Then there’s this head-scratching detail: In an absolutely outrageous move last Christmas Eve, President Obama signed off on $42 million in bonuses for the top twelve Fannie and Freddie executives, including $6 million apiece for the two CEOs. (Hat tip to attorney Stephen B. Meister.)
Voters are on to all this. So politics may indeed be motivating Barney Frank’s turnaround. But I’m going to credit him with more than that.
I think Chairman Frank watched these government behemoths descend into hell and then witnessed the financial catastrophe that ensued. And I think he has come to realize that the whole system of federal affordable-housing mandates that was central to the real-estate collapse — including the mandates on Fannie and Freddie and the myriad bad decisions made by private banks and other lenders in response to the government’s overreach — simply needs to be abolished.
Noteworthy is the fact that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has come to a similar conclusion. Geithner told a recent Washington conference on the future of housing finance that the system needs fundamental change. He said, “We will not support a return to the system where private gains are subsidized by taxpayer losses.”
Of course, the withdrawal of housing markets from government programs, and the onset of a reinvigorated private sector for providing mortgages, must be done gradually over a period of years. But it is possible that the federal mortgage madness is coming to an end.
We will have to see if Congress really does say good-bye to Fan and Fred, as Republicans like Jeb Hensarling are advocating. Equally important, we will have to see if the federal affordable-housing mandates created by Congress and implemented by HUD and banking regulators are similarly repealed.
And then we will have to see if reformed federally guaranteed housing insurance includes larger down-payments, stricter underwriting standards, and greater reliance on private capital markets, lenders, and insurers. In other words, we need to see if housing will be restored to a market-based system and removed from the government-backed system that has proved so disastrous.
The broader lesson here is that government planning doesn’t work. And if left to their own devices, market processes will work. I don’t know if President Obama gets this. But my hat goes off to a man who does, Chairman Barney Frank.
– Larry Kudlow, NRO’s Economics Editor, is host of CNBC’s The Kudlow Report and author of the daily web blog, Kudlow’s Money Politic$.