Congress planted the seeds of the crisis in 1992, with the enactment of what were called “affordable housing” goals for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Before 1992, these two firms dominated the housing finance market, especially after the federal savings and loan industry— another government mistake—had collapsed in the late 1980s. Fannie and Freddie’s role, as initially envisioned and as it developed until 1992, was to conduct what were called secondary market operations, to create a liquid market in mortgages. They were prohibited from making loans themselves, but they were authorized to buy mortgages from banks and other lenders. Their purchases provided cash for lenders and thus encouraged home ownership by making more funds available for more mortgages. Although Fannie and Freddie were shareholder-owned, they were chartered by Congress and granted numerous government privileges. For example, they were exempt from state and local taxes and from SEC regulations. The president appointed a minority of the members of their boards of directors, and they had a $2.25 billion line of credit at the Treasury. As a result, market participants believed that Fannie and Freddie were governmentbacked, and would be rescued by the government if they ever encountered financial difficulties.
This widely assumed government support enabled these GSEs to borrow at rates only slightly higher than the U.S. Treasury itself, and with these low-cost funds they were able to drive all competition out of the secondary mortgage market for middle-class mortgages—about 70 percent of the $11 trillion housing finance market. Between 1991 and 2003, Fannie and Freddie’s market share increased from 28 to 46 percent. From this dominant position, they were able to set the underwriting standards for the market as a whole; few mortgage lenders would make middle-class mortgages that could not be sold to Fannie or Freddie.
Over time, these two GSEs had learned from experience what underwriting standards kept delinquencies and defaults low. These required down payments of 10 to 20 percent, good credit histories for borrowers, and low debt-to-income ratios after the mortgage was closed. These were the foundational elements of what was called a prime loan or a traditional mortgage, and they contributed to a stable mortgage market through the 1970s and most of the 1980s, with mortgage defaults generally under one percent in normal times and only slightly higher in rough economic waters. Despite these strict credit standards, the homeownership rate in the United States remained relatively high, hovering around 64 percent for the 30 years between 1964 and 1994.
In a sense, government backing of the GSEs and their market domination was their undoing. Community activists had kept the two firms in their sights for many years, arguing that Fannie and Freddie’s underwriting standards were so tight that they were keeping many low- and moderateincome families from buying homes. The fact that the GSEs had government support gave Congress a basis for intervention, and in 1992 Congress directed the GSEs to meet a quota of loans to low- and middle-income borrowers when they acquired mortgages. The initial quota was 30 percent: In any year, at least 30 percent of the loans Fannie and Freddie acquired must have been made to low- and moderateincome borrowers—defined as borrowers at or below the median income level in their communities. Although 30 percent was not a difficult goal, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was given authority to increase the goals, and Congress cleared the way for far more ambitious requirements by suggesting in the legislation that down payments could be reduced below five percent without seriously impairing mortgage quality. In succeeding years, HUD raised the goal, with many intermediate steps, to 42 percent in 1996, 50 percent in 2000, and 56 percent in 2008.
In order to meet these ever-increasing goals, Fannie and Freddie had to reduce their underwriting standards. In fact that was explicitly HUD’s purpose, as many statements by the department at the time made clear. As early as 1995, the GSEs were buying mortgages with three percent down payments, and by 2000 Fannie and Freddie were accepting loans with zero down payments. At the same time, they were also compromising other underwriting standards, such as borrower credit standards, in order to find the subprime and other non-traditional mortgages they needed to meet the affordable housing goals.
These new easy credit terms spread far beyond the low-income borrowers that the loosened standards were intended to help. Mortgage lending is a competitive business; once Fannie and Freddie started to reduce their underwriting standards, many borrowers who could have afforded prime mortgages sought the easier terms now available so they could buy larger homes with smaller down payments. Thus, home buyers above the median income were gaining leverage through lower down payments, and loans to them were decreasing in quality. In many cases, these homeowners were withdrawing cash from the equity in their homes through cash-out refinancing as home prices went up and interest rates declined in the mid-2000s. By 2007, 37 percent of loans with down payments of three percent went to borrowers with incomes above the median.
As a result of the gradual deterioration in loan quality over the preceding 16 years, by 2008, just before the crisis, 56 percent of all mortgages in the U.S.—32 million loans—were subprime or otherwise low quality. Of this 32 million, 76 percent were on the books of government agencies or institutions like the GSEs that were controlled by government policies. This shows incontrovertibly where the demand for these mortgages originated.