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Posts Tagged ‘GSE’

[Government Bailout Leviathan] Short Huge, Brutish, Nasty

November 17, 2008 | 12:21 am | |

In many ways, the free market financial/mortgage system, without regulatory oversight could be described as Nasty, brutish and short:

Nasty, brutish and short aren’t a firm of particularly unpleasant lawyers but a quotation from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, or the matter, forme, and power of a commonwealth, ecclesiasticall and civill, 1651. The fuller quotation of this phrase is even less appealing – “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Hobbes described the natural state of mankind (the state pertaining before a central government is formed) as a “warre of every man against every man”.

I was struck by a recent case of massive number numbness that was inflicted upon me when I saw the Fannie and Freddie losses for the 3rd quarter:

Fannie Mae: ($29B)
Freddie Mac: ($25B)

For perspective, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac each averaged a $2B loss per quarter in the preceding three quarters. The GSEs were bailed out in early-September and represented the last 3 weeks of 3Q. I know the Freddie loss just reported included a $14B non-cash charge so it lost about $12B cash-wise.

The current administration is leaving still advocating free markets, which a disconnected concept when compared to the situation we find ourselves with – day late and a few trillion short. Dismal Scientist calls it right.

I remember when President Bush decided to call a summit 3 weeks ago, during a crisis which needed daily attention:

The first decision I had to make was who was coming to the meeting. And obviously I decided that we ought to have the G20 nations, as opposed to the G8 or the G13.

hmmm…what flavor of free market thinking will work going forward that didn’t work before?

One of the things we did, we spent time talking about the actions that we have taken. The United States has taken some extraordinary measures. Those of you who have followed my career know that I’m a free market person — until you’re told that if you don’t take decisive measures then it’s conceivable that our country could go into a depression greater than the Great Depressions. So my administration has taken significant measures to deal with a credit crisis. And then we worked with Congress to deal with the credit crisis, as well.

Call me crazy, but how about simple common sense oversight? Despite the actions of the administration, I find that Congress is finally starting to make some sense.

Here’s a series of plans to fix housing summarized by Capital Commerce.

What worries me about much of this is that government has a hard time “thinking big” which should not be confused with “spending big.” Evidence of this is found with Treasury’s foreclosure plan versus FDIC’s Blair. Bair wants to think big.


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[Bailout Lobbying] Can’t See The Houses For The Trees

October 1, 2008 | 12:55 am | |

Let’s try something different, take another path through the forest….

Close your eyes for a minute and imagine a Congress that will vote for its constituent’s behalf and their conscious. Imagine they will vote on the issue and not worry about the election in a month.

Did you seriously listen to me? Kick yourself for being so darn naive…

One of the great things about technology, is the trend toward transparency. According to MapLight.org, a public database used to provide more political transparency through the tracking of donations, found a clear pattern in the votes cast in the bailout bill H.R. 3997, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008.

House Democrats split their votes on this bill, 140 voting Yes and 95 voting No. Democrats voting Yes received an average of $212,700 each, about twice as much as those voting No, $107,993.

House Republicans also split their votes on this bill, 65 voting Yes and 133 voting No (and 1 not voting). Republicans voting Yes received an average of $273,181 each, 50% more than those voting No, $181,688.

About a 50% vote spread with the takers dominating the takees.

From McCain pulling that last minute ride in and save the day to Obama using this turmoil to aggressively raise funds, it sure seems like the impending financial crisis has gotten lost in the politics.

The US Senate is voting on a revised bailout bill today:

would also raise federal deposit insurance limits to $250,000 from $100,000, as called for by the two presidential nominees only hours earlier.

The move to add a tax legislation — including a set of popular business tax breaks — risked a backlash from House Democrats insisting they be paid for with tax increases elsewhere.

Here are some thoughts on the bailout at Politico

This morning I listened to the president’s commentary on BBC about the failure of Congress to vote for the bill (after he touted the strength of the economy as recently as 2 months ago), this address probably fell on deaf ears and that’s a shame. He’s a lame duck with a 70% disapproval rating. The administration didn’t appear to be aware of the extent of the crisis until the GSE bailout.

