I’m also pleased that GOPers passed the first half of my test and told the Democrat appointee at the Congressional Budget Office that he would be replaced. Now the question is whether they appoint someone who will make the long-overdue changes that are needed to get better and more accurate assessments of fiscal policy. That didn’t happen when the GOP had control between 1995 and 2007, so victory is far from assured.

And another honorable mention is that Congress has not expanded the IMF’s bailout authority.

Now let’s look at the three worst policy developments of 2014.

1. Obamacare Subsidies – Yes, Obamacare has been a giant albatross for the President and his party. Yes, the law has helped more and more people realize that big government isn’t a good idea. Those are positive developments.

Nonetheless, 2014 was the year when the subsidies began to flow. And once handouts begin, politicians get very squeamish about taking them away.

This is why I wrote back in 2012 that Obamacare may have been a victory (in the long run) for the left, even though it caused dozens of Democrats to lose their seats in the House and Senate.

I think the left made a clever calculation that losses in the last cycle would be an acceptable price to get more people dependent on the federal government. And once people have to rely on government for something like healthcare, they are more likely to vote for the party that promises to make government bigger. …This is why Obamacare – and the rest of the entitlement state – is so worrisome. If more and more Americans decide to ride in the wagon of government dependency, it will be less and less likely that those people will vote for candidates who want to restrain government.

Simply stated, when more and more people get hooked on the heroin of government dependency, I fear you get the result portrayed in this set of cartoons.

2. Continuing Erosion of Tax Competition – Regular readers know that I view jurisdictional competition as a very valuable constraint on the greed of the political class.

Simply stated, politicians will be less likely to impose punitive tax policies if the geese with the golden eggs can fly away. That’s why I cheer when taxpayers escape high-tax jurisdictions, whether we’re looking at New Jersey and California, or France and the United States.

But this also helps to explain why governments, either unilaterally or multilaterally, are trying to prevent taxpayers from shifting economic activity to low-tax jurisdictions.

And 2014 was not a good year for taxpayers. We saw further implementation of FATCA, ongoing efforts by the OECD to raise the tax burden on the business community, and even efforts by the United Nations to further erode tax competition.

Here’s an example, from the Wall Street Journal, of politicians treating taxpayers like captive serfs.

Japan could become the latest country to consider taxing wealthy individuals who move abroad to take advantage of lower rates. The government and ruling party lawmakers are considering an “exit tax”… Such a rule would prevent wealthy individuals moving to a location where taxes are low–such as Singapore or Hong Kong… some expats in Tokyo are concerned the rule could make companies think twice about sending senior professionals to Japan or make Japanese entrepreneurs more reluctant to go abroad.

My reaction, for what it’s worth, is that Japan should reduce tax rates if it wants to keep people (and their money) from emigrating.

3. Repeating the Mistakes that Caused the Housing Crisis – A corrupt system of subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, combined with other misguided policies from Washington, backfired with a housing bubble and financial crisis in 2008.

Inexplicably, the crowd in Washington has learned nothing from that disaster. New regulations are being proposed to once again provide big subsidies that will destabilize the housing market.

Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute warns that politicians are planting the seeds for another mess.

New standards were supposed to raise the quality of the “prime” mortgages that get packaged and sold to investors; instead, they will have the opposite effect. …the standards have been watered down. …The regulators believe that lower underwriting standards promote homeownership and make mortgages and homes more affordable. The facts, however, show that the opposite is true. …low underwriting standards — especially low down payments — drive housing prices up, making them less affordable for low- and moderate-income buyers, while also inducing would-be homeowners to take more risk. That’s why homes were more affordable before the 1990s than they are today. … The losers, as we saw in the financial crisis, are borrowers of modest means who are lured into financing arrangements they can’t afford. When the result is foreclosure and eviction, one of the central goals of homeownership — building equity — is undone.

Gee, it’s almost as if Chuck Asay had perfect foresight when drawing this cartoon.

Let’s end today’s post with a few dishonorable mentions.

In addition to the three developments we just discussed, I’m also very worried about the ever-growing red tape burden. This is a hidden tax that undermines economic efficiency and enables cronyism.

I continue to be irked that my tax dollars are being used to subsidize a very left-wing international bureaucracy in Paris.

And it’s very sad that one of the big success stories of economic liberalization is now being undermined.

P.S. This is the feel-good story of the year.

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More than 100 years ago, George Santayana famously warned that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

At the time, he may have been gazing in a crystal ball and looking at what the Obama Administration is doing today.That’s because the White House wants to reinstate the types of housing subsidies that played a huge role in the financial crisis.

I’m not joking. Even though we just suffered through a housing bubble/collapse thanks to misguided government intervention (with all sorts of accompanying damage, such as corrupt bailouts for big financial firms), Obama’s people are pursuing the same policies today.

Including a bigger role for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two deeply corrupt government-created entities that played such a big role in the last crisis!

Here’s some of what the Wall Street Journal recently wrote about this crazy approach.

Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mel Watt has one heck of a sense of humor. How else to explain his choice of a Las Vegas casino as the venue for his Monday announcement that he’s revving up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to enable more risky mortgage loans? History says the joke will be on taxpayers when this federal gamble ends the same way previous ones did. …unlike most of the players around a Mandalay Bay poker table, Mr. Watt is playing with other people’s money. He’s talking about mortgages that will be guaranteed by the same taxpayers who already had to stage a 2008 rescue of Fannie and Freddie that eventually added up to $188 billion. Less than a year into the job and a mere six years since Fan and Fred’s meltdown, has he already forgotten that housing prices that rise can also fall? …We almost can’t believe we have to return to Mortgage 101 lessons so soon after the crisis. …Come the next crisis, count on regulators to blame everyone outside of government.

These common-sense observations were echoed by Professor Jeffrey Dorfman of the University of Georgia, writing for Real Clear Markets.

The housing market meltdown that began in 2007 and helped trigger the recent recession was completely avoidable. The conditions that created the slow-growth rush into housing did not arise by accident or even neglect; rather, they were a direct result of the incentives in the industry and the involvement of the government. Proving that nothing was learned by housing market participants from the market meltdown, both lenders and government regulators appear intent on repeating their mistakes. …we have more or less completed a full regulatory circle and returned to the same lax standards and skewed incentives that produced the real estate bubble and meltdown. Apparently, nobody learned anything from the last time and we should prepare for a repeat of the same disaster we are still cleaning up. Research has shown that low or negative equity in a home is the best predictor of a loan default. When down payments were 20 percent, nobody wanted to walk away from the house and lose all that equity. With no equity, many people voluntarily went into foreclosure because their only real loss was the damage to their credit score. …The best way to a stable and healthy real estate market is buyers and lenders with skin in the game. Unfortunately, those in charge of these markets have reversed all the changes… The end result will be another big bill for taxpayers to clean up the mess. Failing to learn from one’s mistakes can be very expensive.

Though I should add that failure to learn is expensive for taxpayers.

The regulators, bureaucrats, agencies, and big banks doubtlessly will be protected from the fallout.

