On the Richter scale of government activism, the government’s recent actions don’t (yet) register at FDR levels. They are shrouded in technicalities and buried in a pile of new acronyms.
But something big just happened. It happened without an explicit vote by Congress. And, though the Treasury hasn’t cut any checks for housing or Wall Street rescues, billions of dollars of taxpayer money were put at risk. A Republican administration, not eager to be viewed as the second coming of the Hoover administration, showed it no longer believes the market can sort out the mess.
“The Government of Last Resort is working with the Lender of Last Resort to shore up the housing and credit markets to avoid Great Depression II,” economist Ed Yardeni wrote to clients.
In the days that followed, the Republican Treasury secretary leaned on two shareholder-owned, though government-chartered, companies — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — to raise capital that their boards didn’t want to raise. In exchange, their government regulator allowed them to increase their leverage so they can buy about $200 billion more in mortgage-backed securities.
So Fannie and Freddie will get bigger, a welcome development when mortgage markets are in trouble. Already, they have regained lost market share. They accounted for 76% of new mortgages in the fourth quarter of last year, up from 46% in the second quarter, Mr. Paulson said Wednesday. But everyone knows that if Fannie or Freddie stumble, taxpayers will get stuck with the tab.
And then, the federal regulator of the low-profile Federal Home Loan Banks, which are even less well capitalized than Fannie and Freddie, said they could buy twice as many Fannie and Freddie-blessed mortgage-backed securities as previously permitted — more than $100 billion worth.
Was this necessary? It’s messy, uncomfortable and undoubtedly flawed in many details. Like firefighters rushing to a five-alarm fire, policy makers are making mistakes that will be apparent only in retrospect.
Too Great to Ignore
But, regardless of how we got here, the clear and present danger that the virus in the housing, mortgage and credit markets is infecting the overall economy is too great to ignore. The Great Depression was worsened because the initial government reaction was wrong-headed. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spent an academic career learning how to avoid repeating those mistakes.
Is it working? It is helping. One key measure is the gap between interest rates on mortgages and safe Treasury securities. A wide gap means high mortgage rates, which hurt an already sickly housing market. A lot of recent activity, including Wednesday’s previously planned auction in which the Fed is trading Treasurys for mortgage-backed securities, is aimed at increasing demand for those securities to drive down mortgage rates.
The gap remains enormous by historical standards, but has narrowed. On March 6, according to FTN Financial, 30-year fixed-rate mortgages were trading at 2.92 percentage points above the relevant Treasury rates; Wednesday the gap was down to 2.22. Normal is about 1.5 percentage points. Money markets are still under stress, as banks and others hoard cash and super-safe short-term Treasurys.
Is it enough? Probably not. Although it’s hard to know, the downward tug on the overall economy from falling house prices persists. The next step, if one proves necessary, is almost sure to require the explicit use of taxpayer money.
Cushion the Blow
The case for doing more is twofold. One is to cushion the blow to families and communities, even if some are culpable. The other is to disrupt a dangerous downward spiral in which falling prices of houses and mortgage-backed securities lead lenders to pull back, hurting the economy and dragging asset prices down further, and so on.
In ordinary times, a capitalist economy lets prices — such as those of homes, mortgage-backed securities and stocks — fall to the point where the big-bucks crowd rushes in, hoping to make a killing. But if the big money remains on the sidelines, unpersuaded that a bottom is near, the wait for bargain hunters to take the plunge could be very long and very painful.
So the next step, no matter how it is dressed up, is likely to involve the government’s moving in ways that put a floor under prices, hoping that will limit the downside risks enough so more Americans are willing to buy homes and deeper-pocketed investors are willing, in effect, to lend them the money to do so.
Write to David Wessel at email@example.com