Here are some less hyped thoughts on a bailout.


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[Moral Hazard] No Atheists In Foxholes, No Ideologues In Financial Crises

September 22, 2008 | 12:01 am | | Milestones |

A lot has been made of the lack of moral hazard on Wall Street, festering into the current crises.

Michael Lewis, author of a number of great books, including Liars Poker comments in his recent column titled: Bright Side of a Total Financial Market Collapse:

No sooner did Greenspan shuffle off the stage and sell his memoir than the financial system he helped shape fell apart.

He’s left not only a mess but a void. No matter how well- educated we become in our financial affairs, we still need public officials to look up to, unthinkingly.

Slate’s new The Big Money is an excellent resource for financial news commentary. Martha White’s article: What Is a Moral Hazard? The economic reasoning behind bailout or no bailout is a good read.

While bailout seems to be the financial term du jour, right behind it is the more ambiguous “moral hazard.” Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson cited moral hazard as the reason not to swoop in to save Lehman Bros. and Merrill Lynch. Puzzling to many, though, was that while moral hazard was discussed in conjunction with the rescues of Bear Stearns, AIG, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, it wasn’t a deal breaker in any of those cases.

…moral hazard is the idea that insurance in any form makes people riskier.

When I was 15 years old back in the Bicentennial summer of 1976, I rode my bicycle 4,400 miles zig zagging across the US with a group formerly called Bikecentennial. Of 4,000 people who participated, 3 people actually died riding that summer, and within our own group of a dozen riders, those who did wear helmets experienced wrecks and those who didn’t wear helmets (like me), were fine.

I often wondered if wearing a helmet made the riders more prone to take risks. I don’t think so – they represented a cross section of temperaments in our group. In fact, I bought a helmet when I got home and have worn one ever since – and no wrecks.

Perhaps it is more as an argument of convenience. Throw it in if it helps make the case?

The absence of moral hazard of the current situation was created by the GSE structure to begin with. Investors assumed the US would bail out ‘Mac & ‘Mae if they ever ran into trouble because they were “government sponsored”. I can only imagine what would happen to the financial system if the former GSEs were allowed to fail. “Faith and credit of the US” would have meant nothing forever, or at least as long as the current Yankee Stadium is old.

And the system seems to be unraveling quickly judging by more actions this weekend.

Paulson and Bernanke have been making moves faster than Congress or the President can seemingly comprehend. Expect Congress to start fighting the changes once they get it.

There are no atheists in foxholes and no ideologues in financial crises,” Mr. Bernanke told colleagues last week, according to one meeting participant.

A bit unnerving but the Bush administration has been disconnected from the crisis until a few days ago, when it began to back Paulson’s actions. In fact, that was a requirement of Hank’s acceptance of the position to begin with, unlike his predecessors in the current administration.

And the candidates, until a few weeks ago, didn’t discuss the issue directly – and still don’t seem to get and at the very least, didn’t see it coming. Paulson and Bernanke need to move fast.

The lesson learned from this bailout of epic (trillions) proportions, was best said by Floyd Norris in his Reckless? You’re in Luck

If an activity is important enough to justify a government nationalization to prevent a default, it is important enough to be regulated. The regulators need to know what risks are being taken, and by which institutions, in time to act before a crisis develops.

Had the government bothered to do that in years past, it might not have faced the decisions it faced this week. First, it let one big firm go down, and then it became scared enough to nationalize another one to keep it afloat.

Now, showing no sign of embarrassment over how badly they failed before, the current crop of regulators seem to be unified in their determination not to let the markets force them to make a similar choice on some other big financial institution.

It’s not about more regulations, its about regulations that deal with today’s markets.

Paulson and Bernanke will have to wrestle with these issues later, right now, they are suggesting we all wear a helmet.