And I’ll also point out that this process has been underway for a while. It’s just that more and more folks are starting to notice.

Last but not least, if you want to enjoy some dark humor on this topic, I very much recommend this Chuck Asay cartoon on government-created bubbles and this Gary Varvel cartoon on playing blackjack with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

P.S. Now for my final set of predictions for the mid-term elections.

On October 25, I guessed that Republicans would win control of the Senate by a 52-48 margin and retain control of the House by a 246-189 margin.

On October 31, I put forward a similar prediction, with GOPers still winning the Senate by 52-48 but getting two additional House seats for a 249-187 margin.

So what’s my final estimate, now that there’s no longer a chance to change my mind? Will I be prescient, like I was in 2010? Or mediocre, which is a charitable description of my 2012 prediction?

We won’t know until early Wednesday morning, but here’s my best guess. Senate races are getting most of the attention, so I’ll start by asserting that Republicans will now have a net gain of eight seats, which means a final margin of 53-47. Here are the seats that will change hands.

For the House, I’m also going to move the dial a bit toward the GOP. I now think Republicans will control that chamber by a 249-146 margin.

Some folks have asked why I haven’t made predictions about who will win various gubernatorial contests. Simply stated, I don’t have enough knowledge to make informed guesses. It would be like asking Obama about economic policy.

But I will suggest paying close attention to the races in Kansas and Wisconsin, where pro-reform Republican Governors are facing difficult reelection fights.

And you should also pay attention to what happens in Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, and Massachusetts, all of which are traditionally left-wing states yet could elect Republican governors because of voter dissatisfaction with tax hikes.

Last but not least, there will be interesting ballot initiatives in a number of states. Americans for Tax Reform has a list of tax-related contests. I’m particularly interested in the outcomes in Georgia, Illinois, and Tennessee.

There’s also a gun-control initiative on the ballot in Washington. And it has big-money support, so it will be interesting if deep pockets are enough to sway voters to cede some of their 2nd Amendment rights.

Returning to the main focus of the elections, what does it mean if the GOP takes the Senate? Well, not much as Veronique de Rugy explains in a column for the Daily Beast.

Republicans are projected to gain control of Congress this time around, worrying some Democrats that major shifts in policies, cutbacks in spending, and reductions in the size and scope of government are right around the corner. I wish! Rest assured, tax-and-spend Democrats have little to fear. Despite airy Republican rhetoric, they are bona fide big spenders and heavy-handed regulators…. Republicans may complain about bloated government and red tape restrictions when they’re benched on the sidelines, but their track record of policies while in power tells a whole different story—and reveals their true colors. …When in power, Republicans are also more than willing to increase government intervention in many aspects of our lives. They gave us No Child Left Behind, protectionist steel and lumber tariffs, Medicare Part D, the war in Iraq, the Department of Homeland Security and its intrusive and inefficient Transportation Security Administration, massive earmarking, increased food stamp eligibility, and expanded cronyism at levels never seen before. The massive automobile and bank bailouts were the cherries on top.

Veronique is right, though I would point out that there’s a huge difference between statist Republicans like Bush, who have dominated the national GOP in recent decades, and freedom-oriented Republicans such as Reagan.

We’ll perhaps learn more about what GOPers really think in 2016.

In the meantime, policy isn’t going to change for the next two years. Remember what I wrote last week: Even assuming they want to do the right thing, Republicans won’t have the votes to override presidential vetoes. So there won’t be any tax reform and there won’t be any entitlement reform.

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Let’s assume you didn’t understand how a garbage disposal worked and, for whatever reason, you decided to stick your arm in one and turn it on. You would do some serious injury to your hand.

The rest of us would wonder what motivated you to stick your arm down the drain in the first place, but we would feel sympathy because you didn’t realize bad things would happen.

But if you then told us that you were planning to do the same thing tomorrow, we would think you were crazy. Didn’t you learn anything, we would ask?

Seems like a preposterous scenario, but something very similar is now happening in Washington. The Obama Administration is proposing to once again put the economy at risk by subsidizing banks to give mortgages to people with poor credit.

“Let’s party like it’s 2006!”

Even though we’re still dealing with the economic and fiscal damage caused by the last episode of government housing subsidies!

Here are some of the unbelievable details from a report in the Washington Post.

The Obama administration is engaged in a broad push to make more home loans available to people with weaker credit…officials say they are working to get banks to lend to a wider range of borrowers by taking advantage of taxpayer-backed programs — including those offered by the Federal Housing Administration — that insure home loans against default. Housing officials are urging the Justice Department to provide assurances to banks, which have become increasingly cautious, that they will not face legal or financial recriminations if they make loans to riskier borrowers who meet government standards but later default.

Brings to mind the famous saying from George Santayana that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

But what’s especially amazing – and distressing – about this latest scheme is that “the past” was only a couple of years ago. Or, to recall my odd analogy, one of our hands is still mangled and bleeding and we’re thinking about putting our other hand in the disposal.

Some people understand this is a nutty idea.

…critics say encouraging banks to lend as broadly as the administration hopes will sow the seeds of another housing disaster and endanger taxpayer dollars. “If that were to come to pass, that would open the floodgates to highly excessive risk and would send us right back on the same path we were just trying to recover from,” said Ed Pinto, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

What’s also discouraging is that the government already is deeply involved in the housing market – even though this is an area where there is no legitimate role for the federal intervention.

Deciding which borrowers get loans might seem like something that should be left up to the private market. But since the financial crisis in 2008, the government has shaped most of the housing market, insuring between 80 percent and 90 percent of all new loans, according to the industry publication Inside Mortgage Finance. It has done so primarily through the Federal Housing Administration, which is part of the executive branch, and taxpayer-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, run by an independent regulator.

So I guess the goal is to have taxpayers on the hook for 100 percent of loans.

“Don’t worry, it’s not our money”

Anybody want to guess whether this will end well?

By the way, this is bad policy even if we somehow avoid a new bubble and big taxpayer losses. Even in a”best case” scenario, the federal government will be distorting the allocation of capital by discouraging business investment and subsidizing residential real estate.

And as shown in this powerful chart, that will have adverse consequences for wages and living standards.

The part of the article that most nauseated me was a quote from the head bureaucrat at the Federal Housing Administration.

“My view is that there are lots of creditworthy borrowers that are below 720 or 700 — all the way down the credit-score spectrum,” Galante said. “It’s important you look at the totality of that borrower’s ability to pay.”

Gee, isn’t that nice that Ms. Galante thinks there are lots of borrowers with good “totality” measures? But here’s an interesting concept. Why doesn’t she put her money at risk instead of making me the involuntary guarantor on these dodgy loans?

I’ve already said on TV that we should dump Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the Potomac River. And I’ve  argued that the entire Department of Housing and Urban Development should be razed to the ground.

But perhaps this cartoon best shows the consequences of the Obama Administration’s new subsidy scheme.

