The United States is struggling to emerge from an era of loose mortgage underwriting standards – lapses in credit analysis that led to origination and securitization of toxic loans. The fallout has been crippling, costing borrowers their homes, investors their money, and the government its taxes.
The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (the Dodd-Frank Act) passed last summer was the first comprehensive effort to address the problems in the system that led – in sequence – to the subprime crisis, the housing crisis, and the financial crisis. The Dodd-Frank Act, which contains over 2,300 pages of legislation, is very broad as well as very detailed – even though hundreds of rulemakings have yet to completely define its parameters. But this extensive legislation deliberately did not deal with the biggest elephant (or perhaps elephants) in the room: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These government sponsored enterprises (GSEs), behemoths of the secondary mortgage market, are currently in conservatorship and have (so far) cost taxpayers over $130 billion. Yet our current residential mortgage market is utterly dependent upon them for credit and liquidity. With political pressures to stop taxpayer bailouts and the reality of a frozen mortgage market should Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac cease to exist, when it comes to the GSEs, the administration feels damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
For decades, the U.S. mortgage finance system was the envy of the world – the only industrialized nation to have a significant segment of housing costs covered by private capital through a securitization investment system. The United States is the only country to routinely offer homebuyers 30-year fixed-rate pre-payable mortgage loans. Better capital accessibility has made more homeownership opportunities more available to more Americans. The GSEs have performed a vital role in financing the production of rental housing as well. Our real estate capital markets set the gold standard worldwide for what is possible in freeing trapped asset values and increasing the wealth of borrowers and investors alike.
Over the past decade, this system undoubtedly became unhinged – and it is critical to reform its failings. But a complete wind-down of the government sponsored enterprises that are the linchpin of our housing finance system goes too far. Subtracting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from the finance equation may very well be market suicide, and the repercussions for borrowers, communities and investors would be dire indeed. Furthermore, this extreme step is unnecessary: the system’s failures can be adequately (and better) addressed within the GSE framework.
Undoubtedly there is still ample dirty “bathwater” to throw out as we reform the mortgage finance market system. But it would be an excruciating mistake to bow to political pressures and throw out the “baby” too. Current and future mortgage borrowers will only be adequately “protected” if they are empowered through access to capital, appropriately constrained by valid underwriting criteria. A well functioning market – rather than political scapegoating – is the best way to emerge from the recession and protect future buyers and investors alike.
This article first discusses the history and purposes of the GSEs and what went wrong with the system that led to the 2008 conservatorship and bailout. With reference to the Obama Administration’s February 2011 Report to Congress, “Reforming America’s Housing Finance Market,” Part II analyzes proposals to reform and wind down the GSEs in light of their likely legal and market impact. Part III offers some general suggestions on better approaches to crafting America’s future mortgage market and advocates for solutions more precisely tailored to remedy apparent systemic problems while achieving the identified policy goals.
Laudable Goals and Unintended Consequences: The Role and Control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, 60 American University Law Review 1489
Available at: https://scholarship.law.missouri.edu/facpubs/1084