Some mistakes are so egregious and yet so uncorrectable that no one is willing to admit them. On Sunday September 7, 2008, US Treasury Secretary, Henry M. Paulson, made just such a mistake. He ordered Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac placed into “conservatorship,” an ambiguous category of quasi-receivership that still defies precise definition. To see why Paulson’ decision was so unwise, we’ll start by deconstructing a financial instrument that most people assume they understand perfectly well: the 30-year home mortgage....
....Here’s the bottom line. Before September 7, 2008, we had a mortgage system that, while rickety and obscured by smoke and mirrors, worked. It worked not because of an effective business model but because everybody—investors, lenders, and borrowers—realized it was in their best interest for it to work. Then Henry Paulson said, “Look, the emperor has no clothes,” as if that were news instead of common knowledge. Paulson chose conservatorship for Fannie and Freddie because it meant the Treasury only owned 79.9% of the two companies. One tenth more and their assets and liabilities would have gone into the federal balance sheet. That would have meant the federal government was explicitly guaranteeing all $5 trillion of Fannie and Freddie’s securitized mortgages and other debt. And that would have meant that the federal government was guaranteeing both sides of the consumer’s balance sheet: her bank accounts through FDIC insurance and now her mortgage.
If we were really Big Boys, we’d say, “Sorry. We messed up. We’re going to try to put it back the way it was.” But we aren’t that big and, as someone said to me recently, “Fannie and Freddie have become the third rail of American politics.” Instead, we’re going to let Fannie and Freddie totter along. In the words of Wall Street Journal editorialist Brian M. Carney, Fannie and Freddie are “money-losing zombie financial companies in the bosom of the federal government.” Maybe that criticism would be fair if Carney had a solution, but he doesn’t and neither does any one else. I don’t know that there is a solution. Fannie Mae, the older of the two companies, was created during the Depression when the typical mortgage had a five-year term with all the principal due at the end. Maybe that’s what we’ll go back to, so that only those who don’t really need a mortgage can get one.
I need to think about this a little. One thing, though, is that the Home Owners Loan Corporation and then Fannie Mae were the entities (along with FHA) that gave us the long-term, fixed rate mortgage. The HOLC mortgages generally had 15 years terms.