P.S. We also should get rid of housing preference in the tax code. Our economy should cater to the underlying preferences of consumers, not the electoral interests of politicians.

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Writing for the New York Times, Paul Krugman has a new column promoting more government spending and additional government regulation. That’s a dog-bites-man revelation and hardly noteworthy, of course, but in this case he takes a swipe at the Cato Institute.

The financial crisis of 2008 and its painful aftermath…were a huge slap in the face for free-market fundamentalists. …analysts at right-wing think tanks like…the Cato Institute…insisted that deregulated financial markets were doing just fine, and dismissed warnings about a housing bubble as liberal whining. Then the nonexistent bubble burst, and the financial system proved dangerously fragile; only huge government bailouts prevented a total collapse.

Upon reading this, my first reaction was a perverse form of admiration. After all, Krugman explicitly advocated for a housing bubble back in 2002, so it takes a lot of chutzpah to attack other people for the consequences of that bubble.

But let’s set that aside and examine the accusation that folks at Cato had a Pollyanna view of monetary and regulatory policy. In other words, did Cato think that “deregulated markets were doing just fine”?

Hardly. If Krugman had bothered to spend even five minutes perusing the Cato website, he would have found hundreds of items by scholars such as Steve Hanke, Gerald O’Driscoll, Bert Ely, and others about misguided government regulatory and monetary policy. He could have perused the remarks of speakers at Cato’s annual monetary conferences. He could have looked at issues of the Cato Journal. Or our biennial Handbooks on Policy.

The tiniest bit of due diligence would have revealed that Cato was not a fan of Federal Reserve policy and we did not think that financial markets were deregulated. Indeed, Cato scholars last decade were relentlessly critical of monetary policy, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Community Reinvestment Act, and other forms of government intervention.

Heck, I imagine that Krugman would have accused Cato of relentless and foolish pessimism had he reviewed our work  in 2006 or 2007.

I will confess that Cato people didn’t predict when the bubble would peak and when it would burst. If we had that type of knowledge, we’d all be billionaires. But since Krugman is still generating income by writing columns and doing appearances, I think it’s safe to assume that he didn’t have any special ability to time the market either.

Krugman also implies that Cato is guilty of historical revisionism.

…many on the right have chosen to rewrite history. Back then, they thought things were great, and their only complaint was that the government was getting in the way of even more mortgage lending; now they claim that government policies, somehow dictated by liberals even though the G.O.P. controlled both Congress and the White House, were promoting excessive borrowing and causing all the problems.

I’ve already pointed out that Cato was critical of government intervention before and during the bubble, so we obviously did not want government tilting the playing field in favor of home mortgages.

It’s also worth nothing that Cato has been dogmatically in favor of tax reform that would eliminate preferences for owner-occupied housing. That was our position 20 years ago. That was our position 10 years ago. And it’s our position today.

I also can’t help but comment on Krugman’s assertion that GOP control of government last decade somehow was inconsistent with statist government policy. One obvious example would be the 2004 Bush Administration regulations that dramatically boosted the affordable lending requirements for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which surely played a role in driving the orgy of subprime lending.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The burden of government spending almost doubled during the Bush years, the federal government accumulated more power, and the regulatory state expanded. No wonder economic freedom contracted under Bush after expanding under Clinton.

But I’m digressing. Let’s return to Krugman’s screed. He doesn’t single out Cato, but presumably he has us in mind when he criticizes those who reject Keynesian stimulus theory.

…right-wing economic analysts insisted that deficit spending would destroy jobs, because government borrowing would divert funds that would otherwise have gone into business investment, and also insisted that this borrowing would send interest rates soaring. The right thing, they claimed, was to balance the budget, even in a depressed economy.

Actually, I hope he’s not thinking about us. We argue for a smaller burden of government spending, not a balanced budget. And we haven’t made any assertions about higher interest rates. We instead point out that excessive government spending undermines growth by undermining incentives for productive behavior and misallocating labor and capital.

But we are critics of Keynesianism for reasons I explain in this video. And if you look at current economic performance, it’s certainly difficult to make the argument that Obama’s so-called stimulus was a success.

ZombieBut Krugman will argue that the government should have squandered even more money. Heck, he even asserted that the 9-11 attacks were a form of stimulus and has argued that it would be pro-growth if we faced the threat of an alien invasion.

In closing, I will agree with Krugman that there’s too much “zombie” economics in Washington. But I’ll let readers decide who’s guilty of mindlessly staggering in the wrong direction.

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I think it’s a mistake to bail out profligate governments, and I have the same skeptical attitude about bailouts for mismanaged banks and inefficient car companies.

Simply stated, bailouts reward past bad behavior and make future bad behavior more likely (what economists call moral hazard).

But some folks think government was right to put taxpayers on the hook for the sloppy decisions of private companies. Here’s the key passage in USA Today’s editorial on bailouts.

Put simply, the bailouts worked. True, in some cases the government did not do a very good job with the details, and taxpayers are out $142 billion in connection with the non-TARP takeovers of housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But it’s time for the economic purists and the Washington cynics to admit that government can occasionally do something positive, at least when faced with a terrifying crisis.

Well, I guess I’m one of those “economic purists” and “Washington cynics,” so I’m still holding firm to the position that the bailouts were a mistake. In my “opposing view” column, I argue that the auto bailout sets a very bad precedent.

Unfortunately, the bailout craze in the United States is a worrisome sign cronyism is taking root. In the GM/Chrysler bailout, Washington intervened in the bankruptcy process and arbitrarily tilted the playing field to help politically powerful creditors at the expense of others. …This precedent makes it more difficult to feel confident that the rule of law will be respected in the future when companies get in trouble. It also means investors will be less willing to put money into weak firms. That’s not good for workers, and not good for the economy.

If I had more space (the limit was about 350 words), I also would have dismissed the silly assertion that the auto bailout was a success. Yes, GM and Chrysler are still in business, but the worst business in the world can be kept alive with sufficiently large transfusions of taxpayer funds.

And we’re not talking small amounts. The direct cost to taxpayers presently is about $25 billion, though I noted as a postscript in this otherwise humorous post that experts like John Ransom have shown the total cost is far higher.

And here’s what I wrote about the financial sector bailouts.

The pro-bailout crowd argues that lawmakers had no choice. We had to recapitalize the financial system, they argued, to avoid another Great Depression. This is nonsense. The federal government could have used what’s known as “FDIC resolution” to take over insolvent institutions while protecting retail customers. Yes, taxpayer money still would have been involved, but shareholders, bondholders and top executives would have taken bigger losses. These relatively rich groups of people are precisely the ones who should burn their fingers when they touch hot stoves. Capitalism without bankruptcy, after all, is like religion without hell. And that’s what we got with TARP. Private profits and socialized losses are no way to operate a prosperous economy.

The part about “FDIC resolution” is critical. I’ve explained, both in a post criticizing Dick Cheney and in another post praising Paul Volcker, that policymakers didn’t face a choice of TARP vs nothing. They could have chosen the quick and simple option of giving the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation additional authority to put insolvent banks into something akin to receivership.

