THE POLITICS of housing finance reform are starting to get interesting. On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled House Financial Services Committee passed the Protecting American Taxpayers and Homeowners (PATH) Act, which would wind down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and replace the busted entities with — well, nothing, pretty much. For the first time in decades, no “government-sponsored enterprise” would be responsible for bundling most mortgages into marketable securities.
Under PATH, private investors would perform that function; Washington’s only role would be to supervise the quality of securitized mortgages. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) would remain as a source of government backing for mortgages to low-income first-time homebuyers, albeit to a more limited extent than present law allows. In short, Congress now has before it a fairly pure free-market alternative to the status quo, one that is likely to pass the House if and when the Republican leadership brings it to the floor.
Opponents of the PATH Act argue that the lack of permanent government backing will deprive the market of liquidity and consequently end the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage upon which so many consumers have come to rely.
One answer to that is that some 30-year fixed loans already exist without government help: These are “jumbo” mortgages too big to fit within Fannie and Freddie’s loan limits. Presumably private-sector innovation could create loan products, with 30-year terms or otherwise, appropriate for smaller borrowers as well. Also, where is it written that the U.S. economy must ensure a certain amount of liquidity for housing, of all economic sectors? A lesson of the Fannie-Freddie meltdown was that government probably had been encouraging over-investment in housing.
The PATH Act opponents’ best economic argument is that reducing the supply of government-backed securities would reduce the overall depth of the U.S. financial markets, which is one of this country’s greatest advantages in the competition for the world’s supply of capital.
Still, politics is the least refutable objection to the PATH Act — quite simply, realtors, home builders, bankers and other housing interest groups would exercise their clout to defeat it, or anything like it. Bowing to that perceived inevitability, a bipartisan group of senators offered a bill last month that would also end Fannie and Freddie but keep government in the business of insuring mortgage securities against catastrophic losses, as long as private investors paid a fee and agreed to risk a substantial amount of their own capital.
Unlike the House’s PATH Act, the Senate bill has yet to make it through committee. But between the two proposals, the debate now shapes up as a contest between a nearly pure free market and a continuing role for government that is significantly smaller and more transparent than it was. The old system is being challenged as never before, and that, in itself, represents progress.