Paul Krugman takes a break from Obama-bashing – including not a single reference to the candidate in an entire column – in order to try to take a sensible position on the current near-collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – and with them, potentially, the entire worldwide financial system. While Krugman comes out in favor of a government bailout, he points out that these two companies are problematic institutions:
The most important of these privileges is implicit: it’s the belief of investors that if Fannie and Freddie are threatened with failure, the federal government will come to their rescue.
This implicit guarantee means that profits are privatized but losses are socialized. If Fannie and Freddie do well, their stockholders reap the benefits, but if things go badly, Washington picks up the tab. Heads they win, tails we lose.
Such one-way bets can encourage the taking of bad risks, because the downside is someone else’s problem.
The Financial Times’s Willem Butier takes a similar position, but with more verve:
There are many forms of socialism. The version practiced in the US is the most deceitful one I know. An honest, courageous socialist government would say: this is a worthwhile social purpose (financing home ownership, helping my friends on Wall Street); therefore I am going to subsidize it; and here are the additional taxes (or cuts in other public spending) to finance it.
Instead the dishonest, spineless socialist policy makers in successive Democratic and Republican administrations have systematically tried to hide both the subsidies and size and distribution of the incremental fiscal burden associated with the provision of these subsidies, behind an endless array of opaque arrangements and institutions…
So let’s call a spade a bloody shovel: nationalise Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. They should never have been privatised in the first place. Cost the exercise. Increase taxes or cut other public spending to finance the exercise. But stop pretending. Stop lying about the financial viability of institutions designed to hand out subsidies to favoured constituencies. These GSEs were designed to make losses. They are expected to make losses. If they don’t make losses they are not serving their political purpose.
So I call on Secretary Paulson, Chairman Bernanke and Director Lockhart to drop the market-friendly fig-leaf. Be a socialist and proud of it. Come out of the red closet. The Soviet Union may have collapsed, but the cause of socialism is alive and well in the USA.
Many reporters have been using the phrase “too big to fail” to refer to the crisis surrounding Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae – Butier acknowledges this for what it is – a socialism for the rich, in which concentrations of power are protected, profits are privatized, and losses are spread across the social spectrum.