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[Hindsight Is 007] Market Bloom Is Not On The Rose

September 17, 2008 | 12:26 am | |

Today, my senior appraiser told me I had to watch the Charlie Rose Show he saw Monday night called “A discussion about the crisis on Wall Street” with Lawrence Summers, Charles Gasparino, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Nouriel Roubini and Josh Rosner.

He was right – it was engaging (not many have the interview skills of Charlie Rose). I highly recommend watching it.

While you’re listening, take a look at Megan McCardle’s of The Atlantic’s post called Hindsight regulation.

I hope that this will result in deep changes to our regulatory system, starting with unifying the diverse bank regulatory body, and giving them a stronger mandate to watch systemic risk like a hawk. I hope the GSEs will be broken up, stripped of their government guarantee, and regulated like other companies that do the same thing. I hope the central bank will pay more attention to inflation, and less to unemployment.

While you’re pondering all this hindsight, consider tragedy of Jack White and his unhappiness with his music in the advertisement for Coke Zero Zero Seven for the new James Bond movie.


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[Decade Of The Dude] Bowling Without The Carpet, Foreclosing On Housing

September 15, 2008 | 3:04 pm | |

This year is the tenth anniversary of the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski about an LA slacker named “Dude”.

Maude Lebowski: What do you do for recreation?

The Dude: Oh, the usual. I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback.

I’m not suggesting that the unprecedented events in the financial industry over the weekend were “Dude-like”. However, it does show how the regulatory structure was manned by “slackers” while the industry pissed on the carpet (sorry, but a fundamental movie reference).

I was at a meeting last week, and a senior mortgage type person was basically suggesting that the credit crunch was nearly over now that the GSEs were taken over and all should be resolved by the end of the year. I piped in that we have a long way to go – nothing concerning fixing the credit markets had been resolved by the GSE bailout, but it was an important step at coming clean, in order to restore confidence in the financial markets.

The activities of this weekend showed this assessment to be accurate. There is a lot of unwinding to do before credit, and ultimately housing can get back on track.

While it is interesting that Frannie now serves one master (hint: the taxpayer) and may go easier on those entering foreclosure than the GSEs could or did, the pipeline is already flowing with foreclosures.

Foreclosures represent 0.6% of all US properties. This doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize this number hasn’t been reached since the Great Depression. I am not suggesting we are going into another Great Depression, but rather the scope of this financial crisis is not modest (Dude translation: far out, like it’s huge).

Foreclosures represent 1.2% of all mortgages. Here’s a chart from Bloomberg about the market share of foreclosures for properties with mortgages. This is twice the total ratio of all housing and the amount is significant.

And more importantly

That rug really tied the room together.


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[Treasury Resource] Government Sponsored Lawyers

September 11, 2008 | 12:53 am | |

Last week I discussed the surge in litigation concerning the abuses in subprime lending and the corresponding need for more lawyers, especially for pro bono work.

Next up, the legal state of Frannie.

Just because the US Treasury took over the GSE’s and moved them into a conservatorship under FHFA doesn’t mean they have a plan on what do with them. The first order of business was to prevent them from collapsing. Next, structure and direction, Lastly, prosecution.

There is a brief but excellent article in the New York Law Journal that summarizes the army of lawyers needed: “Scores of Lawyers Tapped in Takeover

In the weeks leading up to the federal government’s takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, dozens of top lawyers worked to figure out the best way to save the two Washington-area mortgage giants.

The in-house teams at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which is now the conservator for the two companies, were dealing with lawyers from at least nine private firms

Many were involved and are still involved. Here are total counts, but not all were working on the takeover:

  • 2,000 US Treasury attorneys plus outside counsel
  • 90 Freddie Mac attorneys plus outside counsel
  • 130 in-house Fannie Mae lawyers plus outside counsel
  • 40 in-house FHFA lawyers plus their outside counsel

The total is…a lot.

The attorneys are there to interpret and structure the unprecedented legal arrangement of the new entity as well as going after those responsible:

Even the battalions of lawyers may not be able to ward off lawsuits in the wake of the takeover.

