Saturday, July 19, 2008

A brief family history Toxic fudge

ADAM SMITH thought that private companies chartered to fulfil government tasks had “in the long run proved, universally, either burdensome or useless”. That has not stopped them thriving. America has five government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), set up to subsidise loans to homeowners or farmers. (Sallie Mae, which deals with students, gave up GSE status in 2004.) Because they count as privately owned, GSEs are kept off the government’s books. For politicians that has made them irresistible ever since the Farm Credit System’s creation in 1916. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac dominate the GSE system, accounting for four-fifths of its total credit portfolio. Fannie was created in 1938 as a government corporation. In 1968 the Johnson administration decided to list its shares to reduce the budgetary pressures created by the Vietnam war, according to Thomas Stanton, of Johns Hopkins University. Freddie was born in 1970 and listed in 1989. Both companies aim to support the secondary mortgage market. They have succeeded all too well: they own or guarantee about half of all mortgages.

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