Indeed, I explained in an online debate for U.S. News & World Report that the FDIC did handle the bankruptcies of both IndyMac and WaMu. And they could have used the same process for every other poorly run financial institution.

But the politicians didn’t want that approach because their rich contributors would have lost money.

I have nothing against rich people, of course, but I want them to earn money honestly.

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I’ve explained on many occasions how the financial crisis was largely the result of government-imposed mistakes, and I’ve paid considerable attention to the role of easy money by the Federal Reserve and the perverse subsidies provided by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

But I’ve only once touched on the role of the Basel regulations on capital standards.

So I’m delighted that the invaluable Peter Wallison just authored a column in the Wall Street Journal, in which he explains how regulators created systemic risk by replacing market forces with bureaucratic edicts.

Europe’s banks, like those in the U.S. and other developed countries, function under a global regulatory regime known as the Basel bank capital standards. …Among other things, the rules define how capital should be calculated and how much capital internationally active banks are required to hold. First decreed in 1988 and refined several times since then, the Basel rules require commercial banks to hold a specified amount of capital against certain kinds of assets. …Under these rules, banks and investment banks were required to hold 8% capital against corporate loans, 4% against mortgages and 1.6% against mortgage-backed securities. …financial institutions subject to the rules had substantially lower capital requirements for holding mortgage-backed securities than for holding corporate debt, even though we now know that the risks of MBS were greater, in some cases, than loans to companies. In other words, the U.S. financial crisis was made substantially worse because banks and other financial institutions were encouraged by the Basel rules to hold the very assets—mortgage-backed securities—that collapsed in value when the U.S. housing bubble deflated in 2007.

What’s amazing (or perhaps frustrating is a better word) is that the regulators didn’t learn from the financial crisis. They should have disbanded in shame, but instead they continued to impose bad rules on the world.

And now we find their fingerprints all over the sovereign debt crisis. Here’s more of Peter’s column.

Today’s European crisis illustrates the problem even more dramatically. Under the Basel rules, sovereign debt—even the debt of countries with weak economies such as Greece and Italy—is accorded a zero risk-weight. Holding sovereign debt provides banks with interest-earning investments that do not require them to raise any additional capital. Accordingly, when banks in Europe and elsewhere were pressured by supervisors to raise their capital positions, many chose to sell other assets and increase their commitments to sovereign debt, especially the debt of weak governments offering high yields. …In the U.S. and Europe, governments and bank supervisors are reluctant to acknowledge that their political decisions—such as mandating a zero risk-weight for all sovereign debt, or favoring mortgages and mortgage-backed securities over corporate debt—have created the conditions for common shocks.

This is not to excuse the reckless behavior of national politicians. It is their destructive spending policies that are leading both the United States and Europe in a race to fiscal collapse.

But banks wouldn’t be quite as likely to finance that wasteful spending if regulators didn’t put their thumbs on the scale.

It’s almost enough to make you think that regulation is a costly burden that hurts the economy.

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Remember my post from a week ago when I said I was not a Republican even though Ronald Reagan and Calvin Coolidge are two of my heroes?

Well, now I have another reason to despise the GOP. Those reprehensible statists just voted to expand federal housing subsidies.

Here are some excerpts from an excellent National Review column by Andrew McCarthy.

Almost two weeks ago, when they figured no one was watching, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, by an overwhelming 292–121 margin, voted to increase funding for the Federal Housing Administration. Just as government debt hit $15 trillion, edging closer to 100 percent of GDP, these self-proclaimed scourges of spending decided Uncle Sam should continue subsidizing mini-mansion mortgage loans — up to nearly three-quarters of a million dollars.  Given the straits that the mortgage crisis has left us in, to say nothing of the government’s central role in getting us there, one might think Republicans would be asking whether the government should be in the housing business at all. …the Republican House — installed by the Tea Party in a sea-change election to be the antidote to Obamanomics — decided the taxpayers should guarantee FHA loans up to $729,750. Had they not acted, the public obligation would have been reduced to “only” $625,500 per FHA loan — couldn’t have that, right? …thanks to GOP leadership’s good offices, this government mortgage guarantor now sports expanding portfolios, capital reserves acknowledged only in the breach, and the potential for hundreds of billions of dollars in losses. …If Republicans really thought the growth of government was unsustainable, they’d stop growing it.

I complained last month when 8 Republican senators voted to expand housing subsidies via Fannie and Freddie. Well, 17 GOP senators voted for destructive FHA subsidies, along with 133 Republican representatives.

So let’s recap. Everyone knows that government intervention caused the housing crisis, which is why Republicans should be voting to shut down the Department of Housing and Urban Development and enacting legislation to get government out of the housing sector.

But they decided instead that campaign loot from the corrupt housing lobbies was more important than doing the right thing.

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I have no idea whether George Santayana was a good philosopher, but he certainly was right when he wrote, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Consider the fools in the U.S. Senate. They just voted to expand Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies, apparently thinking that re-inflating the housing bubble would be a good idea when every sensible person thinks we should abolish these government-created entities.

Here are some blurbs from the Business Week story.

The U.S. Senate adopted a measure that would raise the maximum size of a home loan backed by mortgage companies Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration to $729,750. Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, offered the increase as an amendment to a spending bill today. The measure was approved less than a month after the limit on so-called conforming loans was automatically reduced to $625,500. …The Senate adopted the amendment 60-31. The amendment required 60 votes for approval and was offered during the chamber’s consideration of a package of spending measures. If the Senate passes the underlying bill, the House would then have to vote for it to become law. …The limits, which vary by locale, apply to loans backed by the FHA and government-controlled mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which together buy or guarantee about 90 percent of all residential home loans.

For what it’s worth, every Democrat voted for the measure, as well as these Republicans.

Blunt – Missouri

Brown – Massachusetts

Chambliss – Georgia

Graham – South Carolina

Heller – Nevada

Isakson – Georgia

Murkowski – Alaska

Snowe – Maine

Maybe these feckless and irresponsible jokers should spend a bit of time reading Peter Wallison’s work. And here’s a George Will column if they can’t comprehend anything longer than 800 words.

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Here’s a recent interview with Neil Cavuto about bailouts for Fannie Mae, one of the government-created entities used by Barney Frank, et al, to subsidize housing (and line the pockets of well-connected political insiders).

My main concern is not the bailouts, which surely are odious, but whether we can at least limit future damage by getting the government out of the business of misallocating capital and distorting markets.

When in a hole, put down the %*#(& shovel and stop digging!

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Welcome Instapundit readers. Here’s a related link if you want to get even more depressed about politicians digging the debt hole deeper.

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If you want to understand how government intervention screws up markets and damages an economy, there are two new publications worth reading. First, pick up a copy of Reckless Endangerment, a new book by Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times, and Joshua Rosner, an expert on housing finance.

I’ll confess I haven’t read the book, but it’s on my list based on two columns. Here’s some of what George Will wrote after giving it a read.

