Politics & Policy

Sub-Prime Numbers

Last Friday the U.S. Federal Reserve cut the rate at which it makes direct loans to banks, sending a signal to Wall Street that it is aware of the credit contraction that has hit global financial markets. At the same time, the Fed wisely refrained from lowering its target federal-funds rate, through which it controls monetary policy, although Fed officials have indicated that a cut could be in the offing if markets don’t stabilize soon. The Bush administration has also demonstrated admirable restraint, resisting calls to let troubled mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac charge into the market and increase their holdings.

Demagogic politicians (and frantic investors) have shown less self-control, and the inevitable pressure to “do something” is bound to intensify. The administration and the Fed should resist this pressure. For one thing, the current crisis is unlikely to affect the economy in any significant way. As that becomes clearer, the hysteria will subside. For another, it is necessary that those lenders, borrowers, and investors who created the sub-prime mortgage mess bear its consequences.

What we are seeing now is a necessary market correction. Several years of poor lending and borrowing decisions in the sub-prime mortgage market have resulted in a large increase in the number of foreclosures this year. Accordingly, Wall Street is reevaluating the credit quality of billions of dollars worth of mortgage-backed securities. Having found many to be overvalued, the market is making the necessary adjustments:

‐ Lenders are making fewer risky loans. Some of the biggest, such as Countrywide Financial, have tapped large lines of credit to cover short-term borrowing needs, announced layoffs, and instituted other cost-cutting measures.

‐ A few hedge funds have imploded, and a few more are in deep trouble. This is because these lightly regulated funds typically leverage their bets with billions in borrowed money, compounding their losses when risky investments — such as sub-prime mortgage debt — turn sour.

‐ Some of Wall Street’s biggest credit-ratings firms have taken a well-deserved hit in the press for giving many securities backed by sub-prime mortgage debt higher ratings than they actually deserved. The next chapter for them could be investigations into whether they fraudulently manipulated their valuations.

Several members of Congress and some ’08 Democratic candidates have argued that these market adjustments are not enough and that we need additional layers of regulation. Back in February, when the crisis began in earnest, John Edwards attacked “predatory” lending practices and proposed a new government agency to regulate mortgage lenders (in addition to the five that already exist). Of course, that was before the Wall Street Journal revealed that a hedge fund Edwards invested in and worked for had ties to sub-prime lenders that had foreclosed on Hurricane Katrina victims.

In fact, sub-prime lending is not an unmitigated evil. The advent of sub-prime lending brought about a fairly dramatic increase in U.S. home ownership, which for decades hovered around 64 percent until shooting up to 69 percent between 1994 and 2004. To be sure, unscrupulous players entered the market as sub-prime lending became more profitable, and some of them hid the true cost of risky loans from naïve borrowers. But borrowers were often complicit, wildly overstating their incomes to qualify for loans they could not afford. The New York Times reported in March that these “liar loans accounted for 40 percent of the sub-prime mortgage issuance last year, up from 25 percent in 2001.”

Hillary Clinton has proposed a $1 billion federal bailout to help such borrowers avoid foreclosure. And her fellow New York senator, Chuck Schumer, has joined her in calling for a wider role for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in stabilizing the mortgage markets. The Bush administration has correctly decided not to remove the limits on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that were put into place last year when investigators discovered that both institutions had engaged in significant accounting irregularities.

Fannie Mae officials argue that they can provide badly needed liquidity to the mortgage market. But as economist Brian Wesbury pointed out Monday, liquidity is not the real issue. The issue is a lack of information — no one seems to know how much these mortgages are really worth. The best thing the government can do is stay out of the way while the market reprices these securities.

That goes for the Fed, too. The Fed has hinted that it might cut the federal-funds rate if the market continues to slide. In the esoteric world of Fed policy, where words can affect the markets as much as action, this was the right thing to say. But it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s shrewd move to cut the discount rate instead of the more consequential federal-funds rate calmed panicky investors without interfering with the market adjustment already underway. By cutting only the rate that the Fed charges on its own loans, Bernanke offered a lifeline to big institutions in dire financial straits, and bought more time for the market to correct itself without a change in monetary policy.

Demagogues in Congress and on the campaign trail should learn a lesson here. Lenders, hedge funds, ratings firms, and, yes, foolhardy borrowers are paying a price for their excesses. Let’s not compound their folly by enacting a poorly thought-out policy.

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