Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were victims, not culprits

There’s a dangerous — and misleading — argument making the rounds about the causes of our current credit crisis. It’s emanating from Washington where politicians are engaging in the usual blame game but this time the stakes are so high that we can’t afford to fall victim to political doublespeak. In this fact-free zone, government sponsored mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac caused the real estate bubble and subprime meltdown. It’s completely false. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were victims of the credit crisis, not culprits.

Start with the most basic fact of all: virtually none of the $1.5 trillion of cratering subprime mortgages were backed by Fannie or Freddie. That’s right — most subprime mortgages did not meet Fannie or Freddie’s strict lending standards. All those no money down, no interest for a year, low teaser rate loans? All the loans made without checking a borrower’s income or employment history? All made in the private sector, without any support from Fannie and Freddie.

Look at the numbers. While the credit bubble was peaking from 2003 to 2006, the amount of loans originated by Fannie and Freddie dropped from $2.7 trillion to $1 trillion. Meanwhile, in the private sector, the amount of subprime loans originated jumped to $600 billion from $335 billion and Alt-A loans hit $400 billion from $85 billion in 2003. Fannie and Freddie, which wouldn’t accept crazy floating rate loans, which required income verification and minimum down payments, were left out of the insanity.

There’s a must-read study by staff members of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York analyzing the roots of the subprime crisis that came out in March(2008) [a more recent report is also available online and posted in the blog]. I don’t think it got much attention then as the conclusions seemed uncontroversial at the time. But now that Washington politicians are trying to rewrite history, it should be mandatory reading for every American interested in knowing how we got here.

The study identifies five causes of the subprime meltdown:
-Convoluted loan products that consumers didn’t understand.
-Credit ratings that didn’t do a good job highlighting the risks contained in subprime-backed securities.
-Lack of incentives for institutional investors to do their own research (they just relied on the credit ratings).
-Predatory lending and borrowing (which I think means fraud perpetrated by borrowers).
-Significant errors in the models used by credit rating agencies to assess subprime-backed securities.

You’ll note in the Fed’s five causes that there’s some culpability for lenders, borrowers, investors and credit raters. There’s no blame for Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae which had little or nothing to do with the entire situation.

It’s certainly fair to criticize Fannie and Freddie over real issues that contributed to their downfall. The companies had numerous accounting problems and inadequate safeguards covering their own investment portfolios. Those weaknesses came home to roost when the real estate market cratered. Fannie and Freddie purchased billions of dollars of subprime-backed securities for their own investment portfolios and got hit just like every other investor. But it’s some kind of crazy, politically inspired CYA to blame for the mess we’re in.

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