The book’s subtitle could be: “Cry ‘Compassion’ and Let Slip the Dogs of Cupidity.” Or: “How James Johnson and Others (Mostly Democrats) Made the Great Recession.” The book is another cautionary tale about government’s terrifying self-confidence. It is, the authors say, “a story of what happens when Washington decides, in its infinite wisdom, that every living, breathing citizen should own a home.” …“Reckless Endangerment” is a study of contemporary Washington, where showing “compassion” with other people’s money pays off in the currency of political power, and currency. Although Johnson left Fannie Mae years before his handiwork helped produce the 2008 bonfire of wealth, he may be more responsible for the debacle and its still-mounting devastations — of families, endowments, etc. — than any other individual. If so, he may be more culpable for the peacetime destruction of more wealth than any individual in history.

And here is some of what David Brooks wrote, in a column that focused on the sleazy insider corruption exposed by the book.

The Fannie Mae scandal has gotten relatively little media attention because many of the participants are still powerful, admired and well connected. But Gretchen Morgenson, a Times colleague, and the financial analyst Joshua Rosner have rectified that, writing “Reckless Endangerment,” a brave book that exposes the affair in clear and gripping form. The story centers around James Johnson, a Democratic sage with a raft of prestigious connections. …Morgenson and Rosner write with barely suppressed rage, as if great crimes are being committed. But there are no crimes. This is how Washington works. Only two of the characters in this tale come off as egregiously immoral. Johnson made $100 million while supposedly helping the poor. Representative Barney Frank, whose partner at the time worked for Fannie, was arrogantly dismissive when anybody raised doubts about the stability of the whole arrangement. …Johnson roped in some of the most respected establishment names: Bill Daley, Tom Donilan, Joseph Stiglitz, Dianne Feinstein, Kit Bond, Franklin Raines, Larry Summers, Robert Zoellick, Ken Starr and so on. Of course, it all came undone. Underneath, Fannie was a cancer that helped spread risky behavior and low standards across the housing industry. We all know what happened next. The scandal has sent the message that the leadership class is fundamentally self-dealing. Leaders on the center-right and center-left are always trying to create public-private partnerships to spark socially productive activity. But the biggest public-private partnership to date led to shameless self-enrichment and disastrous results.

Not surprisingly, politicians have not addressed the problem, even with the benefit of hindsight. The Dodd-Frank bailout bill, which was supposed to address the problems of the housing crisis/financial crisis, left Fannie and Freddie untouched. The two government-created entities are on life support after their bailouts (speaking of which, here’s a funny cartoon), so this would have been the right moment to drive a stake through their hearts. One can only wonder what damage they will do in the future.

But government intervention in housing is not limited to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. A new report from Pew looks at the panoply of tax preferences for the industry, and analyzes the impact on overall economic performance. There are parts of the report I don’t like, such as the term “subsidies,” which implies that tax distortions are a form of government spending, but I fully agree that tax preferences harm the economy by causing capital to be misallocated.

Investment in owner-occupied housing faces an effective marginal tax rate of just 3.5 percent. In contrast, investment in the business sector faces an effective tax rate of 25.5 percent. This leads to a tax-induced bias for capital to flow into housing-related uses rather than other types of projects. As a result, businesses are less likely to purchase new equipment and less likely to incorporate new technologies than otherwise might be the case. Less business investment results in lower worker productivity and ultimately lower real wages and living standards. While the housing sector provides employment and has other positive effects on the overall economy and on society, the resources employed in the housing sector displace investment that would otherwise occur in the business sector were it not for the favored tax treatment of housing. The resulting distortion in the allocation of capital likely lowers overall output, because resources are allocated based on tax considerations rather than economic merit. In effect, the United States has chosen as a society to live in larger, debt-financed homes while accepting a lower standard of living in other regards.

The moral of the story is that if more government is the answer, someone has asked a very stupid question.

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Here are two superb articles on the financial crisis.

First, from Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute, we have a piece on the role of government housing subsidies. Since he warned, in advance, that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were ticking time bombs, Peter has great credibility on these issues. Here is his key argument, but read the article to see how bad government policy lured people into making dumb choices.

…the financial crisis would not have occurred if government housing policies had not fostered the creation of an unprecedented number of subprime and otherwise risky loans immediately before the financial crisis began.

Second, there’s an article from Roger Lowenstein at Bloomberg that examines why so few Wall Street bigwigs were prosecuted. Here’s his basic premise, but read the entire article to learn how Wall Street executives may have been greedy SOBs, but that’s true when they make money or lose money. What matters, from a legal perspective, is whether someone committed fraud, theft, or some other crime.

…these sentiments imply that the financial crisis was caused by fraud; that people who take big risks should be subject to a criminal investigation; that executives of large financial firms should be criminal suspects after a crash; that public revulsion indicates likely culpability; that it is inconceivable (to Madoff, anyway) that people could lose so much money absent a conspiracy; and that Wall Street bears collective guilt for which a large part of it should be incarcerated. These assumptions do violence to our system of justice and hinder our understanding of the crisis. The claim that it was “caused by financial fraud” is debatable, but the weight of the evidence is strongly against it.

The only thing I will add is that failure is an integral part of a free market system. When critics say that the financial crisis proves that markets don’t work, they obviously don’t understand that capitalism is a process that continuously provides feedback in the form of profits and losses.

So the fact the people and businesses sometimes lose money is to be expected (indeed, capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell). From a public policy perspective, though, it’s important that people are not encouraged to make dumb decisions with government subsidies – or shielded from the consequences of those poor choices with bailouts.

And that’s why government intervention deserves the overwhelming share of the blame for the financial crisis.

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The President garnered some attention for his January 18 column in the Wall Street Journal, in which he said we need to control the regulatory burden.

Let’s start with the insincere part. He praised capitalism.

America’s free market has not only been the source of dazzling ideas and path-breaking products, it has also been the greatest force for prosperity the world has ever known. That vibrant entrepreneurialism is the key to our continued global leadership and the success of our people.

I’m not really sure how to analyze this passage. Let’s just say it is akin to George W. Bush talking about the need for small government and fiscal responsibility.

Obama then talks about the need for balance, saying that regulations sometimes are too onerous, but then he gets to the inaccurate part.

…we have failed to meet our basic responsibility to protect the public interest, leading to disastrous consequences. Such was the case in the run-up to the financial crisis from which we are still recovering. There, a lack of proper oversight and transparency nearly led to the collapse of the financial markets and a full-scale Depression.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this statement. A part of the government, the Federal Reserve, creates far too much liquidity with an easy-money policy. Other government-created entities, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, then create enormous subsidies for bad housing loans. These combined policies lead to a bubble that bursts, and Obama wants us to believe it was a problem of inadequate regulation?!? For those who are interested, here’s a good article from the American Enterprise Institute explaining how government caused the financial crisis.

Now let’s get to the hypocritical part, where the President issues a new executive order, asserting we need to balance costs and benefits.

