Tag Archives: Fannie Mae

It’s Time to Change the Incentives of Regulators

One of the primary reasons that regulation slows down economic growth is that regulation inhibits innovation.  Another example of that is playing out in real-time.  Julian Hattem at The Hill recently blogged about online educators trying to stop the US Department of Education from preventing the expansion of educational opportunities with regulations.  From Hattem’s post:

Funders and educators trying to spur innovations in online education are complaining that federal regulators are making their jobs more difficult.

John Ebersole, president of the online Excelsior College, said on Monday that Congress and President Obama both were making a point of exploring how the Internet can expand educational opportunities, but that regulators at the Department of Education were making it harder.

“I’m afraid that those folks over at the Departnent of Education see their role as being that of police officers,” he said. “They’re all about creating more and more regulations. No matter how few institutions are involved in particular inappropriate behavior, and there have been some, the solution is to impose regulations on everybody.”

Ebersole has it right – the incentive for people at the Department of Education, and at regulatory agencies in general, is to create more regulations.  Economists sometimes model the government as if it were a machine that benevolently chooses to intervene in markets only when it makes sense. But those models ignore that there are real people inside the machine of government, and people respond to incentives.  Regulations are the product that regulatory agencies create, and employees of those agencies are rewarded with things like plaques (I’ve got three sitting on a shelf in my office, from my days as a regulatory economist at the Department of Transportation), bonuses, and promotions for being on teams that successfully create more regulations.  This is unfortunate, because it inevitably creates pressure to regulate regardless of consequences on things like innovation and economic growth.

A system that rewards people for producing large quantities of some product, regardless of that product’s real value or potential long-term consequences, is a recipe for disaster.  In fact, it sounds reminiscent of the situation of home loan originators in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008.  Mortgage origination is the act of making a loan to someone for the purposes of buying a home.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as large commercial and investment banks, would buy mortgages (and the interest that they promised) from home loan originators, the most notorious of which was probably Countrywide Financial (now part of Bank of America).  The originators knew they had a ready buyer for mortgages, including subprime mortgages – that is, mortgages that were relatively riskier and potentially worthless if interest rates rose.  The knowledge that they could quickly turn a profit by originating more loans and selling them to Fannie, Freddie, and some Wall Street firms led many mortgage originators to turn a blind eye to the possibility that many of the loans they made would not be paid back.  That is, the incentives of individuals working in mortgage origination companies led them to produce large quantities of their product, regardless of the product’s real value or potential long-term consequences.  Sound familiar?

A government that hands out privileges can expect corruption

According to the Washington Post, the mafia is heavily involved in Italy’s renewable energy market. This is not particularly surprising given that firms in that market compete on a manifestly uneven playing field.

The Godfather Movie in TextIn a market characterized by a genuinely level playing field—one in which no firm or industry benefits from government-granted privilege—the only way to profit is to offer something of value to customers. If you fail to create value for voluntarily paying customers, they won’t volunteer their money. It’s that simple.

But things are different when the playing field can be tilted through government-granted privileges. This is because when the playing field can be tilted, firms have an incentive to find some way to persuade the government to tilt it their way. And the most persuasive techniques aren’t always above board.

The problem is that objective standards for playing favorites are hard to come by. This can corrupt even well-intentioned programs that privilege particular behavior in the name of serving the general good.

Imagine you are a politician and you want to reward firms that specialize in renewable energy. How do you determine who makes the cut? What if you want to reward companies that securitize mortgages for low-income households. How do you decide whom to reward? Or say you want to bailout “systemically important” banks. Where do you draw the line between systemically important and systemically unimportant?

Without objective guideposts, subjective factors loom large: whom do you interact with the most? Whom have you known the longest? Which firms share your ideological perspective? Which are headquartered in your hometown?

Even the most well-intentioned of politicians are susceptible to these considerations because all humans are susceptible to these considerations. That’s why a slew of research has found government-granted privileges are often associated with corruption. For example, in an examination of 450 firms in 35 countries, economists Mara Faccio, Ronald Masulis, and John McConnell found that politically connected firms are more likely to be bailed out than non-connected firms. It’s possible that more deserving firms just happen to be politically connected, but this strains credulity. A more plausible explanation is that in the absence of an objective standard for dispensing privileges, politicians reward those they know.

And when that is the case, firms make it their business to get to know politicians. Just ask Angelo Mozilo, the politically ensconced former head of Countrywide Financial. Countrywide supplied the loans that were repackaged by the federally backed Fannie Mae. And since Countrywide’s business model depended on the favor of politicians, Mozilo made sure he was in good standing with his benefactors. Under a program known internally as the “Friends of Angelo” program, Countrywide offered favorable mortgage financing to the likes of Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad.

