Since the inception of the current downturn, free market capitalism has taken quite the bashing. Supporters of significant government involvement in the economy deride the horrors of “unfettered capitalism” and a “free market run amuck.” Frequently, deregulation of capital markets is singled out as the most dastardly culprit, to which Pres. Obama seems to be alluding when he blames “relying on the worn-out dogmas of the past,” and “too little regulatory scrutiny.” Yet, after the last eight years in which we witnessed Sarbanes-Oxley, No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and numerous attempts to reign in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shoved aside by legislators, evidence of unregulated economic activity being the source of our crisis seems rather scant.
The idea that “deregulation” was somehow responsible for the mortgage meltdown is a particularly shaky proposition. Shannon Love explains why:
Leftists have to answer a question: if greedy, irresponsible, unregulated etc. capitalism caused the housing bubble, why didn’t we see a similar bubble in commercial real-estate markets which operate under even less regulation than the residential markets? Why does the politically neglected and unregulated commercial real-estate market exhibit much milder swings?
The differences between residential and commercial real estate provide the means to test the hypothesis that government intervention or the lack thereof caused the housing bubble and subsequent collapse of the financial system. We can compare the two markets because the same institutions ultimately make residential and commercial loans. They make loans in the same communities and regions. Changes in the economy affect both types of real estate at the same time and to the same rough degree. The only major difference between the two markets lies in the degree of government intervention.
After dispensing with some obvious questions about the comparison, Love highlights how the residential market was essentially turned into a Lemon’s Market:
As Love points out, the commercial real estate market has no such mechanism muddying its waters, and information is comparatively less asymmetric. Without the government interference, commercial mortgage lenders let the potential for bad outcomes drive their decision making:
More than any other policy, the creation of Freddie Mac and Fanny May distorted the residential mortgage market in a way that the commercial market escaped. The FMs exist solely to induce lenders to make residential loans that the free market judged too risky. The FMs buy up residential mortgages from primary lenders and bundle them together in securities. They do so precisely in order to short-circuit the free-market feedback system that communicates to banks when the financial system as a whole has lent out as much money as it safely can. That feedback system worked like a governor on an engine. It kept the system from running away and lending more money than it could recoup, but also prevented people with poorer credit from getting loans.
Politicians who wanted the engine to run faster created the FMs to bypass the governor in order to get higher performance in the short run. Since the FMs would buy up almost any mortgage, lenders could make riskier and riskier loans without suffering any negative consequence. The FMs replaced the self-interested secondary-market buyers with people playing with government money and a mandate to induce more and more lending. Special dodgy accounting rules allowed the FMs to hide the risk behind the securitized mortgages they sold.
Tellingly, no such intervention occurred in commercial markets. The FMs’ charters expressly prevented them from buying commercial mortgages. As a result, the commercial mortgage market functioned with a free-market governor. When lenders made too many risky loans, free-market secondary buyers stopped buying their mortgages and the system cooled down. As a result, commercial markets saw no runaway boom and subsequent colossal bust.
Although I think that laying the crisis solely at the feet of the residential mortgage market is overly simplistic (for example, what was up with the ratings agencies?), Love does point to a very apt comparison as to how government intervention in the market changes incentives and behavior. If you guarantee risks against bad loans, and subsidize the debtors, then more of such loans will be made. Remove such a guarantees and subsidies and market forces will severely punish improperly compensated risk taking.
The trade off, of course, is that free markets do not allow much opportunity for rent-seeking. Which is why Love’s final lament is so true:
Sadly, experience suggests that mere empiricism has no place in political economics.
That’s because empiricism does not buy votes.