Fannie and Freddie's Double Whammy
With a stunningly vicious pair of blows, the faltering world economy — the Godzilla of this year’s presidential race — has made the candidates look small.
Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain were reduced to media irrelevancy Monday morning after the federal government took over the huge mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This development followed Friday’s bad news that the unemployment rate rose from 5.7 to 6.1 percent in August, with 84,000 jobs lost.
The candidates’ comments were not major parts of the either story. This was particularly noticeable in accounts of the takeover of the big mortgage companies. At best, Obama and McCain were mentioned far down in news stories or toward the end of broadcast news accounts.
The federal government created the two companies decades ago to supply mortgages and extend homeownership to millions of middle-class and working-class Americans. Eventually, the companies became private and have now joined others in suffering from falling home prices and mortgage defaults.
Fannie Mae is the commonly used name of the Federal National Mortgage Assn. and Freddie Mac is short for the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. As Alana Semuels explained in The Los Angeles Times on Monday, both are crucial to Americans’ ability to borrow money to buy homes. “Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac buy mortgages from savings and loans, banks and other lenders to generate more cash for those lenders to make more home loans,” she wrote. Selling investments in themselves — stocks and bonds — to individuals, mutual funds and foreign central banks and governments finances the two companies. When the housing market collapsed, their troubles had worldwide implications.
Financial papers and blogs, along with CNBC, have extensively covered the growing problems of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac.
But these problems haven’t been part of the presidential debate. The Democratic National Convention was heavy with talk of economic woes, but not this particular one. Nor did the economy figure into the Republican National Convention, which was instead obsessed with reviving the national culture wars.
The real action was taking place elsewhere. Federal Reserve officials mapped out solutions at their annual meeting at Jackson Hole, Wyo. Then, on the Labor Day weekend, after the Republican National Convention had adjourned, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and others met at the Treasury Department, according to accounts in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and agreed on the takeover.
Obama and McCain sounded almost like spectators when they commented Sunday.
“We need to keep people in their homes but we can’t allow this to turn into a bailout of Wall Street speculators,” said McCain.
Obama said the federal action was necessary to “prevent a long-term, much bigger crisis.”
Why hasn’t this looming crisis been part of the presidential debate? After all, it affects millions facing foreclosure or harboring hopes of buying a home.
To start with, the issue is too complicated for the current political debate. The feuding “war rooms” of the presidential campaigns are incapable of reducing the mind-bending complexities of the mortgage crisis to digestible sound bites.
Furthermore, they know there is nothing they can do about it.
Financiers, not politicians, run the global economy. People protest. Boeing workers are on strike against outsourcing their work to other nations. But Wall Street, London’s City and Russia’s oligarchs and other powerful people make the decisions, not members of Congress or even the president. Under the financiers’ guidance, the huge economy rumbles on. National boundaries mean little to these internationalists, nor do the concerns of individual workers and homeowners.
I certainly don’t know the solution. Years ago, my wife, Nancy, and I wrote a book, “Backroom Politics,” a scathing attack on how business runs government. Sam Kushner, writing for the Communist Party paper People’s World, liked the book and praised our analysis. But he noted we didn’t have the guts to advocate the next logical step, dismemberment of the capitalist system.
I still don’t. State socialism failed in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba and wherever else it has been tried. No matter what the system, human venality seems to triumph.
But a decision to take over Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac — whether it’s right or wrong — shouldn’t be made in a Treasury Department conference room in secrecy on a Saturday by a group described by The Wall Street Journal as “dressed mostly in business casual khakis and shirts.”
As it reached into the broader economy from that conference room, their decision affected many more Americans than anything that happened at the two national political conventions. If they succeeded in opening up the mortgage market, housing jobs will revive and the unemployment rate will go down. If they failed, who knows what will happen.
I don’t know if there is a better way of doing things. But speaking as a reporter writing about the presidential campaign, when the weekend ended I certainly felt that neither I nor anyone else assigned to the presidential race had been covering the real action.