An Open Letter to my Friends on the Left
Department of Economics
St. Lawrence University
September 28, 2008
In the last week or two, I have heard frequently from you that the current financial mess has been caused by the failures of free markets and deregulation. I have heard from you that the lust after profits, any profits, that is central to free markets is at the core of our problems. And I have heard from you that only significant government intervention into financial markets can cure these problems, perhaps once and for all. I ask of you for the next few minutes to, in the words of Oliver Cromwell, consider that you may be mistaken. Consider that both the diagnosis and the cure might be equally mistaken.
Consider instead that the problems of this mess were caused by the very kinds of government regulation that you now propose. Consider instead that effects of the profit motive that you decry depend upon the incentives that institutions, regulations, and policies create, which in this case led profit-seekers to do great damage. Consider instead that the regulations that may have been the cause were supported by, as they have often been throughout US history, the very firms being regulated, mostly because they worked to said firms' benefit, even as they screwed the rest of us. Consider all of this as you ask for more of the same in the name of fixing the problem. And finally, consider why you would ever imagine that those with wealth and power wouldn't rig a new regulatory process in their favor.
One of the biggest confusions in the current mess is the claim that it is the result of greed. The problem with that explanation is that greed is always a feature of human interaction. It always has been. Why, all of a sudden, has greed produced so much harm? And why only in one sector of the economy? After all, isn't there plenty of greed elsewhere? Firms are indeed profit seekers. And they will seek after profit where the institutional incentives are such that profit is available. In a free market, firms profit by providing the goods that consumers want at prices they are willing to pay. (My friends, don't stop reading there even if you disagree - now you know how I feel when you claim this mess is a failure of free markets - at least finish this paragraph.) However, regulations and policies and even the rhetoric of powerful political actors can change the incentives to profit. Regulations can make it harder for firms to minimize their risk by requiring that they make loans to marginal borrowers. Government institutions can encourage banks to take on extra risk by offering an implicit government guarantee if those risks fail. Policies can direct self-interest into activities that only serve corporate profits, not the public.
Many of you have rightly criticized the ethanol mandate, which made it profitable for corn growers to switch from growing corn for food to corn for fuel, leading to higher food prices worldwide. What's interesting is that you rightly blamed the policy and did not blame greed and the profit motive! The current financial mess is precisely analogous.
No free market economist thinks "greed is always good." What we think is good are institutions that play to the self-interest of private actors by rewarding them for serving the public, not just themselves. We believe that's what genuinely free markets do. Market exchanges are mutually beneficial. When the law messes up by either poorly defining the rules of the game or trying to override them through regulation, self-interested behavior is no longer economically mutually beneficial. The private sector then profits by serving narrow political ends rather than serving the public. In such cases, greed leads to bad consequences. But it's bad not because it's greed/self-interest rather because the institutional context within which it operates channels self-interest in socially unproductive ways.
This, my friends, is exactly what has brought us to the mess we are now in.
To call the housing and credit crisis a failure of the free market or the product of unregulated greed is to overlook the myriad government regulations, policies, and political pronouncements that have both reduced the "freedom" of this market and channeled self-interest in ways that have produced disastrous consequences, both intended and unintended. Let me briefly recap goverment's starring role in our little drama.
For starters, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are "government sponsored enterprises". Though technically privately owned, they have particular privileges granted by the government, they are overseen by Congress, and, most importantly, they have operated with a clear promise that if they failed, they would be bailed out. Hardly a "free market." All the players in the mortgage market knew this from early on. In the early 1990s, Congress eased Fannie and Freddie's lending requirements (to 1/4th the capital required by regular commercial banks) so as to increase their ability to lend to poor areas. Congress also created a regulatory agency to oversee them, but this agency also had to reapply to Congress for its budget each year (no other financial regulator must do so), assuring that it would tell Congress exactly what it wanted to hear: "things are fine." In 1995, Fannie and Freddie were given permission to enter the subprime market and regulators began to crack down on banks who were not lending enough to distressed areas. Several attempts were made to rein in Fannie and Freddie, but Congress didn't have the votes to do so, especially with both organizations making significant campaign contributions to members of both parties. Even the New York Times as far back as 1999 saw exactly what might happen thanks to this very unfree market, warning of a need to bailout Fannie and Freddie if the housing market dropped.
Complicating matters further was the 1994 renewal/revision of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977. The CRA requires banks to to make a certain percentage of their loans within their local communities, especially when those communities are economically disadvantaged. In addition, Congress explicitly directed Fannie and Freddie to expand their lending to borrowers with marginal credit as a way of expanding homeownership. What all of these did together was to create an enormous profit and political incentives for banks and Fannie and Freddie to lend more to riskier low-income borrowers. However well-intentioned the attempts were to extend homeownership to more Americans, forcing banks to do so and artificially lowering the costs of doing so are a huge part of the problem we now find ourselves in.
At the same time, home prices were rising making those who had taken on large mortgages with small down payments feel as though they could handle them and inspiring a whole variety of new mortagage instruments. What's interesting is that the rise in prices affected most strongly cities with stricter land-use regulations, which also explains the fact that not every city was affected to the same degree by the rising home values. These regulations prevented certain kinds of land from being used for homes, pushing the rising demand for housing (fueled by the considerations above) into a slowly responding supply of land. The result was rapidly rising prices. In those areas with less stringent land-use regulations, the housing price boom's effect was much smaller. Again, it was regulation, not free markets, that drove the search for profits and was a key contributor to the rising home prices that fueled the lending spree.
While all of this was happpening, the Federal Reserve, nominally private but granted enormous monopoly privileges by government, was pumping in the credit and driving interest rates lower and lower. This influx of credit further fueled the borrowing binge. With plenty of funds available, thanks to your friendly monopoly central bank (hardly the free market at work), banks could afford to continue to lend riskier and riskier.
The final chapter of the story is that in 2004 and 2005, following the accounting scandals at Freddie, both Freddie and Fannie paid penance to Congress by agreeing to expand their lending to low-income customers. Both agreed to acquire greater amounts of subprime and Alt-A loans, sending the green light to banks to originate them. From 2004 2003 [corrected on 10/19/08] to 2006, the percentage of loans in those riskier categories grew from 8% to 20% of all US mortgage originations. And the quality of these loans were dropping too: downpayments were getting progressively smaller and more and more loans carried low starter interest rates that would adjust upward later on. The banks were taking on riskier borrowers, but knew they had a guaranteed buyer for those loans in Fannie and Freddie, back, of course, by us taxpayers. Yes, banks were "greedy" for new customers and riskier loans, but they were responding to incentives created by well-intentioned but misguided government interventions. It is these interventions that are ultimately responsible for the risky loans gone bad that are at the center of the current crisis, not the "free market."
Read it all here.