Sunday, June 12, 2011

An economically disastrous example of the capture theory

is provided by the disgraceful regulation of the two mortgages housing behemoths, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, before and leading up to the financial crisis. In their fascinating recent book, Reckless Endangerment, Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner explore in great detail how Fannie Mae used political connections and intimidation of anyone who stood in their way to gain a highly dominant position in the residential mortgage market. The authors’ show that various government officials, including congressmen and presidential cabinet members, closed their eyes to what these two government-supported enterprises (GSE) were doing. They allowed them to take on enormous risks, while publicly defending their behavior as not being highly risky.

Fannie Mae was created in 1938 as a government enterprise that purchased mortgages from banks that loaned money to homebuyers. It eventually became a private investment company regulated by the government, where investors expected that the government would help out if these companies got into trouble. By the beginning of the crisis in 2008, Fannie and Freddie held or guaranteed about half of the United States’ $12 trillion of assets in the residential mortgage market. In September 2008, both Fannie and Freddie were taken over by the federal government when they became insolvent. The loss to taxpayers is likely to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars because many of the mortgages are subprime and of little value.

Reckless Endangerment shows how the chief executive officers of Fannie Mae furthered the reach and reduced the regulatory control over their company by assiduously courting congressmen, Fed officials, the Congressional Budget Office, high-level officials of the U.S. Treasury, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and major economists. The prominent and well informed congressman, Barney Frank, gets especially sharp criticism for his continual support of Fannie and Freddie while he was initially a member, and later chairman, of the House Financial Services Committee, the powerful committee charged with oversight of the housing and financial sectors. Barney Frank remained an unwavering supporter of Fannie and Freddie until 2010, when he admitted that they should have been more closely regulated. In a bit of irony, he is a principal author of the 2010 Dodd-Frank act that attempts to reform the financial sector mainly by giving even greater discretion to the regulators.
That's Gary Becker.  Read the whole thing.

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