Saturday, September 6, 2008

Exposing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac - Origins

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. In addition to the term helicopter economics, we have also coined the term, helicopternomics, to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government and to update the old-fashioned term wheelbarrow economics.

Our video for this posting can be found at:

After the market close on September 4th, 2008, it was announced that the U.S. government would likely be taking over mortage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in what would be the biggest financial bailout in U.S. history. Congress had already passed a bailout bill a month earlier making this action possible. The New York Investing meetup had already predicted that the need for the bailout the previous fall. This topic was raised in the December 2007 meeting and in the April 2008 meeting, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were on our list of the dirtiest dozen financial companies.

The origins of Fannie and Freddie were innocent enough and didn't presage their ultimate blowup many years later. New Deal mortage progams actually started with the FHA, which was created in 1934 to insure mortgages that had less than a 20% down payment (most mortgages in the 1920s had much higher down payments). Fannie Mae was then established in 1938 to buy FHA mortgages, creating a secondary mortgage market. For the first 30 years of its existence Fannie Mae had limited impact on the U.S. housing market because it had acess to little credit and significant restrictions on the size and type of mortage it could back. All of that changed around 1970 however.

That year, the U.S. government ranamed the existing Fannie Mae, Ginnie Mae, and then created a new Fannie Mae that would be a quasi-govenment backed company that could purchase riskier mortgages (Fannie's charter allowed it buy even 100% mortages as long as the amount over 80% was insured). The reason for making Fannie Mae a publicly traded company was the government wanted to provide expanded mortgage services, but didn't want the debt on its own books. In tandem with Fannie Mae's creation, Freddie Mac was also created as a GSE (government supported enterprise). Its purpose was to package mortgages into bonds, known as mortgage backed securities (MBSs) and sell them to investors thereby recycling the capital available for mortages. Freddie didn't become a fully traded public company until 1989.

The scope and extent of Fannie's operations expanded greatly in the 1980s and 90s. In 1978, Fannie was allowed to back mortgages for multifamily dwellings. In 1981, it added adjustable rate mortgages to its operations and in 1983, even riskier second mortgages. At the same time, the maximum amount of a mortgage that Fannie could back was also rising going from
$108,300 in 1980 t0 $252,700 in 2000. After 2000, this amount increased at a much faster clip, reaching $417,000 in 2006 and $730,000 for awhile in 2008. By raising the mortgage caps repeatedly, the U.S government created a bubble feedback loop that made the U.S. housing bubble possible - housing prices went up; the amount of a mortgages that could be gotten by a homebuyer went up; housing prices went up again; and the amount of a available mortgage went up again and so on and so on.

Between 2001 and 2007 alone, the amount of mortgages backed by Fannie Mae went from 2.5 trillion to $5.0 trillion. U.S. housing prices approximately doubled as well during this same period. Most amazingly, all of this took place even though one of Fannie and Freddie's major purposes was to increase home ownership for the poor. Acting to constantly support higher and higher U.S. housing prices didn't seem to be a particularly efficacious approach to accomplishing this goal.

NEXT: Exposing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac - Corruption

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup

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