The financial crisis, US-style

Plain speaking from this week’s

Capitalism rests on a clear principle: those who get the profits should take the pain. For the system to work, bankers sometimes need to lose their jobs and investors their shirts. Yet were a collapsing Bear Stearns or Fannie Mae to sow destruction for the sake of a principle, it would impose a terrible price in lost jobs and output on everyone else. The unpalatable truth is that by the time a financial crisis hits, the state often has to compromise—to impose as much pain as it can, of course, but to shoulder a large part of the losses nonetheless.

That formula comes at a heavy price. Fannie and Freddie were supposed to help Americans buy their own homes, by making the mortgage market work better. But it has been an awful deal for the taxpayer—a Fed economist calculated the implicit debt-guarantee was worth a one-off sum of between $122 billion and $182 billion. Because Fannie and Freddie barely lowered the cost of borrowing, little of this subsidy went towards boosting home ownership. Instead, just over half—about $79 billion—went straight to their shareholders.

Normal financial-services firms should have been dealing in the safe, middle-of-the road mortgages that Fannie and Freddie specialise in. Except that they were crowded out into subprime mortgages. Fannie and Freddie should never have grown so large. Except that they wanted to exploit the margin between the government-guaranteed borrowing costs and the commercial lending income. They should have been stopped by Congress and their regulator. Except that they spent some of their subsidy on a fierce lobbying machine.

Which is how we wind up with a system in which profits are privatised and losses are nationalised.