Daniel Gross discusses the mortgage crisis and the government's economic safety net.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
March 27 2008 5:28 PM

The Walking Debt

Daniel Gross takes readers' questions about the mortgage crisis and the government's age-old weapons for fighting it.

Slate business columnist Daniel Gross was online at Washingtonpost.com on March 27 to chat with readers about the Roosevelt-era safety net that is saving the economy from itself. An unedited transcript of the discussion follows.

Daniel Gross: Hi everyone—Dan Gross here, the Moneybox columnist at Slate and Money Culture columnist for Newsweek. Happy to entertain questions on the recent volatility on Wall Street, the candidates' economic plans, and anything else on your mind.

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Anonymous: Just a comment, We are ignoring the role that Fannie, Freddie and FHA all played in running up the housing market. Fannie and Freddie were the largest single buyers of subprime MBS, helping to drive that market. FHA continues to lose money, and started the trend toward low or no down-payment lending. It is insane that the House has passed a bill allowing FHA to insure zero down-payment loans—it is the lack of equity and extreme leverage on the part of borrowers and lenders that got us where we are today.

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Daniel Gross: There's no question that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac played a significant role in contributing to the boom—by essentially guaranteeing that they would purchase mortgages that conformed to their standards. And there's no question they did end up with a big chunk of subprime debt on their books, much of which was rated AAA (thank you, credit rating agencies.) But as a total percentage of all assets, subprime was a drop in the bucket at Fannie & Freddie. In addition, while it's easy and popular to bash the two GSEs, it is worth noting that their presence in the marketplace does result in lower interest rates for people who qualify for so-called conforming loans.



Re: the FHA. It has emerged as one of several levers the government is now pushing in an effort to bring some life back to the mortgage market.

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Silver Spring, Md.: More of a personal finance question but it ties into some recent trends: I am about to take out loans to pay for business school abroad, after which I'll hopefully repay them on a Euro- or Pound-denominated salary... Should I go with a government-backed Sallie Mae loan, or succumb to the low interest rates of private loans? How stable is the student loans market going to be in the next few years - not very, right?

Daniel Gross: An interesting dilemma, and I'm no way qualified to give advice on something like this. The student loan market isn't particularly stable right now, but that is something that is likely affecting investors and the issuers more than people who are getting MBA programs. When comparing loans, I don't think the source matters as much as the fees, the interest rates, etc.

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Chicago: In his commentary on the Federal Home Loan Banks, the author might have confused the action taken this week. The regulatory change allowing "member banks ... to double the number of mortgage-backed securities issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that they can hold on their books for the next two years," was taken by the Federal Housing Finance Board, which regulates the FHLBs. Thus, the 12 FHLBs were extended this authority, not their commercial bank and thrift members.

Also, as correctly noted, the FHLBs are creatures of Herbert Hoover, not President Roosevelt. Freddie Mac, however, was created in 1970 by the FHLBs and later spun-off as its own entity in 1989. At that time, the FHLB underwent a significant transformation, shedding their regulatory oversight of the thrift industry and emerging as purely wholesale lenders to their member financial institutions, which now include commercial banks and credit unions, as well as thrifts and insurance companies.

When Fannie Mae was created in 1938, it was today's Ginnie Mae, charged only with purchasing government-guaranteed mortgages. The current Fannie Mae, created in 1968, is a publicly-traded, privately-capitalized, profit-making corporation—a corporate form seemingly at odds with the New Deal philosophy.

As these three entities exist today, they are unique examples of quasi-governmental organizations that successfully blend both free-market and liberal attributes to perform their missions of promoting housing finance while generating reasonable profits for their shareholders.

Daniel Gross: Thanks for the comment. And, yes, my sentences on the FHLB could have been more clear. In referring to "member banks" I was referring to the actual Federal Home Loan Banks, not to the private banks that access credit through them.



I agree with everything you say, with the possible exception of the last line about Fannie & Freddie generating "reasonable profits" for their shareholders. Of late, they've been generating truly massive losses, with the possibility of more. And it's worth noting that the market's implicit assumption that the government—i.e. the taxpayers—will stand behind the GSEs should they fail, keeps their borrowing costs low and prevents the type of confidence-draining actions that hampered Bear, Stearns.

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Falls Church, Va.: So, does whatever help that the FHLB is providing in this economic crisis make up for the huge damage it did to the economy (and taxpayers) in the S&L crisis? Essentially, it stood by while the industry developed a huge mismatch between loan interest received and deposit interest paid out, and then it failed so badly in the handling of this crisis that a whole new agency (the RTC) had to be created to fix the mess, essentially by spending a vast amount of taxpayers' money.

Daniel Gross: I'm not sure how one would compare the costs of the S&L crisis with today's subprime crisis. There were definitely multiple government agencies involved in both.

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Arlington, Va.: What New-Deal style agencies would you suggest setting up today?

Daniel Gross: One possibility would something like a Resolution Trust Corp. (from late 1980s or early 1990s) that would buy up the bad debt and take ownership of foreclosed properties—and work them out or sell them over time, rather than dumping them on the market en masse as is being done today. The way the foreclosure dynamic works in the private sector, there's no way the lenders can handle the sort of one-on-one negotiations necessary to modify mortgages, etc.

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