As the executive order I am signing makes clear, we are seeking more affordable, less intrusive means to achieve the same ends—giving careful consideration to benefits and costs. This means writing rules with more input from experts, businesses and ordinary citizens. It means using disclosure as a tool to inform consumers of their choices, rather than restricting those choices.

I suppose we should give the President credit for chutzpah. Less than one month ago, his Administration proposes an IRS interest-reporting regulation that, in a best-case scenario, will drive tens of billions of dollars out of the U.S. economy. That regulation does not even pretend there are any offsetting benefits, yet Obama says his Administration will be diligent in applying cost-benefit analysis. This is sort of like a kid murdering his parents and then asking a court for mercy because he’s an orphan.

But that example is just the tip of the iceberg. Diana Furchtgott-Roth has a column for Realclearmarkets, where she dings the President for absurd regulations dealing with everything from gender quotes in the Dodd-Fran bailout bill to offshore drilling regulations that have thrown tens of thousands into unemployment lines.

And David Harsanyi, writing in the Denver Post, nails the White House for several examples of regulatory excess, including the EPA’s power grab, the FCC’s unilateral attempt to regulate the Internet, and the nightmarish rules that will be required for government-run healthcare.

Right now the EPA is drafting carbon rules to force on states, even though a similarly torturous 2,000 pages on a cap-and-trade scheme intending to make power more expensive was rejected. Maybe there’s something in that pile of paper to mine? Right now, the FCC is shoving net neutrality in the pipeline — again, bypassing Congress — so government can regulate the Internet for the first time in history, though the commissioners themselves admit that, as of now, any need for rules are based on the what-ifs of their imaginations. There exists no legislation more burdensome and expensive than the “job-crushing” (not “job-killing,” because, naturally, we can’t stand for that kind of imagery) “Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act,” formerly known as Obamacare and presently being symbolically repealed by House Republicans.

Obama’s insincerity, inaccuracy, and hypocrisy are unfortunate. The burden of regulation is now estimated to be about $1.75 trillion. Counterproductive red tape is hidden form of taxation that impedes the economy’s performance, and that means less prosperity for America.

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This cartoon is not new, but it succinctly captures what happened with that part of the TARP bailout. The only thing missing is some way of showing the government officials and political insiders who received undeserved wealth while the Fannie-Freddie scam was operating.

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In the “Five Things About Me” section of the blog, I included this blurb:

A left-wing newspaper in the U.K. wrote that I’m “a high priest of light tax, small state libertarianism.” I assume they meant it as an insult, but it’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about me.

I now have something new to add to that list. In their new book, Give Us Liberty, Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe noted that I was one of the few people in Washington who was against TARP from the beginning. I’m proud that I never wavered in my support for small government and free markets, and I’m proud to work at the Cato Institute, where there is never pressure to do the wrong thing merely to appease Republicans. So this passage from their book partially offsets the horror of yesterday’s football game.  

The day after Paulson released his sweeping plan, FreedomWorks quickly connected with other free market groups to assess their willingness to fight. It was a surprisingly small group. But a principled few stepped up, notably Andrew Moylan of the National Taxpayers Union. The Club for Growth and the Competitive Enterprise Institute also weighed in, and Dan Mitchell at Cato and the folks at Reason.com offered much needed policy support. The groups joined forces with a few free market Capitol Hill staffers who were also feeling remarkably isolated in their efforts to stop the massive government bailout.

For those who are not familiar with the debate, the TARP bailout was a failure, both in terms of what it did and what it didn’t do. Regarding the former, TARP gave blank-check authority to the Treasury Department, resulting in an unsavory combination of sordid special-interest handouts and economically-destructive misallocation of capital. The politicians and Wall Street moochers said TARP was necessary to recapitalize the financial system, but that easily could have been accomplished by doing something similar to what happened during the S&L crisis 20 years ago – shutting down insolvent firms and compensating (if necessary) creditors, depositors, and other retail customers. The real tragedy, however, is that politicians failed to fix the policies that caused the crisis – the corrupt system of housing subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the reckless easy-money policy of the Federal Reserve. The lesson we should learn is that government intervention and subsidies have very high costs.

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Considering they could have sat on their hands and relied on unhappy voters to give them big gains in November, I’m not too unhappy about the House GOP’s “Pledge to America.” Yes, it’s mostly filled with inoffensive motherhood-and-apple-pie language, but at least there’s some rhetoric about reining in excessive government. After eight years of fiscal profligacy under Bush, maybe this is a small sign that Republicans won’t screw up again if they wind up back in power. That being said, I was a bit disappointed that the GOP couldn’t even muster the courage to shut down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two corrupt government-created entities that bear so much responsibility for the housing mess and subsequent financial crisis. The best the GOP could do was to say “Since taking over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage companies that triggered the financial meltdown by giving too many high risk loans to people who couldn’t afford them, taxpayers were billed more than $145 billion to save the two companies. We will reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by ending their government takeover, shrinking their portfolios, and establishing minimum capital standards.” Is it really asking too much for Republicans to simply say “The federal government has no role in housing and Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development should be eliminated.” Heck, the GOP’s Pledge doesn’t even mention a penny’s worth of budget cuts for HUD. Here’s an excerpt from Peter Wallison’s Bloomberg column, which explains why Fannie and Freddie should be decapitated.

In a year when angry voters are demanding a reduced government role in the economy, it is remarkable that most of the ideas for supplanting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are just imaginative ways of keeping government in the business of housing finance. …This is pretty astonishing. One would think that something might have been learned from the recent past, when two New Deal ideas for government housing support–the savings and loan industry and the government sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac–failed spectacularly. It cost taxpayers $150 billion to clean up the first and may cost more than $400 billion to resolve the second. …government policy that deliberately degrades loan quality or creates moral hazard will eventually cause devastation in the housing market. …Government involvement in housing finance is an invitation to disaster. As illustrated by the S&Ls and GSEs, no matter how such a system is structured, government support will hide the real risks.

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George Melloan’s column in the Wall Street Journal discusses the new Basel capital standards and correctly observes that 22 years of global banking regulations have not generated good results. This is not because requiring reserves is a bad thing, but rather because such policies do nothing to fix the real problem. In the case of the United States, easy money policy by the Fed and a corrupt system of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac subsidies caused the housing bubble and resulting financial crisis. Yet these problems have not been addressed, either in the Dodd-Frank bailout bill or the new Basel rules. Indeed, Melloan points out that Fannie and Freddie were exempted from the Dood-Frank legislation.

