Free Markets, Free People
Two of the the institutions most responsible for the housing crisis, despite Barney Frank’s claims to the contrary, are still in crisis themselves (a third is the very institution Frank called home – Congress).
Fannie Mae said Wednesday it lost $2.4 billion during the fourth quarter of 2011 and $16.9 billion for the full year.
It has had worse years, remarkably. Fannie lost about $60 billion in 2008 and $72 billion the following year–two of the 10 largest corporate losses ever. Sibling Freddie Mac is responsible for a third, a $51 billion loss in 2008.
These two institutions, both set up by and working at the behest of the federal government, have a very checkered history.
For those who have always wondered what “Fannie Mae” stands for, it is the Federal National Mortgage Association, begun in 1938 during the Great Depression as a part of New Deal. So those who argue that it is a “private corporation” are simply uninformed.
Both organizations have a single purpose: “to expand the secondary mortgage market by securitizing mortgages in the form of mortgage-backed securities (MBS), allowing lenders to reinvest their assets into more lending and in effect increasing the number of lenders in the mortgage market by reducing the reliance on thrifts.”
As it turns out, they got way out on a limb with their purpose, driven by government policy and crony capitalism.
What set off the debacle through which we suffered? Here’s the short story:
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992. The Act amended the charter of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to reflect Congress’ view that the GSEs "… have an affirmative obligation to facilitate the financing of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families in a manner consistent with their overall public purposes, while maintaining a strong financial condition and a reasonable economic return;" For the first time, the GSEs were required to meet "affordable housing goals" set annually by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and approved by Congress. The initial annual goal for low-income and moderate-income mortgage purchases for each GSE was 30% of the total number of dwelling units financed by mortgage purchases and increased to 55% by 2007.
In 1999, Fannie Mae came under pressure from the Clinton administration to expand mortgage loans to low and moderate income borrowers by increasing the ratios of their loan portfolios in distressed inner city areas designated in the CRA of 1977. Additionally, institutions in the primary mortgage market pressed Fannie Mae to ease credit requirements on the mortgages it was willing to purchase, enabling them to make loans to subprime borrowers at interest rates higher than conventional loans.
George H.W. Bush began the slide and Bill Clinton lit the afterburners. And while the industry attempted to take advantage of the situation it also needed an easing of credit requirements to meet the policy goals of the CRA. And anyway, the Federal government was guaranteeing this mess. Crony capitalism at its finest.
The warning signs about the eventual end were everywhere. And any number of people issued those warnings:
In 1999, The New York Times reported that with the corporation’s move towards the subprime market "Fannie Mae is taking on significantly more risk, which may not pose any difficulties during flush economic times. But the government-subsidized corporation may run into trouble in an economic downturn, prompting a government rescue similar to that of the savings and loan industry in the 1980s."
Also in the New York Times, Alex Berenson reported in 2003 that Fannie Mae’s risk was much larger than is commonly held.
The eventual end to such nonsense was almost precisely foretold:
In his 2006 book, America’s Financial Apocalypse, Mike Stathis also warned about the risk of Fannie Mae helping to trigger the financial crisis: “With close to $2 trillion in debt between Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae alone, as well as several trillion held by commercial banks, failure of just one GSE or related entity could create a huge disaster that would easily eclipse the Savings & Loan Crisis of the late 1980s. This would certainly devastate the stock, bond and real estate markets. Most likely, there would also be an even bigger mess in the derivatives market, leading to a global sell-off in the capital markets. Not only would investors get crushed, but taxpayers would have to bail them out since the GSEs are backed by the government. Everyone would feel the effects. At its bottom, I would estimate a 30 to 35 percent correction for the average home. And in ‘hot spots’ such as Las Vegas, selected areas of Northern and Southern California and Florida, home prices could plummet by 55 to 60 percent from peak values.”
And here we are.
The cost to you for this the mess created and driven by government policy and taken advantage of by lenders? A lot.
