Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Fannie, Freddie, Basel, and the Fed

George Melloan's column in the Wall Street Journal discusses the new Basel capital standards and correctly observes that 22 years of global banking regulations have not generated good results. This is not because requiring reserves is a bad thing, but rather because such policies do nothing to fix the real problem. In the case of the United States, easy money policy by the Fed and a corrupt system of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac subsidies caused the housing bubble and resulting financial crisis. Yet these problems have not been addressed, either in the Dodd-Frank bailout bill or the new Basel rules. Indeed, Melloan points out that Fannie and Freddie were exempted from the Dood-Frank legislation.

There's something to be said for holding banks to higher capital standards, even at the cost of more constrained lending and slower economic growth. But the much-bruited idea that Basel rules will make the world freer of financial crises is highly doubtful, given current political circumstances. The 2008 financial meltdown was not primarily the result of lax regulation but of co-option and abuse of the U.S. financial system by the political class in Washington. The federal government's "affordable housing" endeavors, beginning in the 1990s, allowed and even forced banks to make highly risky mortgage loans. Those loans were folded into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) sold in vast numbers throughout the world, most promiscuously by two government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Federal Reserve contributed a credit bubble that caused house prices to soar, a classic asset inflation. When the bubble began to deflate in 2007, the bad loans in mortgage securities became poisonous. The MBS market seized up, and financial institutions holding them became illiquid and began to crash. The Lehman Brothers collapse was the biggest shock. The only way Basel standards might have helped prevent this would have been if they had been applied to Fannie and Freddie as well as to banks. They weren't. President Bill Clinton exempted the two giants from Basel capitalization rules because they were the primary instruments of a federal policy aimed at helping more lower-income people become homeowners. This was a laudable goal that ultimately wrecked the housing and banking industries. Washington has learned nothing from this debacle, which is why the next financial crisis is likely to have federal policy origins and may come sooner than we think. Fannie and Freddie—now fully controlled by Uncle Sam and exempt from the Dodd-Frank financial "reform" legislation—are still going strong, guaranteeing and restructuring loans while they continue to rack up huge losses for taxpayers. ...The record since the Basel process began 22 years ago doesn't generate faith in banking regulation either. Basel rules didn't prevent the collapse of Japanese banking in 1990, they didn't prevent the 2008 meltdown, and they are not preventing the banking failures that plague the financial system even today.
P.S. The bureaucrats and regulators who put together the Basel capital standards were the ones who decided that mortgage-backed securities were very safe assets and required less capital. That was a common assumption at the time, so the point is not that the Basel folks are particularly incompetent, but rather that regulation is a very poor substitute for market discipline. Letting financial firms go bankrupt instead of bailing them out would be a far better way of encouraging prudence.

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