Amid the current financial turmoil, the causes of the crisis that just preceded it—the bursting of the housing bubble—are being badly distorted. Some analysts, including the authors of the book under review, are arguing that the housing and financial crises of 2007 and 2008 were the direct result of federal guarantees of mortgages, a program first created in the 1930s, and therefore less so the result of the aggressive creation of mortgages by private business than has been widely reported.
In particular, the authors accuse two quasi-public but profit-making companies, Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association) and Freddie Mac (the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation), of adding risks to the mortgage markets that resulted in disaster. Much the same criticism has been made by Peter Wallison, a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, who wrote an angry dissent to the findings of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC), which was appointed by Congress to investigate the causes of the crash.1 Contrary to Wallison, the nine other members of the commission, including three others appointed by Republicans, concluded that Fannie and Freddie were not the main causes of the crisis.
Along with many other experts, the nine members pointed to considerable evidence that, despite large losses, these government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), as they are known, bought or guaranteed too few highly risky loans, and did so too late in the 2000s, to cause the crisis. But in their new book, Reckless Endangerment, the New York Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson and mortgage securities analyst Joshua Rosner try to revive the issue of their responsibility.
The book boldly and passionately asserts that the risk-taking of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was a major element in causing the housing bubble. In particular, the authors blame the crisis on the goals set by the Clinton administration in the early 1990s to make lending “affordable” to more middle- and low-income home buyers. These goals were raised several times over the next dozen years so as to include more people, with the result that loans became cheaper. The authors write, “The homeownership drive helped to plunge the nation into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.” They add, “How Clinton’s calamitous Homeownership Strategy was born, nurtured, and finally came to blow up the American economy is a story of greed and good intentions, corporate corruption and government support.”
This bold claim, however, is not substantiated by persuasive analysis or by any hard evidence in the book. The GSEs did generate large losses, but their bad investments in housing loans followed rather than led the crisis; most of those investments involved purchases or guarantees made well after the subprime and housing bubbles had been expanded by private loans and were almost about to burst.
Even then, the GSEs’ overall purchases and guarantees were much less risky than Wall Street’s: their…
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