What we are witnessing today is not a failure of the free market. It is the failure of social engineering as economic policy. And it's a disaster of epic proportions.
Nobody's disputing that this disaster was precipitated by irresponsible lending practices, or that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were at the root of the whole debacle, though the ramifications have now spread far beyond them. What people are arguing about is the interpretation of the events that led us here, what should have been done differently, and what should be done to contain the fallout now that the pyramid scheme has blown up.
Hard core free market proponents, like me, will say that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were a mistake from the beginning. The government should have kept its nose out of the home mortgage industry, and not attempted to manipulate the market to enable people who couldn't afford houses to buy them. On the other hand, proponents of the "government is good" and "more is better" philosophy will say the problem was that there wasn't enough government manipulation. (Could there ever be?)
But, curiously, in 2005, when Alan Greenspan told Congress that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were "placing the total financial system of the future at a substantial risk,'' and the Senate Banking Committee proposed a reform bill requiring tighter regulation of those two entities, the Democrats opposed it, on a strict party line vote, crushing the bill before it got out of committee. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Christopher Dodd all voted against it. (John McCain, incidentally, was one of the co-sponsors of the bill.)
Huh? Democrats voting against more regulation? Republicans voting for it? One would expect Republicans to favor less regulation, as regulation is antithetical to a free market. But, in this case, it already wasn't a free market. A free market has its own natural checks and balances. Once the government has removed or impaired any of those natural checks and balances, the market loses its equilibrium and bad things can happen. What the Republicans were attempting to accomplish by proposing tighter regulations on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was to artificially restore the natural constraint that had been removed by shifting the risk from the lenders to the taxpayers.
In a free market, the desire for profit is counterbalanced by the aversion to risk. If the risk incurred by an investment or loan outweighs the profit potential, it's not in the investor's/lender's best interest to participate, so the transaction doesn't occur. However, when the government removes the risk associated with a bad transaction, by assuming the risk itself, then the natural constraint of risk aversion that would apply in a truly free market is eliminated, and investors will take risks that would otherwise be unacceptable. That's what happened in the case of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The taxpayers assumed the risk, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac made unsound investments.
In today's mortgage industry, mortgages are always packaged up and sold to aggregators, who sell them to bigger aggregators, with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac at the top of the pyramid as the granddaddies of all aggregators. Because Fannie and Freddie had no risk aversion, lenders further down the chain were free to take risks they wouldn't otherwise take, knowing the aggregators would buy up the high risk (subprime) mortgages anyway. This was intentional.
Affordable housing is a euphemism for making home loans available to people who would not qualify for a loan under a free market system. The reason someone would not qualify for a loan in the free market is because they present too high a risk. In other words, they can't afford to pay off the loan. Fannie and Freddie represented a wide scale experiment in social engineering. It was an attempt to use federal policy to "level the playing field" so anybody could "afford" to buy a home whether they could actually afford to pay for the home or not.
When the Republicans wanted to tighten the reins on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and preclude them from making excessively risky investments, it would have meant they could no longer fulfill the mission of making homes "affordable" to those who couldn't afford them. That's why the Democrats opposed the bill. And that's why we're where we are today.
The great experiment in social engineering has now failed. Dramatically. And, because the experiment was backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. taxpayer, it is our money, and our future, that is getting called in as collateral for this grand social experiment.
Anybody who blames this failure on the free market is either dishonest or naive. It was liberal social policy masquerading as economic policy that got us into this mess. If you want to see more of the same in the future, there are plenty of Democrats still in Congress. And there's one running for president, too.
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