AFSCME’s Mr. Ferlauto said that “there is activity going into holding those people responsible for not appropriately providing guidance.” He said he expects some pension funds to look for ways to sue the outgoing boards and management, and said lack of transparency, inaccurate guidance, fraud, and market manipulation could all be grounds.

A lot has to go into the mix before we can begin to talk about things getting fixed.

So in the meantime, please, please, don’t kill all the lawyers.


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[Taking Stock] The Mother Of All Advice

September 9, 2008 | 1:25 am | |

The agencies who watched the US Treasury bail out the GSEs issued a joint statement including:

  • Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
  • Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
  • Office of the Comptroller of the Currency
  • Office of Thrift Supervision

Now everybody (the regulators) is starting to act together like a family. The statement sounded like motherly advice to the children at dinner time after a long day…

All institutions are reminded that investments in preferred stock and common stock with readily determinable fair value should be reported as available-for-sale equity security holdings, and that any net unrealized losses on these securities are deducted from regulatory capital.

In other words, I am saying this nicely, but if you make the same mistake Frannie made, you’re going to be spending a lot of time in your room.


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[The Surge Redefined] This Time It’s Financial, International

September 9, 2008 | 1:08 am | |

Not surprisingly the Dow surged today, signaling the US Treasury is moving in the right direction. This size of this action was beyond the ability of the Fed’s balance sheet.

Do you really think this action was taken to protect the housing market? The GSEs were too big to fail? Dan Gross at Newsweek sees things a bit differently:

The bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will be sold and marketed as efforts to shore up the U.S. housing market. That could be. But they are really meant at shoring up our damaged international financial standing, preserving leadership and making sure the U.S. Treasury Secretary doesn’t get tarred and feathered at the next G-8 meeting. In a world of significant global financial imbalances, the doctrine of “too big to fail,” has been replaced by the doctrine of “too international to fail.”

There is a very well laid out explanation of the US government’s balance sheet in Randall Forsyth’s column in Barrons called: Beginning of the Financial “Surge”. If you don’t subscribe to Barrons Online, you should consider since the financial markets and the housing/credit market are now joined at the hip.

The Treasury Sunday acknowledged the federal government’s role in creating the “ambiguity” leading investors to assume it would stand behind Fannie and Freddie debt and MBS. Now it said it had a “responsibility” to “avert and ultimately address the systemic risk now posed by the scale and breadth of the holdings of GSE debt and mortgage backed securities,” totaling some $5 trillion held by investors around the globe. That doesn’t include the trillions more in derivatives contracts entered into by Fannie and Freddie.

Trillions: I wonder what those derivatives contracts are worth in relation to outstanding MBS? My very limited experience working with Wall Street and housing related derivative products last year tells me it has got to be a mind boggling amount. All the more important to facilitate stabilization now.

Another Barrons piece by Steven Sears, “The Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac takeover signals big trouble, not an all-clear.

indicates there are a lot of market gyrations in the future for investors…

“Once the euphoria ends, we need to decide where to go,” Credit Suisse’s strategists told clients…Investment-bank traders, who cannot be identified because they are not allowed to speak to media, say trading is very slow and what they are seeing gravitates toward adjusting bearish positions. “No call buyers,” is what one trader said.

In other words, its really a new playing field. Let’s not let our expectations surge too soon.


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[GSEs Get A Seizure] It’s About Time

September 8, 2008 | 12:01 am | |

It finally happened. The GSEs are no longer private corporations. The bailout is finally here.

I called this bailout on October 5, 2005 and was teased or ignored. History teaches us we forget history.

I have been lamenting (whining) for the past several months that nothing has really changed since last summer when the credit markets imploded. Sure, we had the stimulus plan and the housing bill became law, NY AG wrangles a deal with the GSEs to change the way with mortgage brokers and appraisal management companies were involved in the mortgage process. The housing bill created the FHFA which was a new and improved OFHEO, which had been in charge of GSE oversight before the seizure.

