Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the quasi-private investment groups that own or guarantee roughly half of the U.S. mortgage market, have now effectively been nationalized. The purpose of this blog isn’t to run-down all of the domestic effects of this (for that, see Brad DeLong and Calculated Risk, and keep in mind that Fannie & Freddie own or guarantee about $6 trillion in American mortgages), but there are implications for IPE study as well.
For example, central banks, sovereign wealth funds, and other international investors bought heavily into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, because they were under the impression that the investments were as close to riskless as one could get*. As Treasury Secretary Paulson noted, nearly $5 trillion in Fannie/Freddie debt and securities are owned by investors all over the world. To put that into perspective, the combined GDP of the U.K. and Italy in 2007 was less than $5 trillion. There is simply no way that the U.S. Treasury could let the companies fail and allow those nations (and other investors) to take a hit that big. If they did, says Tyler Cowen, the effects would be catastrophic:
The flow of capital from them and from other central banks, sovereign wealth funds, and plain old ordinary investors would shut down very quickly. The dollar would fall say 30-40 percent in a week, there would be payments system gridlock, margin calls at the clearinghouses would go unmet, and only a trading shutdown would stop the Dow from shedding half its value. Most of the U.S. banking system would be insolvent. Emergency Fed/Treasury action would recapitalize the FDIC but we would lose an independent central bank and setting the money supply would be a crapshoot. The rate of unemployment would climb into double digits and stay there. Many Americans would not have access to their savings. The future supply of foreign investment would be noticeably lower. The Federal government would lose its AAA rating and we would pay much more in borrowing costs. The deficit would skyrocket.
Tyler Cowen isn't known as a pessimist, but considering that “when the U.S. sneezes, the world gets a cold,” the prospects for international financial markets as a whole could have been catastrophic if the U.S. had not acted. In short, it’s likely that international political concerns, such as maintaining the credibility of the U.S. government in the eyes of other foreign nations, have essentially forced the Treasury Department to step in, even if they didn’t want to.
The news of nationalization was greeted warmly by nearly everyone. The announcement was made yesterday for the benefit of foreign financial markets trading overnight, and those markets responded by posting large gains. The heads of the European and Japanese central banks spoke positively of the take-over. There is still some pain ahead, especially for domestic banks, but by nationalizing Fannie and Freddie the U.S. Treasury may have dodged a bullet. At least temporarily.
*As it turns out, they were right: these investments were largely riskless since the implicit guarantee of the debt by the U.S. government has now turned into an explicit guarantee. Are there moral hazard concerns? You betcha. But, as the saying goes, "in the long run, we're all dead."
[UPDATE: U.S. markets posted huge gains today in response to the bail-out news. The dollar gained against the Euro, Pound, Swiss Franc, and Yen.]