The conventional route to profit is to please one’s customers. But when firms are able to profit by pleasing politicians, they will do whatever it takes to please politicians. Which brings us back to Italy and renewables. The current investigation (known as operation Eolo after the Greek god of wind) first bore fruit in 2010 when eight people were arrested for bribing officials with cash and luxury cars. Armed with more evidence, officials have now arrested another dozen crime bosses.

It is good, of course, to have police who investigate these matters. But a far simpler, equitable, and efficient solution is to create a truly level playing field for business. When politicians cannot tilt the playing field in favor of particular firms or industries, businesses have nothing to gain from bribery and connections.

Put away the honey jar and you won’t have an ant problem.

President calls for an end to government-granted privilege

As expected, there were a number of beautiful words in the President’s Second Inaugural. In my view, the most-beautiful were:

The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few, or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people.

(Okay, so the POTUS didn’t provide a hyperlink to my Mercatus paper on government-granted privilege, but maybe the Government Printing Office will one day add one).

cronyismIn any case, one can only hope that this is a signal that the president has decided that the time has come to abandon government-granted privileges. No more bailouts of particular firms like GM (or, more accurately, certain of GM’s creditors but not others). No more expected bailouts that allow firms like Fannie Mae to borrow at significantly lower interest rates than their competitors. No more subsidies to farmers. No more regulations that require consumers to buy certain products such as health insurance. No more tax breaks for manufacturers just because they make things rather than provide services. No more loan guarantees for certain energy firms because they make politically correct products. No more monopoly status for the USPS. No more price supports for sugar producers or tariffs that benefit domestic makers of solar panels.

Hopefully, this signals a new era of non-discriminatory democracy. I won’t hold my breath.

“The last thing we can do is go back to the same failed policies that got us into this mess in the first place.”

I’ve heard this a great deal lately. I suspect I’ll hear it even more over the next three months. Whatever could it mean? Presumably, the speaker is worried about the sorts of micro and macro policies that were pursued in the years prior to the Great Recession:

  • Perhaps he thinks it was bad policy for federal spending as a share of GDP to leap from 18.2 percent in 2001 to 25.2 percent in 2009 (this was the largest such increase in ANY 8 year period since WWII).
  • Or perhaps he thinks it was bad that net federal debt went from 32.5 percent of GDP in 2001 to 54.1 percent of GDP in 2009 (a post WWII high).
  • Or maybe the speaker thinks it was ill advised for the Bush Administration to be far more aggressive than its predecessors in pursuing discretionary, Keynesian-style countercycle fiscal policy. There were no fewer than four such measures during the Bush years: cash rebates in 2001, investment incentives known as “bonus depreciation” in early 2002, tax rebates in 2003, and of course, the 2008 stimulus bill which included more rebates.
  • Perhaps the speaker thinks it was a bad idea for the Bush Administration to impose 30 percent tariffs on imported steel.
  • Or maybe he thinks it was bad for the Bush Administration to introduce (an unfunded) Medicare prescription drug benefit, the first major entitlement program since the Great Society.
  • Perhaps he thinks it was bad for the Bush Administration to reintroduce industrial policy by signing the Energy Policy Act of 2005, creating the Department of Energy loan program that ramped-up the government’s adventures in venture capitalism.
  • Perhaps the speaker thinks that in the years leading up to the crisis, monetary policy became unhinged from a restrained, rules-based approach?
  • Or perhaps the speaker thinks that the government sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, systematically encouraged over-leveraging in the housing industry?
  • Or maybe that capital requirements encouraged investors to load up on mortgage-backed securities.
  • Or maybe he thinks that, once the crisis hit, the Bush Administration shouldn’t have undertaken the most comprehensive and far-reaching bailout of private industry in U.S. history, one that resulted in the federal government buying stake in or bailing out hundreds of financial firms.
  • It must be that the speaker was worried that in aggregate these policies had seriously undermined the economic freedom of the U.S., as evidenced by the precipitous fall in measured economic freedom from 2001 to 2009:

If this is what the speaker was getting at, then I couldn’t agree more! Hopefully, he’s proposing ideas to reverse course: spending reductions to bring spending in line with taxation, entitlement reform to put the nation’s budget on a sustainable course, tax reform to close loopholes and reduce rates such as the corporate tax rate, financial reforms to finally end too big to fail, regulatory reforms to reduce distortions in the marketplace, health care reforms so that market forces can actually operate in that industry, and other economic reforms to restore a level playing field in American business.

….Or, maybe the speaker is just focusing on one policy that marginally moved the nation in a market direction, the temporary reduction of all personal income tax rates, including the top marginal rate from 39.6 percent to (gasp!) 35 percent. And maybe the speaker is hoping that no one will notice that on just about every other policy dimension, the previous administration was anything but laissez faire.