Column: Guarantees for America’s guarantors

Cummings illustration

US taxpayers are about to find out what their long-standing and (strictly speaking) non-existent guarantee of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will cost them. One way to think of it is this: take the US national debt of roughly $9,000bn and add $5,000bn. Not bad for an obligation still officially denied.

In the end, that astounding prospect might be the outcome. Partial or outright nationalisation of the housing lenders – colossal pseudo-private entities that own and underwrite US housing loans – would add some or all of their $5,000bn (€3,144bn, £2,513bn) in liabilities to the government’s balance sheet. While it is true that the agencies (unlike the government) own housing-related assets that roughly match those liabilities, the still-collapsing housing market makes this a lot less reassuring than one could wish.

Covering the agencies’ losses on their loans and guarantees is going to require an actual outlay, which will fall on taxpayers. You could plausibly call the rest – namely, bringing these “government-sponsored enterprises” explicitly inside the public sector – just a bookkeeping entry. But what an entry! It would surely shake financial markets, raise the government’s cost of funding and put heavy downward pressure on the dollar. Meanwhile, the turmoil impedes or paralyses the GSEs in their crucial life-support role for the housing market.

The remainder of this column can be read here. Please post comments below.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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