Both Freddie and Fannie are supposedly “for profit” corporations. Profits, however, have been in short supply (but bonuses to top cronies haven’t):
During the three years leading up to the house price peak, Fannie reported annual profits of between $4.1 billion and $6.3 billion, and Freddie, $2.1 billion to $2.9 billion. During the five years since, Fannie lost a cumulative $163 billion, and Freddie, which hasn’t yet reported fourth quarter results for 2011, $91 billion.
Both Fannie and Freddie pay dividends to the Treasury Department as a condition of their government sponsorship, but both have regularly requested larger sums than they have paid. For example, Fannie said Wednesday that it paid $2.6 billion in dividends to the Treasury during its fourth quarter, but that it would soon submit a request for $4.6 billion to offset losses.
Fannie says it requested a total of $116 billion from the Treasury since the fourth quarter of 2008 and paid about $20 billion in dividends. Fannie requested $72 billion and paid $15 billion.
Or, as the article breaks it out in the nation of 309 million, the cost is $1,300 for each American household – owner or renter.
This is what happens when government’s decide they know better than markets. When they let unsound political policies that create perverse financial incentives rule the day. When they put financial prudence behind political gain.
Hopefully we’ll learn something out of this. But we won’t if each side continues to deny its role in this mess. It was government who set the perverse policy and industry to took advantage of it. However, what should be clear to anyone is that if there had been no policy, there’d have been nothing of which to take advantage.
As usual, the tax payers is left holding the multi-trillion dollar bag for this monumental screw-up.
On the heels of last weeks delightfully mixed bag of employment data (job creation looks like it may be out of reverse and into neutral) we get some new housing data. There the signals are more disquieting, if expected (at least by me.) The housing market may now be heading back down.
The interesting aspect of this is that so many people see this as unlikely. So let us list some reasons why this is a real risk, if probably not as rapid a fall as we saw previously.
- Prices are still above a long term stable level. This could be taken care of by stagnating prices and inflation, but there is little inflation right now.
- The price to rent ratio is out of whack, and rents are still falling, in fact, accelerating. Little wonder, since there is an 11% vacancy rate.
- There are 231,000 newly built housing units sitting vacant.
- There are 3.29 million vacant homes for sale.
- Then there is the shadow inventory of homes that are off the market for various reasons (such as foreclosed homes banks are unwilling to sell yet to avoid realizing losses.)
- Defaults are accelerating, with the largest source of pain now prime loans. As I have maintained for a long time this is not, and never has been, a subprime problem. Subprime was just what collapsed first being the weakest link in the housing market.
- That acceleration is unlikely to slow any time soon as not only are workers still losing jobs and few new potential owners getting jobs, but the length of unemployment is unprecedented in the post war era. The longer a worker is unemployed, the more likely they are to default.
- Lending is still tight for many mortgage seekers.
- We are forming households at a reduced rate, thus lessening demand for new homes.
- More than 20% of homeowners are currently underwater. Nothing correlates more closely with default rates than negative equity.
- Worst of all, we need to revisit an old topic of mine that is no longer a longer term risk, but right around the corner. The likely huge wave of defaults represented by Alt-A and Option Arm Loans about to reset. Defaults have followed with a lag each wave of resets, and the largest wave, from the era with the worst underwriting is about to hit. Notice, subprime is receding. With the system as fragile as it is now, what will this wave bring on?
I always am nervous about calling anything a prediction, but further housing deterioration is a very grave possibility.
Needless to say, this has led to further problems at Fannie, Freddie with more to come. Not that you should be concerned about that, the mission has changed. On their way to probably 400 billion in losses (I remember when I was an alarmist claiming that the losses would be far more than the 20-30 million the government was claiming, probably 200 billion. It turns out I was a cockeyed optimist) the government has officially eliminated any limit on their exposure. Why? It seems to be so that they can take losses!
Freddie’s federal overseers nevertheless have instructed Mr. Haldeman to focus on something that isn’t likely to make the bleak balance sheet look any better: carrying out the Obama administration plan to allow defaulted borrowers to hang onto their homes.
On a recent afternoon, employees at Freddie’s headquarters here peppered Mr. Haldeman with concerns about the company’s future. He responded that they were “fortunate” to have such a clear mission—the government’s foreclosure-prevention drive. “We’re doing what’s best for the country,” he told them.
