Willem Buiter has a characteristically colorful post, “Time for comrade Paulson to pull the plug on the Fannie and Freddie charade” on the prospect of a Fannie and Freddie rescue. Why is it the British can fulminate better than we Americans do?
But Buiter’s beef isn’t the operation of the GSEs but the philosophy behind them, the hydra-headed and not fully visible ways the US has socialized real estate (did you know about the Farm Credit Banks, for instance?). He provided a good summary of the history and dramatis personae.
The whole post makes for great reading. Let me give some key extracts, which I wish I had written:
Are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac adequately capitalised, as asserted recently by US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke and their regulator Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight Director James B. Lockhart III? The answer is: obviously not, if these two government-sponsored enterprises of the US federal government had to make a living on normal private commercial terms. Obviously not if they were subject to the market discipline preached by Paulson and Bernanke, but not practiced when it comes to large financial institutions perceived as systemically important (too large or too interconnected to fail) or too politically sensitive to fail…..
There are many forms of socialism. The version practiced in the US is the most deceitful one I know. An honest, courageous socialist government would say: this is a worthwhile social purpose (financing home ownership, helping my friends on Wall Street); therefore I am going to subsidize it; and here are the additional taxes (or cuts in other public spending) to finance it.
Instead the dishonest, spineless socialist policy makers in successive Democratic and Republican admininstrations have systematically tried to hide both the subsidies and size and distribution of the incremental fiscal burden associated with the provision of these subsidies, behind an endless array of opaque arrangements and institutions. Off-balance-sheet vehicles and off-budget financing were the bread and butter of the US federal government long before they became popular in Wall Street and the City of London.
The abuse of the Fed as a quasi-fiscal agent of the federal government in the rescue of Bear Stearns is without precedent, and quite possibly without legal justification. The creation of the Delaware SPV that houses $30 billion worth of the most toxic waste from the Bear Stearns balance sheet (with only $1 billion of JP Morgan money standing between the tax payer and the likely losses on the $29 billion committed by the Fed to fund the SPV on a non-recourse basis) is the clearest example of quasi-fiscal obfuscation I have come across in an advanced industrial country. The decision by the Fed to ‘invite’ the primary dealers and their clearers to collude in the (over) pricing of illiquid collateral offered by the primary dealers to the Fed at the newly created TSLF and PDCF (by the Fed accepting the pricing/valuation by the clearers of the illiquid collateral) is another example of the abuse of the Fed as a vehicle for channeling taxpayer-financed subsidies to the primary dealers. This form of socialism for the rich is therefore well-established.
The chair of the Senate Banking Committee, Chris Dodd, has said the Fed and the Treasury were considering opening the Fed’s discount window to Fannie and Freddie. I am afraid he may be right. After all, an injection of the liquidity by the Fed is so much more politically expedient than an explicit fiscal subsidy, even though their economic effect is identical. This would not be a liquidity enhancement operation by the Fed, which would be a legitimate operation for the central bank to engage in. It would be a quasi-fiscal recapitalisation of two insolvent institutions, which is not part of the mandate of the Fed.
The financial assistance offered to US homeowners through the spagetti of federal financial inducements (ranging from the tax deductability of nominal interest payments to the subsidisation of mortgage financing provided by the FHA and the GSEs) is not primarily socialism for the rich. It is socialism for the electorally sensitive, rather like the agricultural welfare state that exists in the US.
So let’s call a spade a bloody shovel: nationalise Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. They should never have been privatised in the first place. Cost the exercise. Increase taxes or cut other public spending to finance the exercise. But stop pretending. Stop lying about the financial viability of institutions designed to hand out subsidies to favoured constituencies. These GSEs were designed to make losses. They are expected to make losses. If they don’t make losses they are not serving their political purpose.
So I call on Secretary Paulson, Chairman Bernanke and Director Lockhart to drop the market-friendly fig-leaf. Be a socialist and proud of it. Come out of the red closet. The Soviet Union may have collapsed, but the cause of socialism is alive and well in the USA. Granted, the US version of socialism is imperfect thus far. The federal authorities have mainly intervened to socialise the losses in the financial sector while allowing the profits to continue to be drained off into selected private pockets. But that is bound to be an oversight. It surely cannot be the intention of such committed Marxists to target taxpayer-funded largesse solely at the very rich and at a few favoured, electorally sensitive constituencies. Fannie and Freddie are, or will be, safe in the hands of comrades Paulson, Bernanke and Lockhart.