Tag: fannie mae and freddie mac

Federal Homeownership Policy: Money for Nothing

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times ran a column repeating the simplistic notion that since homeownership is “good” then subsidies for homeownership must therefore also be “good.” Never asked, or apparently even contemplated, is the question of whether all our various homeownership subsidies actually deliver homeownership. Let’s start with the ever popular mortgage interest deduction (MID). The chart below, reproduced from Glaeser and Shapiro, shows the value of the MID and the homeownership rate. Hard to see any relationship there, probably because there isn’t one. I discuss the MID in more detail here.  

 

Next would be Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The chart below shows the homeownership rate and the Fannie/Freddie share of the mortgage market. What should be immediately obvious is that the long run homeownership rate steadied out in the mid-60 percents when Fannie & Freddie were bit players, having a market share in the single digits. In no way can we say that Fannie & Freddie have increased the long-run trend rate of homeownership.   So even if one believes homeownership is worthy of subsidy, a questionable proposition on its own, it should be beyond question that our current system of homeownership subsidies has not delivered long run gains in the homeownership rate.

Getting Our Money Back from Fannie and Freddie

Yesterday in the New York Times, Josh Rosner, co-author of Reckless Endangerment, asked one of the questions that almost everyone in Washington is avoiding: how do the taxpayers get back their money, currently about $180 billion (including dividends), from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Obviously Democrats do not want to be reminded that their social engineering of the mortgage market has been a disaster, but why have Republicans been quiet?

I suspect many Republicans, at least those not closely aligned with the real estate industry, are torn between wanting to immediately get rid of Fannie and Freddie and getting the taxpayers’ money back.  A common attitude in Washington also appears to be that the money put into Fannie/Freddie is gone, sunk, and will never be returned. I’m not so willing to just give up, on either getting rid of them or getting our money back.

First, let’s accept that any wind-down would likely take a few years, say six or so. So I would suggest we immediately take Fannie and Freddie into receivership. Impose any future losses on creditors, but also continue to run the companies. And continue to buy and package mortgages during the receivership. This would minimize disruptions to the housing and mortgage market.

Instead of simply running the companies, business as usual, levy a surcharge on all their purchases and use that surcharge to pay back the taxpayer. Fannie and Freddie, combined, will likely purchase about a $1 trillion annually in mortgages over the next few years. Assuming a six year wind-down, that’s $6 trillion. A 2 percent surcharge gets back most of the bailout. That’s also high enough to encourage private money to come into the mortgage market and compete with Fannie and Freddie. If my Realtor friends feel this is a ”tax on home-ownership” then they are free to drop their commissions by 2 percent, leaving buyers no worse off. Even better, they can encourage buyers to use a non-government mortgage.

Any forecast of housing activity is going to have some error. So the numbers above are likely off, in one direction or another. The point is a surcharge on the purchases made by these Government-Sponsored Enterprises can kill two birds with one stone: getting the taxpayers’ money back and reducing the GSEs’ footprint in the mortgage market.

The Fed’s New Round of Quantitative Easing

Last Thursday, the Fed announced its intention to proceed with another round of quantitative easing, or QE3. To summarize my reactions:

  1. By introducing another program to buy MBSs, to the tune of $40 billion per month, the FOMC is supporting the long-standing federal policy of special aid to housing, real estate and mortgage interests. These federal policies were the largest single contributor to the financial crisis. Why would the Federal Reserve want  to encourage continuation of these federal policies? Almost every economist, except those allied with housing interests, agrees that the mortgage-interest and real-estate tax deductions in the federal tax code should be eliminated or scaled back. I’ll wager that almost every Federal Reserve economist shares this view. The Federal Reserve says that it is apolitical but this decision is directly supportive of continuation of the current status of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This action is not monetary policy but fiscal policy, extending credit to a favored industry. This policy is crony capitalism, whether practiced by the federal government or by the Federal Reserve.
  2. The FOMC’s decisions create yet another exit problem for the Fed. If job growth picks up, or inflation rises, before every future FOMC meeting the market will wonder if the Fed will stop buying MBSs. The Fed has refused to offer any genuine guidance as to when the policy will end. Conversely, if job growth remains weak, market participants will wonder before every FOMC meeting whether the Fed will do more, or introduce some new and untried policy.
  3. In his press conference, Chairman Bernanke appropriately emphasizes the need for fiscal policies to stabilize federal finances. Yet, he is promising that the Fed can make a material contribution to bringing down unemployment. That promise reduces the pressure on Congress to act. Why should Congress deal with the tough political issues if the Fed can do the job, even if more slowly than if Congress acted?

