Lowenstein's No Free Bubble
July 27, 2008
The Way We Live Now
No Free Bubble
By ROGER LOWENSTEIN
The short take on the economic crisis of the 1970s was that regulation failed. Price controls failed; high taxes failed; regulation was outmoded.
The mortgage and banking crisis of 2008 feels diametrically different. What failed this time were markets. The lenders who were supposed to regulate mortgage borrowing — and the credit-rating firms who monitored them — failed utterly. The investors whose job it was to monitor the capital of financial institutions were asleep at the switch.
It is not really that simple, because investors were encouraged by the creeping government doctrine of “too big to fail.” But if, after the ’70s, the solutions in one way or another were about opening industry to the fresh breath of markets, today the remedies issue from Washington. It is quite possible that the great experiment in laissez-faire has, for this generation, run its course.
The Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury have lately widened the federal safety net more quickly and more aggressively than at any time since the New Deal era. Indeed, a recent front-page headline in this newspaper, “Confidence Ebbs for Bank Sector and Stocks Fall,” had distinctly Depression overtones. (You could almost envision the next line: “Hoover Urges Calm.”) And not since the Depression (under the Reconstruction Finance Corporation) has the government bought significant equity in private firms, as the Treasury has sought the authority to do in the case of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. At least during the 1930s, legislation followed months of deliberation and public hearings. The proffered fixes to today’s fast-moving crises are worked out hastily and in private.
At a visceral level, it is deeply upsetting when institutions that once reaped fabulous profits (a goodly share of which were snared by their executives) are granted the protection of Uncle Sam. Robert Rodriguez, the C.E.O. of First Pacific Advisors (which has a fund I’m invested in), confessed to a “sickening” feeling at the news that the Treasury might guarantee the debts of Fannie and Freddie. Rodriguez was one of the few fixed-income investors who, having noticed the bloated balance sheets of the mortgage giants, refused to buy their debt securities. Ordinarily, less prudent investors would have suffered a loss; instead, any pain will be borne by the taxpayers.
More troubling than the unfairness is the potential that the solutions will exacerbate moral hazard: that people who feel inoculated will run greater risks. As Rodriguez observed: “Nobody wants to take the pain for excesses. Each time the problem gets bigger.”
The entire U.S. policy of promoting homeownership, which during the boom raised the ownership rate from 64 percent to 69 percent, now looks to be a case study in unintended consequences. Encourage more housing than markets will support and you get — voilà! — mortgages that fail. Fannie and Freddie were among the chief implements of the policy. Though judged by Standard & Poor’s to be only a Double A-minus credit, they were able, thanks to the widely held belief (since validated) that the United States would not allow them to fail, to borrow at lower than Triple A rates.
As the balance sheets of the agencies swelled, they grabbed the profit margin that traditionally went to savings and loans. The thrifts complained, but they were no match for Fannie and Freddie’s well-heeled lobbyists. And so housing was increasingly financed by lenders insensitive to market risk.
Recently, as mortgage companies began to fail, the U.S. encouraged Fannie and Freddie (which already owned or guaranteed $5 trillion in mortgages) to buy still more mortgages. This aggravated the problem. Since the agencies’ capital was inadequate, they should have been reducing risk.
In a similar vein, federal regulators seized IndyMac, a Pasadena bank whose depositors had crowded the door demanding their money and which became the second-biggest bank failure ever. The head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation immediately announced that IndyMac would stop foreclosing on mortgages. No doubt this was pleasing to California homeowners, as well as to the 55 congressmen and senators who represent them (and who help to oversee the F.D.I.C.). But it amounted to yet another giant socialization of risk and to a dubious precedent.
What if politically mindful regulators now lean on Freddie and Fannie to halt foreclosures? Exactly which losses are immunized and, just as important, who gets to decide? Similar questions have been raised by the Fed’s various actions to protect Bear Stearns and other investment banks and their collective creditors. In the space of several months, a wide swath of American finance has ceased to operate under normal rules.
Fixes are being introduced, and the next administration will very likely initiate its own reforms. The Fed has tightened mortgage rules; higher capital requirements are coming. Also, better accounting and disclosure rules would help investors to understand the often-complex assets that banks own.
But there is a difference between increasing transparency, with regard to risk-taking, and underwriting losses. The government should get out of the business of assuming risk — which hinders markets in a function they can handle better. With investors conditioned to look for rescues, it will not be easy to get the genie back in the bottle. A good first step would be to draw a bright line between Fannie and Freddie’s outstanding obligations, which total $1.5 trillion, and the borrowings they undertake in the future as their current paper matures. Their current debt is presumably socialized. But if the Treasury were to announce that new obligations were not protected, markets would gradually force the beleaguered twins to both raise more capital and shrink their asset bases. The U.S. might even consider splintering the companies, AT&T style, into pieces. The goal should be to ensure not that they never fail, but that for Fannie and Freddie and for other institutions, failure reacquires its proper status in a capitalist society: that of a tolerable event.