Jan 08 2009
Democrats and the media have the housing story wrong
By KARL ROVE
Mythmaking is in full swing as the Bush administration prepares to leave town. Among the more prominent is the assertion that the housing meltdown resulted from unbridled capitalism under a president opposed to all regulation.
Like most myths, this is entertaining but fictional. In reality, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were among the principal culprits of the housing crisis, and Mr. Bush wanted to rein them in before things got out of hand.
Rather than a failure of capitalism, the housing meltdown shows what's likely to happen when government grants special privileges to favored private entities that facilitate bad actors and lousy practices.
Fannie and Freddie are "government-sponsored enterprises" (GSEs), chartered by Congress. As such, they had an implicit promise of taxpayer backing and could borrow money at rates well below competitors.
Because of this, the Bush administration warned in the budget it issued in April 2001 that Fannie and Freddie were too large and overleveraged. Their failure "could cause strong repercussions in financial markets, affecting federally insured entities and economic activity" well beyond housing.
Mr. Bush wanted to limit systemic risk by raising the GSEs' capital requirements, compelling preapproval of new activities, and limiting the size of their portfolios. Why should government regulate banks, credit unions and savings and loans, but not GSEs? Mr. Bush wanted the GSEs to be treated just like their private-sector competitors.
But the GSEs fought back. They didn't want to see the Bush reforms enacted, because that would level the playing field for their competitors. Congress finally did pass the Bush reforms, but in 2008, after Fannie and Freddie collapsed.
The largely unreported story is that to fend off regulation, the GSEs engaged in a lobbying frenzy. They hired high-profile Democrats and Republicans and spent $170 million on lobbying over the past decade. They also constructed an elaborate network of state and local lobbyists to pressure members of Congress.
When Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama, then chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, pushed for comprehensive GSE reform in 2005, Democrat Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut successfully threatened a filibuster. Later, after Fannie and Freddie collapsed, Mr. Dodd asked, "Why weren't we doing more?" He then voted for the Bush reforms that he once called "ill-advised."
But Mr. Dodd wasn't the only Democrat to heap abuse on the Bush reforms. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts defended Fannie and Freddie as "fundamentally sound" and labeled the president's proposals as "inane." He later voted for the reforms. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York dismissed Mr. Bush's "safety and soundness concerns" as "a straw man." "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," was the helpful advice of both Sen. Thomas Carper of Delaware and Rep. Maxine Waters of California. Rep. Kendrick Meeks of Florida berated a Bush official at a hearing, saying, "I am just pissed off" at the administration for raising the issue.
Democrats had ready allies among lenders accustomed to GSEs buying their risky mortgages. For example, Angelo Mozilo, CEO of Countrywide Financial, complained that "an overly cumbersome regulatory process" would "reduce, or even eliminate, the incentives for the GSEs and their primary market partners."
It took Fannie and Freddie over three decades to acquire $2 trillion in mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. Together, they held $2.1 trillion in 2000. By 2005, the two GSEs held $4 trillion, up 92% in just five years. By 2008, they'd grown another 24%, to nearly $5 trillion. They held almost half of all American mortgages.
The more the president pushed for reform, the more they bought. Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute and Charles Calomiris of the Columbia Business School suggest $1 trillion of this debt was subprime and "liar loans," almost all bought between 2005 and 2007. This bulk-up in risky paper made it possible for banks to lend imprudently on a massive scale.
Some critics blame Mr. Bush because he supported broadening homeownership. But Mr. Bush's goal was for people to own homes they could afford, not ones made accessible by reckless lenders who off-loaded their risk to GSEs.
The housing meltdown is largely a story of greed and irresponsibility made possible by government privilege. If Democrats had granted the Bush administration the regulatory powers it sought, the housing crisis wouldn't be nearly as severe and the economy as a whole would be better off.
That's why some mythmakers are so intent on denying that Mr. Bush worked to rein in the GSEs. But facts are stubborn things, as Ronald Reagan used to say, and in this instance, the facts support Mr. Bush and offer a harsh judgment on key Democrats. Perhaps that explains why so many in the media haven't told the real story.
Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.