WASHINGTON -- There is no more insidious myth than the notion that the subprime-mortgage debacle began on Wall Street and that predatory capitalism was responsible for the whole blooming mess.
Economist Milton Friedman used to say that just about every economic and social ill that confronts our country could be traced to misguided federal policies and their "unintended consequences." And that is certainly true of the subprime crisis seeds that were planted by two federally created, government-assisted lending agencies: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
To be sure, there's lots of blame to go around, but these two mortgage giants were at the root of this scandal. "Fannie and Freddie did this by becoming a key enabler of the mortgage crisis," wrote economist Kevin Hassett in a revealing article for Bloomberg financial news. "They fueled Wall Street's efforts to securitize subprime loans by becoming the primary customer of all AAA-rated subprime-mortgage pools. In addition, they held an enormous portfolio themselves."
To a large degree, Fannie and Freddie became the mortgage market, as Democratic leaders in Congress pressured, pushed and ordered the agencies to make housing loans to lower-income borrowers who could not meet credit standards elsewhere in the mortgage industry.
As of last year, Fannie Mae alone owned or guaranteed more than $388 billion of these high-risk loans. "Their large presence created an environment within which even mortgage-backed securities assembled by others could find a ready home," the American Enterprise Institute economist says.
There were those who saw disaster early in the making, and that's what happened from 2004 to 2005 when both agencies were caught in the undertow of an accounting scandal that swept Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines from office in disgrace.
One of those who tried to rein in the two agencies was President Bush, who recommended in 2003 that an agency be created to regulate the housing-finance industry, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But Barney Frank, then the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee and now its chairman and chief protector, stopped Bush's regulatory initiative cold.
"These two entities -- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- are not facing any kind of financial crisis," Frank said then. "The more people exaggerate these problems, the more pressure there is on these companies and the less we will see in terms of affordable housing."