An open letter on the financial crisis

Steven Horwitz from St Lawence University does an open letter to his friends on the left re the financial crisis:

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.

And then he addresses the issue of greed:

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.

And then he looks at the facts:

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.

Now think about this as the Government here passes a law requiring affordable housing in certain areas. The best of motives often lead to the worst of results.

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.

Sounds a lot like NZ again doesn’t it – strict land use policies pushign up house prices.

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 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.

I suggest people read the full thing. EVen better NBR should run it as a full page story!

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