Privatization reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a hot topic on and off since their founding eight and five decades ago respectively, is heating up once again after more than a decade of temporary conservatorship. All past reform efforts have failed. What should we have learned?
- Private markets operate on one set of incentives and accountability, government on an entirely different set. Each has its problems and imperfect solutions.
- Private markets may inappropriately discriminate against qualified borrowers, for example, whereas public programs may fail to adequately discriminate.
- Public enterprises created to jump-start or complement private markets often miss the mark, with unintended consequences.
- Politicians much prefer to deliver subsidies through taxes (in this case tax exempt debt substituting for taxable equity) rather than expenditures – especially since the Budget Control Act of 1974 – and implicit off-budget credit guarantees that delay the reckoning.
- In spite of good intentions and design to get the best of both, privatized hybrid public-private systems inevitably embody the worst: public risk for private profit. Lacking both market and public discipline, they cause systemic failure that “nobody could have seen coming.”
- Political reform reflexively blames private market failure, doubling down on unaccountable and ineffective bureaucratic methods while providing opaque bailouts through greater tax and credit subsidies.
- Political reform starts with what is, not what should be, repeating the cycle.
U.S. secondary markets evolved entirely in response to anachronistic political forces. FHA was created in 1936 to stimulate new construction jobs subsequent to a huge housing construction boom. Fannie Mae was created two years later to prop up flagging demand for FHA mortgages. Ginnie Mae was created in 1968 to liquidate Fannie Mae after prior privatization attempts failed to reduce official government debt, but the residual $1 billion secondary market facility with minimal shares outstanding as a result of a mandatory user purchase program was instead privatized. When that entity turned down tax exempt pass-through securitization to circumvent the myriad laws and regulations preventing the development of a national securities market, Ginnie Mae stepped in. Rather than liquidate, the privatized Fannie turned to funding conventional mortgages for their mortgage banker clients. To protect their turf, portfolio lending savings and loans then demanded their own secondary market facility, Freddie Mac. It later privatized mainly to provide management incentives comparable to Fannie, particularly stock options.
They then morphed into massive public directed credit institutions, with profits from government subsidies privatized but otherwise lacking the benefits of market efficiency and discipline. About half of F&F subsidies were captured by shareholders, managers and politicians (my estimates), an invitation to affordable housing proponents to share in this booty. Several 2018 Democratic presidential candidates have proposed upping these goals.
U.S. mortgage markets were characterized by cut-throat competition decades before the advent of government sponsored enterprises (GSEs): the indiscriminant lending and private market securitization during the sub-prime lending bubble of 2004 to 2007 suggests that is still the case.
What the private market can’t deliver are the tax and credit subsidies – worth tens of billions annually – that result from federal backing to support fixed rate mortgage interest rate and affordable housing credit risks. Any re-privatized hybrid system that promises to mimic the market, e.g., by requiring that it actuarially price a government credit guarantee as the market oriented Milken Institute and others recommend and to impose market capital requirements and risk regulations directly conflicts with these goals and is doomed to failure. Regulatory restrictions will remain malleable because politics has and will continue to trump bureaucracy. Nor will the market discipline this regulated too-big-to-fail public mission duopoly, having correctly inferred an implicit guarantee in the past for the GSEs, disclosures, regulations and legislation notwithstanding.
There is a better “public/private” policy option to deliver these subsidies. Long term fixed rate FHA insured mortgage loans have since 1970 been funded almost exclusively with Ginnie Mae securities. Investors take the interest rate risk, HUD takes the credit risks and all ancillary functions are delegated to a competitive private marketplace. FHA, a government sponsored mutual insurance fund with de facto public backing since incorporated into and regulated by HUD insures each mortgage. The un-capitalized Ginnie Mae de jure security guarantee covers only timeliness of FHA payments, but de facto acts as a guarantor of FHA mortgage securities.
While FHA has failed actuarially – in part due to overly ambitious political goals and its focus on borrowers who may not have qualified for a conventional loan – bailouts have been opaque with minimal or no budget transfers, investor losses or market disruption. It survived the sub-prime lending debacle relatively unscathed. This system hasn’t failed systemically because it separates the private and public functions into different entities, minimizing public risk for private profit incentive conflicts.
A federal guarantor for conventional mortgage securities modeled after Ginnie Mae (something Ginnie Mae proposed in the late 1970s but I opposed on grounds that it would displace the private savings and loan system of the time) should replace F&F, with the existing infrastructure auctioned to the highest bidder .
Properly designed, a federal guarantor wouldn’t experience any loss except in catastrophic circumstances. The original Fannie Mae and particularly Freddie Mac secondary market system that left credit risk primarily with multiple state regulated private mortgage insurer’s (pmi’s), experienced negligible credit losses until the market collapse of 2008, after which F&F credit losses of about $300 billion were ten times total pmi industry losses, due to loss severity far exceeding insurance limits. A federal guarantor should be limited to pools of fixed rate mortgages with deeper pmi coverage to reduce exposure, and ideally partially re-insured with private mortgage pool insurers to further capitalize and diversify risk.
The tax and credit subsidies all go to uniformly lower rates. Deeper affordability subsidies in pursuit of federal home ownership affordability goals were previously provided by HUD’s Section 235 homeowner program targeted to individual FHA mortgage borrower needs, the right approach for achieving this goal. But after years of default losses, Congress shut it down in 1989 rather than increase the budget to reflect the true cost. Following the law of unintended consequences, the affordable housing goals were then dramatically expanded in the Federal Housing Enterprises Regulatory Reform Act of 1992, a precursor to their subsequent failure.
The debate over the desirability and magnitude of homeownership subsidies remains unresolved. This proposal shifts it to the political arena.
Kevin Villani, chief economist of HUD during the Carter and Reagan Administrations and Freddie Mac from 1982 to 1985, is the author of Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue on the political origins of the sub-prime lending bubble and aftermath.