Posts tagged with: fannie mae

[Part 1 is here.]

Some might answer any defense of the free economy by pointing to the housing and financial crisis that came to a head in 2008, holding it up as proof positive the free economy is a wrecking ball swinging through communities and leaving all manner of economic and cultural destruction in its wake. The financial crisis did enormous damage, but the major drivers of the crisis were a series of public policies that manipulated the market in pursuit of certain desired ends.

It all began modestly enough. The federal government built incentives into the tax code in favor of taking out a home mortgage. Many local governments also provide property tax breaks to home owners unavailable to renters. While people who are forced by circumstances to rent might question the fairness of such tax breaks, these measures are seen by most as relatively benign. Eventually, however, other top-down manipulations of the housing market were piled on top of these tax breaks.

The U.S. government offered implicit backing to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac so that the companies understood that if they got into financial trouble, Washington would bail them out. This allowed Fannie and Freddie to offer low interest home loans to high risks borrowers, since the companies knew the government would come to their rescue if too many of these borrowers started defaulting on their loans.

The government also passed regulations that actually pushed mortgage companies, including Fannie and Freddie, to provide home loans to people with bad credit—subprime loans.

Finally, (more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg contributed this piece to today’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up here for the free, weekly email newsletter.

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Humility in a Time of Recession

By Samuel Gregg

Since 2008, there has been much discussion about the contribution of unethical behavior to our present economic circumstances. Whether it was borrowers’ lying on mortgage-applications or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s politically-driven lending policies, there seems to be some consciousness that non-economic factors played a role in facilitating what we already call the Great Recession.

Unfortunately evidence is emerging that some people have learned nothing. A recent report, for example, commissioned by the Wall Street Journal illustrates that “losses from mortgage fraud—ranging from falsified credit reports to identity theft—rose 17% last year after declining 57% in the two years after its 2006 peak.”

Of course wider adherence to ethical norms against lying and stealing won’t solve every economic problem. There are heavy technical dimensions to many economic dilemmas which require technical solutions. Nor does every policy-error constitute a moral failure.

Nevertheless those making economic decisions are human beings, and our virtues and vices do shape our purchasing, selling and policy choices. Many such virtues could be highlighted, but one needing extra-attention today is humility.

The word “humility” derives from the Latin humilitas. This in turn comes from humus which means earth or soil, but is also related to homō, meaning man. For the Greeks and Romans, the word underscored the idea that humans are not God or gods. Likewise for the Jews and early Christians, humility was about remembering that humans are fallible creatures who come from and return to the earth: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Some first millennium Christian writers, such as St. John Chrysostom, even described humility as the mother of the virtues, as it prevented vanity from corrupting every other virtue.

So how might a renewed embrace of humility help us to rethink our approach to contemporary economic life?

In the case of consumers, a good dose of humility might well encourage some acceptance that the meaning of life is not simple and is certainly not to be found in how many material things we possess, as important as wealth can be in helping us to live dignified lives. To this extent, greater humility might temper the “I-want-it-all-right-now” mentality that helped generate such high household-debt levels in America and Europe.

Likewise, businesses could benefit from a renewed appreciation of humility. The financial wizard the late Sir John Templeton once wrote that humility was crucial if business was to maintain the open-mindedness that is essential to successful entrepreneurship rather than rest upon their past glories. To this we might add the insight of another prominent entrepreneur, François Michelin, that humility helps business leaders in a market economy remember that the customers are the real masters. More humble business-leaders would also be less-inclined to succumb to the “Masters-of-the-Universe” hubris that helped destroy any number of banks in 2008.

Speaking of hubris, humility also has a role to play in encouraging mainstream economists to accept economics’ limits as a science and acknowledge that not everything about markets can be explained by mathematical models that were supposed to fail only once in a million years. As George Mason University professor of economics Russ Roberts has wisely observed, while “facts and evidence still matter”, economists “should face the evidence that we are no better today at predicting tomorrow than we were yesterday.”

But perhaps those who could do with the biggest bout of humility during recessions are politicians and governments. If the Great Recession has taught us anything, it is that governments should admit many economic problems are beyond their control, and that any claim by politicians to be able to “manage” trillion-dollar economies is arrogant nonsense.

Instead politicians should be modest enough to concede that (1) the seemingly disorderly process of market exchange resolves many challenges that governments cannot; and (2) government overreach invariably causes new problems. Here they would do well to read Adam Smith’s famous warning concerning the “man of system” who “is apt to be very wise in his own conceit, and is so often enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”

The fear of the Lord, the Bible says, is the beginning of wisdom. Contrary to received opinion, this verse has nothing to do with frightening people into religious belief. Instead it reminds each of us that we are not the center of the universe and that the sooner we grasp this, the wiser our choices will be. All of us—consumers, business-leaders, and politicians—need to be sufficiently humble to reassess our actions in a time of recession, acknowledge our errors, and then live out the necessary correctives.