There’s something to be said for holding banks to higher capital standards, even at the cost of more constrained lending and slower economic growth. But the much-bruited idea that Basel rules will make the world freer of financial crises is highly doubtful, given current political circumstances. The 2008 financial meltdown was not primarily the result of lax regulation but of co-option and abuse of the U.S. financial system by the political class in Washington. The federal government’s “affordable housing” endeavors, beginning in the 1990s, allowed and even forced banks to make highly risky mortgage loans. Those loans were folded into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) sold in vast numbers throughout the world, most promiscuously by two government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Federal Reserve contributed a credit bubble that caused house prices to soar, a classic asset inflation. When the bubble began to deflate in 2007, the bad loans in mortgage securities became poisonous. The MBS market seized up, and financial institutions holding them became illiquid and began to crash. The Lehman Brothers collapse was the biggest shock. The only way Basel standards might have helped prevent this would have been if they had been applied to Fannie and Freddie as well as to banks. They weren’t. President Bill Clinton exempted the two giants from Basel capitalization rules because they were the primary instruments of a federal policy aimed at helping more lower-income people become homeowners. This was a laudable goal that ultimately wrecked the housing and banking industries. Washington has learned nothing from this debacle, which is why the next financial crisis is likely to have federal policy origins and may come sooner than we think. Fannie and Freddie—now fully controlled by Uncle Sam and exempt from the Dodd-Frank financial “reform” legislation—are still going strong, guaranteeing and restructuring loans while they continue to rack up huge losses for taxpayers. …The record since the Basel process began 22 years ago doesn’t generate faith in banking regulation either. Basel rules didn’t prevent the collapse of Japanese banking in 1990, they didn’t prevent the 2008 meltdown, and they are not preventing the banking failures that plague the financial system even today.

P.S. The bureaucrats and regulators who put together the Basel capital standards were the ones who decided that mortgage-backed securities were very safe assets and required less capital. That was a common assumption at the time, so the point is not that the Basel folks are particularly incompetent, but rather that regulation is a very poor substitute for market discipline. Letting financial firms go bankrupt instead of bailing them out would be a far better way of encouraging prudence.

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The Free Market Mojo site asked me a number of interesting questions about public policy. I’m not sure all of my answers were interesting, but here are some snippets that capture my curmudgeonly outlook.

I think it’s important to divide the topic into two issues, the policies that cause short-run fluctuations and the policies that impact long-run growth. Generally speaking, I try to avoid guessing games about what is happening today and tomorrow (or even yesterday), and instead focus on the policies that will boost the economy’s underlying productive capacity. …the Fed’s easy-money policy was a mistake. If the central bank had behaved appropriately, we presumably would not have suffered a financial crisis and recession. And if we go back in history, we find the Fed’s fingerprints whenever there is an economic meltdown. …I would not want the government to impose a gold standard. Competitive markets should determine the form of money and/or what backs up that money. Perhaps gold would emerge in such a competitive system, but a gold standard should not be imposed. …I don’t trust politicians. They would pass a bill to impose a VAT while simultaneously phasing out the income tax over a five-year period. But inevitably there would be some sort of “emergency” in year three and the income tax would be “temporarily” extended. When the dust settled, temporary would become permanent and we would be a decrepit European-style welfare state. …There are many great economists, but for my line of work, Milton Friedman has to be at the top of the list. He had an incredible ability to explain the benefits of liberty and the costs of statism in a way that reached average people.

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For those who favor truth in labeling, the housing meltdown and related financial crisis and economic downturn should be brightly stamped with the phrase, “Made in Washington.” Here are two good pieces of evidence. First, this paper from the American Enterprise Institute is one of the best big-picture analyses on the issue. It identifies how “affordable lending” policies are at the heart of the problem. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract.

Government policies forced a systematic industry-wide loosening of underwriting standards in an effort to promote affordable housing. This paper documents how policies over a period of decades were responsible for causing a material increase in homeowner leverage through the use of low or no down payments, increased debt ratios, no loan amortization, low credit scores and other weakened underwriting standards associated with NTMs. These policies were legislated by Congress, promoted by HUD and other regulators responsible for their enforcement, and broadly adopted by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the GSEs) and the much of the rest mortgage finance industry by the early 2000s. Federal policies also promoted the growth of overleveraged loan funding institutions, led by the GSEs, along with highly leveraged private mortgage backed securities and structured finance transactions. HUD’s policy of continually and disproportionately increasing the GSEs’ goals for low- and very-low income borrowers led to further loosening of lending standards causing most industry participants to reach further down the demand curve and originate even more NTMs. As prices rose at a faster pace, an affordability gap developed, leading to further increases in leverage and home prices. Once the price boom slowed, loan defaults on NTMs quickly increased leading to a freeze-up of the private MBS market. A broad collapse of home prices followed.

Then, to show a good example of Mitchell’s Law, which is how bad government policy leads to more government policy, here’s a story about the fiasco surrounding President Obama’s mortgage subsidy program. The government is so bloody incompetent, it can’t even give away money effectively.

Nearly half of the 1.3 million homeowners who enrolled in the Obama administration’s flagship mortgage-relief program have fallen out. The program is intended to help those at risk of foreclosure by lowering their monthly mortgage payments. Friday’s report from the Treasury Department suggests the $75 billion government effort is failing to slow the tide of foreclosures in the United States, economists say. More than 2.3 million homes have been repossessed by lenders since the recession began in December 2007, according to foreclosure listing service RealtyTrac Inc. Economists expect the number of foreclosures to grow well into next year. “The government program as currently structured is petering out. It is taking in fewer homeowners, more are dropping out and fewer people are ending up in permanent modifications,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. …Many borrowers have complained that the government program is a bureaucratic nightmare. They say banks often lose their documents and then claim borrowers did not send back the necessary paperwork. The banking industry said borrowers weren’t sending back their paperwork. They also have accused the Obama administration of initially pressuring them to sign up borrowers without insisting first on proof of their income. When banks later moved to collect the information, many troubled homeowners were disqualified or dropped out. Obama officials dispute that they pressured banks. They have defended the program, saying lenders are making more significant cuts to borrowers’ monthly payments than before the program was launched. And some of the largest mortgage companies in the program have offered alternative programs to those who fell out.

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I appeared on CNBC earlier today to explain why a stake should be driven through the heart of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. My debate opponents seems to be somewhat on the right side and admits that Fannie and Freddie are bad news, but inexplicably wants to keep them alive.

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Appearing on Fox Business News, I summarize the many reasons why the Bush-Paulson-Obama-Geithner TARP bailout was – and still is – bad policy.

I’m sure I have plenty of flaws, but at least I am philosophically consistent. Here’s what I said about the issue more than 18 months ago. The core message is the same (though I also notice I have a bad habit of starting too many sentences with “well”).

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John Stossel appropriately scolds the former Federal Reserve Chairman for blaming the financial crisis on the free market. I’ll go one step farther and say that Greenspan’s behavior is a reprehensible example of someone lacking the cojones to take responsibility for his mistakes. Greenspan is surely not responsible for the corrupt system of subsidies from the government-created nightmares known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but he definitely deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the Fed’s easy-money policy of artificially-low interest rates. Greenspan presumably knows he screwed up, which makes his attack on free markets especially despicable. The icing on the cake is that he’s also sucking up to the political establishment by endorsing higher taxes. Hasn’t he already done enough damage?

