Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac

Excerpt from Krugman, Paul. 2008. “Fannie, Freddie, and You.” New York Times, July 14.

In which Mr. Krugman explains that while “profits are privatized” and “losses are socialized” (the defining feature of American capitalism) in the federally-sponsored private mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, in this particular case, and by the fluke of good timing, the government actually briefly REGULATED these companies, reducing the threat of capitalist irresponsibility.

“The case against Fannie and Freddie begins with their peculiar status: although they’re private companies with stockholders and profits, they’re “government-sponsored enterprises” established by federal law, which means that they receive special privileges.

The most important of these privileges is implicit: it’s the belief of investors that if Fannie and Freddie are threatened with failure, the federal government will come to their rescue.

This implicit guarantee means that profits are privatized but losses are socialized. If Fannie and Freddie do well, their stockholders reap the benefits, but if things go badly, Washington picks up the tab. Heads they win, tails we lose.

Such one-way bets can encourage the taking of bad risks, because the downside is someone else’s problem. The classic example of how this can happen is the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s: S.& L. owners offered high interest rates to attract lots of federally insured deposits, then essentially gambled with the money. When many of their bets went bad, the feds ended up holding the bag. The eventual cleanup cost taxpayers more than $100 billion.

But here’s the thing: Fannie and Freddie had nothing to do with the explosion of high-risk lending a few years ago, an explosion that dwarfed the S.& L. fiasco. In fact, Fannie and Freddie, after growing rapidly in the 1990s, largely faded from the scene during the height of the housing bubble.

Partly that’s because regulators, responding to accounting scandals at the companies, placed temporary restraints on both Fannie and Freddie that curtailed their lending just as housing prices were really taking off. Also, they didn’t do any subprime lending, because they can’t: the definition of a subprime loan is precisely a loan that doesn’t meet the requirement, imposed by law, that Fannie and Freddie buy only mortgages issued to borrowers who made substantial down payments and carefully documented their income.”

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