September brought endless discussions of the 10th anniversary of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the failures of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Tomorrow, Oct. 3, brings the 10th anniversary of congressional authorization of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailouts created by the Emergency Economic Stability Act.
After all this time, we still await reform of American housing finance – the giant sector that produced the bubble, its deflation, the panic and the bust.
During the panic in fall 2008, in the fog of crisis, “We had no choice but to fly by the seat of our pants, making it up as we went along,” Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has written of the time. That is no longer the problem.
In retrospect, it is clear that the panic was the climax of a decadelong buildup of leverage and risk, much of which had been promoted by the U.S. government. This long escalation of risk was thought at the time to be the “Great Moderation,” although it was in fact the “Great Leveraging.”
The U.S. government promoted and still promotes housing debt. The “National Home Ownership Strategy” of the Clinton administration—which praised “innovative,” which is to say poor-credit-quality, mortgage loans—is notorious, but both political parties were responsible. The government today continues to promote excess housing debt and leverage though Fannie and Freddie. It has never corrected its debt-promotion strategies.
A profound question is why the regulators of the 2000s failed to foresee the crisis. It was not because they were not trying—they were diligently regulating away. It was not because they were not intelligent. Instead, the problem was and always is the mismatch between prevailing ideas and the emergent, surprising reality when the risks turn out to be much greater and more costly than previously imagined.
There is a related problem: regulators are employees of the government and feel reluctant to address risky activities the government is intent to promote.
At this point, a decade later, reform of the big housing finance picture is still elusive. But there is one positive, concrete step which could be taken now without any further congressional action. The Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), created in 2010, was given the power to designate large financial firms, in addition to the big banks, as Systemically Important Financial Institutions (SIFIs) for increased oversight of their systemic risk. In general, I believe this was a bad idea, but it exists, and it might be used to good effect in one critical case to help control the overexpansion of government-promoted housing finance debt.
FSOC has failed to designate as SIFIs the most blatantly obvious SIFIs of all: Fannie and Freddie. FSOC has not admitted, let alone acted on, a fact clear to everybody in the world: that Fannie and Freddie are systemically important and systemically risky. This failure to act may reflect a political judgment, but it is intellectually vacuous.
Fannie and Freddie should be forthwith designated as the SIFIs they so unquestionably are. Better eight years late than never.
Image by g0d4ather