Wikinvest Wire

Blame Lyndon Johnson for GSE woes

Monday, July 21, 2008

James Surowiecki writes in the New Yorker about the duck-billed platypuses otherwise known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac noting a Johnson-era accounting change that was instrumental in creating the mess that exists today.

The G.S.E.s are curious, because there’s no obvious reason for them to exist in the form they do: instead of creating private companies to do all these jobs, the government could just do them itself. In fact, that’s how Fannie Mae got started, back in 1938: originally, it was a government agency endowed with the authority to buy mortgages, in the hope that this would expand the supply of credit to homeowners. It wasn’t until 1968 that Fannie was privatized. (Freddie Mac was created two years later, and was private from the start.) The main reason for the change was surprisingly mundane: accounting. At the time, Lyndon Johnson was concerned about the effect of the Vietnam War on the federal budget. Making Fannie Mae private moved its liabilities off the government’s books, even if, as the recent crisis made clear, the U.S. was still responsible for those debts. It was a bit like what Enron did thirty years later, when it used “special-purpose entities” to move liabilities off its balance sheet.
Do we need Fannie and Freddie at all? Their supposed reason for being is that their ability to borrow money at low rates lowers borrowing costs for homeowners. But a paper by the economist Wayne Passmore, of the Federal Reserve, suggests that in fact Fannie and Freddie have only a small effect on the interest rates that homeowners pay, saving them less than one-tenth of a percentage point. More important, if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that homeownership is not an unalloyed economic good, and that we should be cautious about using gimmicks to make it more attractive. The government already offers homeowners a subsidy, in the form of a mortgage tax break. Given everything else we could be spending taxpayer money on, does the government really need to be in the mortgage-buying business, too?
They do now...

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Anonymous said...

I thought James Grant's comments over the weekend were pretty insightful--populists got want they wanted.

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