GSEs have been taken over and we are in bailout mode. Its fair to say this is the worst mortgage crisis in history.

Why the GSEs were doomed

They had an unfair advantage over competitors because they were protected by the federal government. Thats the very same government that was forced to bail them out. It makes a strong argument for promoting fair competition.

You can’t serve two masters:

the investors who put up capital and a government that wanted to help the housing industry and extend home ownership. In the end, they failed to serve either one very well.

The irony about the GSE set up is that was consistent with most members of the mortgage pipeline. Appraisers served the mortgage broker and the lender. Mortgage brokers served the borrower and the lender. Banks served the investors and their shareholders.

Fannie Mae continued to play with their spreadsheets even after the accounting scandal.

Fannie Mae did not have a grip on their accounting practices, OFHEO/FHFA was ill equipped to keep them in check, or they were simply incompetent. Remember FNMA kept revenue off the books in the original accounting scandal a few years back so they would not draw attention and be able to show better results the following year. Now they didn’t meet capital requirements to offset their mortgage market exposure.

The proposal to place both mortgage giants, which own or back $5.3 trillion in mortgages, into a government-run conservatorship also grew out of deep concern among foreign investors that the companies’ debt might not be repaid.

Despite all the confidence telegraphing by Lockhart (OFHEO), Mudd (FNMA) and Syron (FHLMC), few really believed the GSEs had a grip on the extent of the situation. After all they were part of the process.

They hold or back 5.3 trillion in US mortgages which is about 50% of the mortgages out there. The GSEs accounted for about 80% of new mortgages being issued since last summer’s credit crunch. With investor confidence fading fast, the Treaury department could not let the last pillar left in the mortgage market crumble and it appeared to be headed that way.

What does this mean to housing?

Its not clear until this all shakes out, but probably not much initially.

However, if the investors see the faith and credit of the US in action and this brings them to the table, it may eventually bring more liquidity to the credit markets and that may bring some of the risk down, lowering rates or tempering their rise. However, housing still has a lot of shakeout with foreclosures and inventory, but at least this is a step in the right direction.

It’s actually the first constructive step towards recovery. If we are going to pay through the nose, it might as well be towards something positive, as painful as that is. The stimulus plan and the housing bill are painful, but don’t do anything about solving the financial crisis.

“I would view it as the beginning of the markets recognizing and accepting the reality of our financial problems, which is the beginning of fixing them,” said Mr. Rosner, a managing director at Graham Fisher, a financial research firm.

In other words, perhaps there is hope credit markets will get a grip in the next couple of years.

An aside
It has always been my observation that Freddie Mac was the step child of Fannie Mae. It stemmed from my appraisal background. Freddie Mac let Fannie Mae design their forms. Freddie Mac was essentially created after Fannie Mae to provide competition for it yet it nearly always let Fannie Mae take the lead. Even its stock price seemed to mirror Fannie’s. But Freddie didn’t get into hot water in the accounting scandal and Freddie Mac was agreeable to the Treasury take over before Fannie Mae because they had more of a handle on how short their capital was. In fact one could suggest that when it counted, Freddie Mac was the leader all along. Of course, that doesn’t matter any more. CORRECTION: It was Freddie not Fannie…nevermind.

Inter-office announcement
Its a time for change: I win the office pool on the WAMU bet. Good grief, he should get an award for outstaying his welcome.


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[Bullish In Technicolor] Housing Prices Show More Weakness

August 26, 2008 | 11:38 am | |

It’s 48 hours of market report nirvana!

Guess what?

  1. Home prices are falling. [shocking]

  2. And prices during the spring market didn’t fall as much as the winter. [informative]

This is all very new and helpful. [sarcasm]

Here’s a recap

Here’s a thought. Mortgages are more expensive and less accessible than two years ago. Until that changes, I wouldn’t expect real, measured improvement. Improvement will come eventually. Let’s deal with the situation at hand rather than all the focus of calling the turnaround correctly.