To this extent, the virtue of humility may well be a key to understanding our pre-recessionary past and a way of illuminating our path to a better and more economically-prosperous future.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Monday, October 27, 2008

The famous Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, despaired for the future of the free market system. The reason for this despair was that the excess wealth of the system would create educated folks who would turn on the very system that created them. Their education would make them into anti-capitalist ideologues, who would then kill the goose that laid the golden egg. He did not think that those who participated in the creation of such enormous wealth would be in any position to fight back, and this for two reasons: firstly, business people do not tend to be men of letters, so they are unable to mount arguments defending the system; secondly, the job of the business executive is the survival of the company, and thus, he will concentrate on those things required to weather the storm, not be controversial.

The man who is probably the most famous Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, despaired for the future of the free market system due to envy. Various sectors of society, academic, non-productive, uneducated, etc., would envy the wealth of the producers in society, and end up by finding means to take away that wealth and give it to the lesser productive people, despite the fact that they did not earn it, and therefore, are not entitled to it.

Our present political situation has a combination of both of these views. Both presidential candidates are in favor of redistribution of wealth, albeit one is more open about it. And very few business people are saying “no!” to any of it with a few exceptions, such as the president of BB&T Bank, who wrote an open letter to Congress asking why his totally solvent bank should be punished for the stupidity of the others.

But there is another culprit in this maelstrom. This culprit is the business person. Why? With tongue-in-cheek apologies to neo-classical (mathematical) economic theory, the purpose of a company is not to make a profit. As John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus, a profit is a sign of the health of a company, and therefore is good and necessary. But anyone who has taken a management course knows that the purpose of the company, aside from producing what the customers want, is to increase the wealth of the stockholders. This is different than making a profit, although profit is an integral part of it. Wealth is different than profit. Profit is a short run measurement of the short run health of the company. Wealth, by its very nature is long run. Profit appears on the financial statements of a company in mere money terms, and the accountants who produce those statements do not even take inflation into account. So a company could have an increase in profit, but not an increase in items sold, merely because they had to raise prices to accommodate the fall in the value of the dollar. But executives today are a slave to the profit line in the financial statements. They have a need to impress their boards and stockholders now by sacrificing the long term growth of the enterprise. (more…)

What is the root cause of the sub-prime crisis shaking the global economy? We need to know so we don’t allow it to screw up our economy even worse.

Many point to dishonesty and poor judgment on Wall Street. There was plenty of that leading up to the near-trillion dollar bailout, and even now the stock market is busily disciplining stupid, dishonest companies.

Others point to the many people who falsified loan applications to get mortgages beyond their means. That too played a role.

But dishonesty and poor judgment are as old as Adam and Eve. Something more was at work in the present crisis, a crisis of unprecedented scope. Why didn’t profit-minded loan companies run thorough credit checks? Why did they keep pumping out low interest loans to high risk borrowers, ignoring the risks?

It’s as if somebody spiked the financial system’s punch bowl with stupid juice, driving normally prudent financiers to dash, en masse, over the cliff.

It seems that way because it is that way. The brewers of the stupid juice were largely (if not exclusively) politicians in Washington who sought to redistribute wealth from the rich and middle class to poor people with bad credit. These politicians fostered various laws and institutions that directed, cajoled and legally bullied mortgage companies to extend big loans to people with little credit.

A case in point is a group called ACORN—Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Stanley Kurtz explains in an Oct. 7 essay at National Review Online:

“You’ve got only a couple thousand bucks in the bank. Your job pays you dog-food wages. Your credit history has been bent, stapled, and mutilated. You declared bankruptcy in 1989. Don’t despair: You can still buy a house.” So began an April 1995 article in the Chicago Sun-Times that went on to direct prospective home-buyers fitting this profile to a group of far-left “community organizers” called ACORN, for assistance. In retrospect, of course, encouraging customers like this to buy homes seems little short of madness.

… At the time, however, that 1995 Chicago newspaper article represented something of a triumph for Barack Obama. That same year, as a director at Chicago’s Woods Fund, Obama was successfully pushing for a major expansion of assistance to ACORN, and sending still more money ACORN’s way from his post as board chair of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. Through both funding and personal-leadership training, Obama supported ACORN. And ACORN, far more than we’ve recognized up to now, had a major role in precipitating the subprime crisis.

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Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I don’t think government ownership is what President Bush had in mind when he talked about his vision for an “ownership society,” which had ostensibly included a plank focused on “expanding homeownership.” But it looks like that’s where we’re headed in an era of government takeovers and bailouts.

For some background on how we go to this place, check out this 1999 piece from the New York Times (HT): “In a move that could help increase home ownership rates among minorities and low-income consumers, the Fannie Mae Corporation is easing the credit requirements on loans that it will purchase from banks and other lenders.”

All this seems like case of good intentions (increasing private ownership, extending capital access to the poor and oppressed) executed by means of bad policy (lowering credit standards for loans, bailing out failed corporations) resulting in negative (albeit unintended) consequences (foreclosures and bankruptcies).

Oh, and are you one of the people who didn’t borrow beyond your means? Guess what? You got pwned. As one blogger wonders, “Am I just a sucker or something to play by the rules? Are all of us who paid taxes suckers?” Think of that as the “pwnership” society.