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Robert Reich: Fannie and Freddie, as Predicted

September 7, 2008

Robert Reich

A reprise of what I wrote August 25: Any day now — perhaps any hour — the plug will be pulled on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and a massive government bailout will ensue. Together, they’ll become the largest government-owned entities in American history, and, once again, taxpayers will pay the bill, which could come to $25 billion or more.

One question is how did we ever get to this? The Savings and Loan Bailout of the late 1980s should have taught us that when government guarantees the downside of risks and private investors reap the upside gains, there’s hell to pay. The risks Fannie and Freddie took on weren’t officially guaranteed by the government — that is, by you and me — but investors assumed they were. And so did Fannie’s and Freddie’s executives, who reaped a bonanza with bonuses in the tens of millions each year.

Apologists will say that Fannie and Freddie exist to make housing loans to low-income Americans, so it was inevitable that the two giants would get caught in the quagmire of the housing burst. But the fact is, Fannie and Freddie — and the executives who ran them and still run them — have been out to maximize profits. Period. Just the same as every other mortgage and investment bank. High-risk sub-prime loans offered a higher rate of return, so Fannie and Freddie went into them big time. And because of the implicit government guarantee, Fannie and Freddie could take on even more risks and make even more money. Until now.

It’s another case of socialized capitalism, folks. The largest, yet. Along with making lots of money for investors and their executives, Fannie and Freddie corrupted our political process. They blocked any attempt to reign in the risks. Their lobbyists were and are the most sophisticated and among the most ubiquitous in Washington.

What to do now? Hope that, like the S&L fiasco, taxpayers can get back a fair portion of our dollars. But unlike the S&L fiasco, this time we should make sure we bury socialized capitalism for good.

Fannie and Freddie, and Why the Accounting Gimmicks Continued

Accounting gimmicks first came to light at Fannie and Freddie in 2003, at which time Fannie’s and Freddie’s former CEOs were sacked. Why, then, did they continue for another five years, even under new CEOs, even after policymakers first learned of them? Three reasons: (1) Top executives and shareholders continued to profit from them so there was no incentive to stop them, (2) everyone involved kept expecting home values to continue to rise — or, when they fell, rise again soon enough — to make up for the accounting shortfalls, and (3) Fannie and Freddie continued to be in bed with Congress and the administration. Democrats and Republicans alike have been complicit in this outrage.

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry appeared on his blog.

Copyright 2008 Robert B. Reich

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