Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

June 4, 2015

Be Careful What You Wish For GSEs

By David Reiss

Genie Lamp

Jim Parrott and Mark Zandi have released a report, Privatizing Fannie and Freddie: Be Careful What You Ask For. The authors go through a very useful exercise in which they break down the cost of reprivatizing. The report opens,

Few are happy with the current housing finance system that has Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in conservatorship and taxpayers backing most of the nation’s residential mortgage loans. Yet legislative efforts to replace the system have largely faltered, raising concern that we may not have the political will or competence to replace it any time soon.

This has created an opening for those who contend that we should not replace the system at all, but simply recapitalize the government-sponsored enterprises and release them from conservatorship. Fannie and Freddie were remarkably profitable prior to the financial crisis, after all, and have been consistently in the black recently. Why embark on the laborious, risky and now stalled process of fundamental reform when we can simply return to a model that we know can provide steady access to affordable, long-term fixed-rate lending?

While we both have serious concerns with the wisdom of releasing the duopoly back into the market, we thought it useful to set those concerns aside for the moment to explore the economics of the move. The discussion often takes for granted that this path would take us back to the world precrisis, but economic conditions and the regulatory environment have changed in ways that would significantly affect how Fannie and Freddie would function as reprivatized institutions. (2)

Parrott and Zandi conclude that

The debate over whether to recapitalize and release the GSEs into the private market is often framed as a choice of whether or not to return to a prior period in lending. For all its shortcomings, the argument goes, at least we know what to expect in the cost and availability of mortgage credit. But this is a misconception. In releasing the GSEs into the private market again, we would release them into a very different regulatory and economic environment, and they would respond, not surprisingly, by charging very different mortgage rates. (4)

I really have no argument with Parrott and Zandi’s paper, but I would note that their conclusions don’t differ so much from the pre-crisis academic papers that attempted to quantify the increase in mortgage rates that would result from privatizing the two companies — fifty basis points, give or take (see, for example, The GSE Implicit Subsidy and Value of Government Ambiguity).

I value Parrott and Zandi’s paper because it reminds us to keep pushing forward with real housing finance reform even though Congress has not yet made any progress on that front.

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