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Jun 23 2012

Principles or People

C.M. Phippen

I happened to notice the other day someone blaming President Reagan for the recent recession. Back in 2009, this was a somewhat common liberal refrain, and Paul Krugman repeatedly exclaimed that Reagan was responsible for the economic crisis because he was behind legislation (co-sponsored and passed by many Democrats as well as Republicans) that allowed for home purchases without large down-payments and that freed up the consumer credit market.

Here is no better example as to why we must discuss and focus on principles rather than people. I’ve never met a Democrat who didn’t support affordable housing policies or legislation that would make credit more available for those whose behavior doesn’t merit it. Funny how when the other guy agrees with you and things go wrong, it’s the other guy who was wrong.

Here is a list of statements or actions of individuals from both sides of the aisle regarding housing policies prior to the bubble bursting; see if you can figure out who said or did what.

1.”The White House doesn’t think those who can afford the monthly payment but have been unable to save for a down payment should be deprived from owning a home.”

2. “Fannie Mae has expanded home ownership for millions of families in the 1990s by reducing down payment requirements. Yet there remain too many borrowers whose credit is just a notch below what our underwriting has required who have been relegated to paying significantly higher mortgage rates in the so-called subprime market.”

3. “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 . . . Fannie Mae . . . has been under increasing pressure from the X Administration to expand mortgage loans among low and moderate income people and felt pressure from stock holders to maintain its phenomenal growth in profits.”

4. There exists deep concern “about increased mortgage market fragility, which, combined with growing bank portfolios in high-risk products, pose serious potential problems that could occur with dramatic suddenness.” And failure to adjust bank underwriting, reserves and capital to account for this growing risk “means that downturns from credit and/or interest rate events – let alone shocks – will be far more severe than” if precautions are taken. What is “disturbing to us is the fact that recent trends could lead to sudden increases in foreclosures.”

5. “Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have played a very useful role in helping make housing more affordable.” Critics “exaggerate a threat of safety” and “conjure up the possibility of serious financial losses to the Treasury, which I do not see.”

6. Congress should, “enact legislation to create a new Federal agency to regulate and supervise” Fannie and Freddie because of the risks they were taking. “The concern is, if something unravels, it could cause systemic risk to the whole financial system.”

7. If Congress doesn’t reign in Fannie and Freddie, “there will be a massive default with huge losses to the taxpayers and systemic effects on the economy.”

8. “Where once more-marginal applicants would simply have been denied credit, lenders are now able to quite efficiently judge the risk posed by individual applicants and to price that risk appropriately.”

9. “President X issued America’s Homeownership Challenge to the real estate and mortgage finance industries to encourage them to join the effort to close the gap that exists between the homeownership rates of minorities and non-minorities. The President also announced the goal of increasing the number of minority homeowners by at least 5.5 million families before the end of the decade.”

10. “Back in 2005 and 2006, I argued as forcefully as I could . . . that the mortgage market would melt down in the second half of 2007, causing substantial damage to the economy.”

11. “[W]e do not have a crisis at Freddie Mac, and in particular at Fannie Mae . . . What we need to do today is to focus on the regulator, and this must be done in a manner so as not to impede their affordable housing mission, a mission that has seen innovation flourish from desktop underwriting to 100 percent loans. . . . These GSEs have more than adequate capital for the business they are in: providing affordable housing. . . . we should not be making radical or fundamental change.”

While conservatives and liberals were both supporting the expansion of affordable housing programs which not only made housing less affordable but put those least able to afford homes into them, the voices of warning were mainly coming from those outside of government. Private businesses that knew the bursting of the housing bubble could destroy them or who could profit from it, were able to see and acknowledge the downside of decades of feel-good government giveaways. Those in government were possibly too invested in the sham to see its risks, or too inexperienced in economics to understand.

Will the next bubble look any different and will the blame game remain the same? Let’s not wait to have this discussion in another decade, after the bursting of the student loan bubble, driven by the astronomical rise in college tuition due to government intervention and subsidies. Are we listening to those trying to warn us this time?

1. John Weicher, Federal Housing Commissioner (2004)
2. Franklin D. Raines, Fannie Mae chairman and CEO, Bill Clinton supporter
3. The New York Times (1999) talking about the Clinton administration
4. Suzanne Hutchinson, executive at Mortgage Insurance Companies of America (2005); http://www.foxbusiness.com/markets/2010/02/02/housing-red-flags-ignored/#ixzz1yb1vJQiv
5. Congressman Barney Frank (2003)
6. US Secretary of the Treasury John W. Snow (2003 & 2005)
7. Peter J. Wallison, scholar at American Enterprise Institute, (2005)
8. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan (2005); http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/04/opinion/04burry.html?pagewanted=all
9. Bush administration (2002); http://www.dailykos.com/story/2008/09/23/607383/-George-Bush-proud-parent-of-the-mortgage-crisis
10. Michael J. Burry, investment advisor at Scion Capital (2010); http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/04/opinion/04burry.html?pagewanted=all
11. Maxine Waters, Congressional Representative from CA (2003); http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/Articles/The%20Secondary%20Mortgage%20Market.html

Quotes without a weblink were taken from the Thomas Sowell book, The Housing Boom and Bust, New York: Basic Books, 2009.


Aug 31 2011

Krugman and Irene

C.M. Phippen

Two weeks ago, Paul Krugman was calling for a fake alien invasion to stimulate our economy. I think he’s almost gotten his wish.

Estimates of damage from Hurricane Irene range anywhere from $13 billion to $45 billion. Think of all the jobs that will need to be filled. Better yet, much of the work that needs to be done will be paid for with borrowed government funds – it’s a Keynesian’s dream.

Rebuilding should keep people busy for a little while, and when they’re done up North they can head down to Mississippi and help the rebuilding effort still going on down there, six short years after Hurricane Katrina.

Of course, this is the same Paul Krugman who suggested that in order to replace the Nasdaq bubble of the late 1990s, “Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble.” He saw this as the solution to the lack of corporate spending; “soaring household spending” was, to him, the answer. In other words, moving money around in the economy by creating artificial growth.

In fact, the White House is now defending the idea that government transfers through extended unemployment insurance actually lead to growth. The assumption is that without those transfers, no money would be spent by unemployed individuals and with the transfers, no incentives for less productive behavior are taking place. If both of those things were true, the Obama economic policy might be preferable to nothing. Unfortunately for Team Obama, they’re not.

According to Alan Krueger, Obama’s newly-appointed economic advisor, extended unemployment benefits (wealth transfers) increase length of unemployment and can lead to more layoffs. Studies have shown that the closer one is to the cut-off point for benefits, the longer time spent actually looking for a job.

As far as the White House’s claim that each dollar in unemployment benefits spending leads to $1.73 in short-term economic growth, false assumptions are made which equate each dollar in benefits with one dollar spent. For every dollar in additional unemployment benefits, only $.55 actually makes it into the economy because individuals tend to reduce their reliance on their own savings if the government will pay them and for married individuals, spouses tend to reduce hours worked when benefits are increased.

The past three years have shown us Paul Krugman and the left’s version of economic growth – government jobs, government “investment” and government wealth transfers with weak economic growth and stubbornly high unemployment (but hey, we’ll all have that “free” healthcare soon!). Forget business investment, product development, innovation, increased efficiency; no, this moving money around thing is just working so well.