I’m getting tired of Alan Greenspan. First, the former Federal Reserve chairman blamed an allegedly unregulated free market for the housing and financial debacle. Now he favors repealing the Bush-era tax cuts. …During a congressional hearing two years ago, Greenspan shocked me by blaming the free market — not Fed and housing policies — for the financial collapse. As The New York Times gleefully reported, “(A) humbled Mr. Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets.” He said he favored regulation of big banks, as if the banking industry weren’t already a heavily regulated cartel run for the benefit of bankers. Bush-era deregulation is a myth perpetrated by those who would have government control the economy. We libertarians were distressed by Greenspan’s apparent abandonment of his free-market philosophy and his neglect of the government’s decisive role in the crisis. …now Greenspan, going beyond what even President Obama favors, calls on Congress to let the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts expire — not just for upper-income people but for everyone. …the stupidest thing said about tax cuts is the often-repeated claim that “they ought to be paid for.” How absurd! Tax cuts merely let people keep money they rightfully own. It’s government programs, not tax cuts, that must be paid for. The tax-hungry politicians’ demand that cuts be “paid for” implies the federal budget isn’t $3 trillion, but $15 trillion — the whole GDP — with anything mercifully left in our pockets being some form of government spending. How monstrous!

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The Wall Street Journal opines about the number of new regulations that will be generated by the so-called financial reform legislation that has been approved by Congress. The big winners will by lawyers, the federal bureaucracy, and politicians. The big losers will be shareholders and consumers.
The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill passed by the Senate yesterday promises to generate historic levels of red tape. But apparently the 2,300 pages are so complicated that a debate has broken out over precisely how many new regulatory rule-makings it will require. This week we reported on an analysis by the Davis Polk & Wardwell law firm that at least 243 new federal rule-makings are on the way, not to mention 67 one-time studies and another 22 new periodic reports. The attorneys were careful to note that this was a low-ball estimate, counting only new regulations mandated by the bill. Now comes Tom Quaadman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who doesn’t quarrel with the Davis Polk estimate but has added rule-makings authorized by this legislation to those that are mandated and says that American businesses should expect a whopping 533 new sets of rules. To put this number in perspective, Sarbanes-Oxley, Washington’s last exercise in financial regulatory overreach, demanded only 16 new regulations. Thus he reasons that Dodd-Frank “is over 30 times the size of SOX.” …While it might seem that the regulatory uncertainty created by the bill won’t last much longer than a decade as new rules are implemented, that also could be optimistic. When regulators are granted new authorities without expiration dates on their powers, the rule-making possibilities are infinite. …The most likely result of Dodd-Frank in the near term is a generally higher cost of credit, and a bigger market share for the largest banks that can more easily absorb the new regulatory costs. In the longer term, do not expect it to prevent the next financial mania and panic.

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Russ Roberts of George Mason University has written a very good article for the Mercatus Center explaining – for economists and non-economists – how government intervention created distortions in the housing and finance sectors. He also blames Wall Street, paticularly for lobbying for the policies that caused the distortions and led to the financial crisis. Here’s an excerpt from the executive summary:

Some blame capitalism for being inherently unstable. Some blame Wall Street for its greed, hubris, and stupidity. But greed, hubris, and stupidity are always with us. What changed in recent years that created such a destructive set of decisions that culminated in the collapse of the housing market and the financial system? …public-policy decisions have perverted the incentives that naturally create stability in financial markets and the market for housing. Over the last three decades, government policy has coddled creditors, reducing the risk they face from financing bad investments. Not surprisingly, this encouraged risky investments financed by borrowed money. The increasing use of debt mixed with housing policy, monetary policy, and tax policy crippled the housing market and the financial sector. Wall Street is not blameless in this debacle. It lobbied for the policy decisions that created the mess. In the United States we like to believe we are a capitalist society based on individual responsibility. But we are what we do. Not what we say we are. Not what we wish to be. But what we do. And what we do in the United States is make it easy to gamble with other people’s money—particularly borrowed money—by making sure that almost everybody who makes bad loans gets his money back anyway. The financial crisis of 2008 was a natural result of these perverse incentives. We must return to the natural incentives of profit and loss if we want to prevent future crises.

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For a change of pace, I get to debate a leftist other than Christian Weller. As always, feedback would be appreciated. What parts of the interview went well? What opportunities did I miss?

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Kudos to Nicki Kurokawa, a former Cato employee, for this short but substantive video explaining “moral hazard.” She notes that government-subsidized risk played a pernicious role in the housing bubble and financial crisis, and warns that “too big to fail” may create similar problems in the future.

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The Wall Street Journal has more details about the sordid redistribution of our money to the insiders at Fannie Mae and Freddie mac:

…there’s still some ugly 2009 business to report: To wit, the Treasury’s Christmas Eve taxpayer massacre lifting the $400 billion cap on potential losses for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as the limits on what the failed companies can borrow. The Treasury is hoping no one notices, and no wonder. Taxpayers are continuing to buy senior preferred stock in the two firms to cover their growing losses—a combined $111 billion so far. When Treasury first bailed them out in September 2008, Congress put a $200 billion limit ($100 billion each) on federal assistance. Last year, the Treasury raised the potential commitment to $400 billion. Now the limit on taxpayer exposure is, well, who knows? …The loss cap is being lifted because the government has directed both companies to pursue money-losing strategies by modifying mortgages to prevent foreclosures. Most of their losses are still coming from subprime and Alt-A mortgage bets made during the boom, but Fannie reported last quarter that loan modifications resulted in $7.7 billion in losses, up from $2.2 billion the previous quarter. The government wants taxpayers to think that these are profit-seeking companies being nursed back to health, like AIG. But at least AIG is trying to make money. Fan and Fred are now designed to lose money, transferring wealth from renters and homeowners to overextended borrowers. Even better for the political class, much of this is being done off the government books. The White House budget office still doesn’t fully account for Fannie and Freddie’s spending as federal outlays, though Washington controls the companies. Nor does it include as part of the national debt the $5 trillion in mortgages—half the market—that the companies either own or guarantee. …This subterfuge also explains the Christmas Eve timing. After December 31, Team Obama would have needed the consent of Congress to raise the taxpayer exposure beyond $400 billion. By law, negative net worth at the companies forces them into “receivership,” which means they have to be wound down. Unlimited bailouts will now allow the Treasury to keep them in conservatorship, which means they can help to conserve the Democratic majority in Congress by increasing their role in housing finance. …All of which would seem to make the CEOs of Fannie and Freddie the world’s most overpaid bureaucrats. A release from the Federal Housing Finance Agency that also fell in the Christmas Eve forest reports that, after presiding over a combined $24 billion in losses last quarter, Fannie CEO Michael Williams and Freddie boss Ed Haldeman are getting substantial raises. Each is now eligible for up to $6 million annually. Freddie also has one of the world’s highest-paid human resources executives. Paul George’s total compensation can run up to $2.7 million. It must require a rare set of skills to spot executives capable of losing billions of dollars. Where is Treasury’s pay czar when we actually need him? You guessed it, Fannie and Freddie are exempt from the rules applied to the TARP banks.

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