What especially drives me crazy has been the viewpoint that things are getting better based on rising activity and/or prices in the spring in certain markets. It’s called “seasonality.”


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[I.O.U.S.A.] Sooner Or Later It’s Real Money

August 21, 2008 | 10:41 pm | |

A must see movie is coming out this weekend: I.O.U.S.A

To view more preview clips.

From the press release

Throughout history, the American government has found it nearly impossible to spend only what has been raised through taxes. Wielding candid interviews with both average American taxpayers and government officials, Sundance veteran Patrick Creadon (Wordplay) helps demystify the nation’s financial practices and policies. The film follows former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker as he crisscrosses the country explaining America’s unsustainable fiscal policies to its citizens.

As we slog through the current credit condition, its really an opportunity to reconsider the over reliance of debt as a way for government (and ourselves) to avoid making hard choices.

In fact, there is very little wiggle room with efforts for debt reduction on a federal level largely because of entitlements. Add to that a GSE bailout that may well exceed $100M and counting.

One for two

The Congressional Budget Office found that “typical estimates of the economic [deadweight] cost of a dollar of tax revenue range from 20 cents to 60 cents over and above the revenue raised.”3 Studies by Harvard’s Martin Feldstein have found that deadweight losses are even larger. He noted that “the deadweight burden caused by incremental taxation … may exceed one dollar per dollar of revenue raised, making the cost of incremental governmental spending more than two dollars for each dollar of government spending.”


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[Analysis Paralysis] Calling The Bottom Of Calling The Bottom Of The Real Estate Market

August 19, 2008 | 3:48 pm | |

One of the real estate conversations that everyone seems to have involves calling a bottom. Why are we so obsessed with calling a bottom?

If you’re right, you can claim it and tout it on your resume for the rest of your career.

I’ve certainly been asked the “bottom” question like a gazillion times. We should learn from the prior conversation, which was “calling the top.” In the prior scenario economists and pundits got lots of air time doing this. Call the top for several years and eventually you’ll be right. Consistency is a virtue.

Bob Toll said:

“People are looking for a reason to get off the fence. The most asked question in America today other than who Obama’s Vice President is going to be is probably when is the bottom? And if you even smell as though you are in real estate, people ask you that question all day long.”

Let’s have that real estate conversation now:

Q: When is the housing market going to bottom?
A: I don’t know.

One thing I do know, it is not going to be this year. And so what?

What does “calling a bottom” do for anyone, anyway? …especially if it’s only a gut feeling. Yun of NAR has been calling for a bottom more times than I care to recite and even his most loyal fans are getting numb.

The idea that we want to have finality with the problems of the housing market is certainly understandable. When someone is stepping on your foot, you’d like to get an idea when they’ll get off of it.

We simply need to know. Or as said in the movie “Dirty Harry” by a criminal who was staring down the barrel of a 44 magnum (the most powerful handgun in the world) …”I gots to know.”

“V” versus “L” shaped bottom
My biggest issue with the answer to this question is that it is misleading. To most consumers, the “bottom” means the end of housing market stress and it marks the point where things will get better. Trough to peak.

Have you looked at the credit situation lately? The health of the GSEs?

Calling a “bottom” today likely means the point where things stop getting worse. And a flat bottom could stick around for a number of years. Think about it. What constructive actions to restore faith in the credit/investor/financial markets which provide liquidity for mortgages have occurred since last summer?

Steep and Deep, Short and Shallow
Another issue that is clearly perverse and often baffling in the answer to the “bottom” question concerns the vastly different performance characteristics of each market. There is no national housing market.

Some markets will see the housing market deterioration as steep and deep, others will be short and shallow, and the remainder in between. While all markets are connected by credit and mortgage quality and quantity, local conditions rule. I think the upturn in Michigan, with it’s auto industry woes, is much farther away than south Florida, the current poster child for rampant speculation and five year inventories of the past several years.

I’m looking forward to getting to the bottom of the bottom discussion. Please.

UPDATE: The Economist is calling it: Behind the housing gloom is an improving backdrop


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