In what some observers are calling a reshaping of Wall Street, two of the world’s largest investment banks, Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers, are set to disappear. Lehman has announced it will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and Merrill Lynch was bought by Bank of America. For all the complicated financial instruments and relationships involved in the current financial turmoil, the underlying cause is still relatively simple: the bursting of the housing bubble.
One market strategist told The New York Times: “We are in the grip of a vicious circle and the only thing that to me will break that is for home prices to stop going down.” The most dangerous thing we can do right now is to assume that massive government intervention is needed to shore up home prices. After all, massive government intervention is what caused the housing bubble in the first place.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were created by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson to make homes more affordable for Americans. They accomplish this by buying, repackaging and then selling home loans that other institutions make, thus freeing institutions to offer more loans. Contrary to what some defenders of big government assert, Fannie and Freddie were also key players in the sub-prime mortgage market. In 2004 alone, they bought 44 percent of all sub-prime securities. Every dollar that Fannie and Freddie gave to companies like Countrywide Financial for bundled sub-prime mortgages was another dollar Countrywide gave out in new sub-prime mortgages.
When President Bill Clinton took office, Fannie and Freddie were viewed as “key” to Clinton’s plans to expand home ownership. The Washington Post reports: “The result was a period of unrestrained growth for the companies. … The companies increasingly were seen as the engine of the housing boom.” As the companies grew, conservatives repeatedly warned that their size posed a systemic risk to the financial system. As Sarah Palin put it, thanks to the implicit federal guarantee of their debt, Fannie and Freddie had become too big and too expensive to the taxpayers.
But Fannie and Freddie pushed back hard, turning to friends on the left for protection. Former Walter Mondale and Barack Obama campaign adviser James Johnson led a fierce lobbying campaign to fight reform of Freddie and Fannie. Clinton administration OMB director Franklin Raines told investors when he was Fannie Mae CEO in 1999: “We manage our political risk with the same intensity that we manage our credit and interest rate risks.” Fannie and Freddie’s lobbying power over the left continues to be strong to this day. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the top three recipients of campaign donations from Freddie and Fannie’s PACs and employees are all Democrats. From 1989 through today, Sen. Chris Dodd received $165,400, Barack Obama $126,349, and John Kerry $111,000. The Washington Post concludes: “Blessed with the advantages of a government agency and a private company at the same time, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac used their windfall profits to co-opt the politicians who were supposed to control them.”
Nobody wants to see anybody lose their home. The current Wall Street turbulence will not settle until home prices do. But before we move to some new massive government spending effort to prop up home prices at some artificial level, we should also remember what the historical record teaches us about the unintended consequences of well-meaning market interventions.