FT Alphaville is certainly in the skeptical camp referred to by Ms Burns, and we were not reassured when the housing agency released its December monthly report on Tuesday.
According to the report, the default rate in the FHA’s single-family portfolio hit 9.12 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2009, compared with 6.82 per cent in the same period a year prior.
In absolute terms, that means the number single-family mortgages insured by the FHA and in default reached 531,671 in the fourth quarter of 2009. That’s a 66 per cent increase versus the same period in 2008.
The agency is being hit hardest by the 2007 and 2008 mortgage vintages; the performance of these loans is so dismal the FHA expects to have to pay claims on at least one out of every four loans made in those years.
Cross Posted at: The View from the Bluff
Amidst all the “happy talk” about signs that the economy is “turning around” we see more troubling signs that it is, in fact, being badly mishandled:
The US Treasury is facing an ordeal by fire this week as it tries to sell $100bn (£62bn) of bonds to a deeply sceptical market amid growing fears of a sovereign bond crisis in the Anglo-Saxon world.
The interest yield on 10-year US Treasuries – the benchmark price of long-term credit for the global system – jumped 33 basis points last week to 3.45pc week on contagion effects after Standard & Poor’s issued a warning on Britain’s “AAA” credit rating.
The yield has risen over 90 basis points since March when the US Federal Reserve first announced its controversial plan to buy Treasury bonds directly, a move designed to force down the borrowing costs and help stabilise the housing market.
The yield-spike may be nearing the point where it threatens to short-circuit economic recovery. While lower spreads on mortgage rates have kept a lid on home loan costs so far, mortgage rates have nevertheless crept back up to 5pc.
The housing market hasn’t yet bottomed out and Britain isn’t the only country whose credit rating Standard & Poors is reviewing. If we can’t sell debt instruments there are only a couple avenues left to us aren’t there? And, as noted, both would certainly “short-circuit” any economic recovery.
As you recall, the following is partially blamed for getting us into the current housing crisis:
Ever since the credit crisis began, a lot of blame has been heaped on adjustable-rate mortgages, home loans that recalibrate according to market fluctuations. One brand of these innovative mortgages that have come under special criticism has been so-called “exploding A.R.M.’s” that lured borrowers with unusually low teaser rates that then reset skyward a few years later. These have often been derided as predatory, and lenders who offered them accused of luring homeowners into buying homes they couldn’t afford for the long-term.
So is the Obama administration, with its $75 billion mortgage bailout, any better than those previous lenders who were described as “predatory”? Well not according to the plan he’s put forward:
Critics of these might want to check out the Homeowner Stabilization Plan put forward by the Obama administration today. The plan would reduce mortgage payments and interest rates for homeowners who have seen their payments rise to more than 38% of their monthly income. But those reductions last just five years, after which they begin to reset to higher rates. In short, Obama is just drawing out the teaser rates a bit longer.
During the next five years, the Stabilization Plan will encourage lenders to lower loan payment below 38% of the owners’ income and provide subsidies for banks that lower the payments to 31%. The actual rate of payment will be even lower, since the government will also pay homeowners with the reduced rates $1000 a year to stay current on their payments.
After five years however, those government sponsored adjustable-rate mortgages will reset. The Obama adminstration promises they will reset at a moderate phased in level. But the loss of both the subsidy and the $1000 payment will automatically make the monthly payments much more expensive. What’s more, many market watchers expect interest rates will be much higher five years from now, putting additional pressure on mortgage rates. We could, in short, simply be prolonging the housing crisis.
Nothing like kicking the can down the road 5 years is there? The hope, obviously, is that Obama is safely in his second term when this new crisis hits, and, of course, by then he can safely denounce those who default on their mortgages again as people who were given a chance but didn’t take advantage of it.
Now obviously the people who get this “help” can sell their homes in that 5 years (and, of course, that was the idea when many of these people took out the low adjustable rate loans previously – a quick flip. But the market tanked.). However, it will be a buyer’s market in the coming years. So there’s a very good chance that in 5 years we’re going to see the very same problem we have now resurface.
So what are we doing with this 75 billion?
More pain avoidance which, it appears, will simply prolong the problem.