Ed DeMarco Deserves a Medal

The same people who helped create the $180 billion bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are now demanding the head of Ed DeMarco, the acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Some commentators have gone as far to say that the “single largest obstacle to meaningful economic recovery is a man who most Americans have probably never heard of, Edward J. DeMarco.” Of course, such a statement shows a stunning lack of understanding of both the mortgage market and the economy in general.

Why are so many upset with Mr.DeMarco? One simple reason: he is following the law. Some believe that broadly writing down the mortgages of underwater borrowers would turn the economy around, regardless of the cost to the taxpayer. While that assumption itself is highly questionable, it doesn’t matter. As I’ve detailed elsewhere, the current statutory language governing FHFA limits Mr. Demarco from doing so. Yes, some proponents have found language elsewhere in the statute they believe allows sticking it to the taxpayer for another $100 billion. But their argument relies on general introductory sections of the statute, not the powers and duties of FHFA as a conservator. Statutory interpretation 101 is that more specific sections trump general introductory sections. General sections have “no power to give what the text of the statute takes away” (Demore v. Kim, 538 U.S. 510, 535). One would expect senior members of Congress to understand that.

Of course, if some members of Congress believe we should spend $100 billion bailing out deadbeats, then why don’t they simply offer a bill on the floors of the House and Senate doing so? I’m sure House leadership would be happy to have a vote on the issue. The notion, instead, that an unelected, un-appointed, acting agency head should, in the absence of clear authority to do so, spend $100 billion is simply offensive to our system of government. Not to mention it probably violates the Anti-Deficiency Act, and would be hence subject to criminal prosecution.

Unfortunately, one of the common themes of the financial crisis was outright unlawful behavior by the financial regulators, such as the FDIC broad guarantee of bank debt, which lacked any statutory basis. Mr. DeMarco is to be commended for staying within the letter of the law. If Congress had wanted Fannie and Freddie to bailout underwater borrowers, they could have simply written that into the statute. Congress didn’t, regardless of whatever spin any current members of Congress might want to place on the issue.

If the ‘Volcker Rule’ Is So Great, Why Exempt Treasuries and Agencies?

One of the more controversial provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act is its restrictions on proprietary trading, contained in Section 619. Setting aside the fact that even Paul Volcker has said the provision would have done little to avoid to the recent crisis, the Act’s various exemptions illustrate the confusion and hypocrisy underlying the rule.

Foremost among these exemptions is the allowance of proprietary trading when the financial instrument in question is either a U.S. Treasury bill/bond or a security issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These instruments are actually the bulk of proprietary trading. Remember the failed hedge fund Long Term Capital Management? Their signature trade was arbitraging on-the-run and off-the-run Treasuries. Ever hear of Bear Stearns? The largest single asset in Maiden Lane I, those Bear Stearn assets guaranteed by the New York Federal Reserve, were Fannie and Freddie securities.

Countries around the World, such as Japan and Canada, have already raised concerns that if their government debt is subject to the Volcker rule, the result will be less liquidity and higher funding costs. But then one has to suspect that former senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) understood this, as they allowed an exemption for Treasuries and Agencies (Fannie/Freddie). While I’m no expert on trade policy, this may very well raise World Trade Organization questions since the Volcker rule, as proposed, favors U.S. debt over foreign debt. Of greater concern should be that the Volcker rule favors non-productive investment, that of the U.S. government and Fannie/Freddie, over productive investment, such as corporate paper.

As in so many other areas, Dodd-Frank does leave the actual decision-making to the bank regulators. (Is it too much to ask Congress to actually legislate?) Section 619 is very clear that regulators may exempt Treasuries and Agencies, which implies they also may not. The first best solution would be to just scrap the Volcker rule, but if we are going to have it, then apply it to everyone and all asset classes. Otherwise, one is just introducing additional distortions into our financial markets, some of the same distortions that actually lead to the financial crisis.

Should Fannie & Freddie Fund the Payroll Tax Cut?

At the top of the Congressional agenda for the remainder of this week will be extending the payroll tax cut. Whatever its merits, the extension is a done-deal. Both parties agree on it and it’s just a matter of assembling a way of paying for it. Both parties also understand that, despite their rhetoric, neither millionaires or federal employees will be bearing the full cost of the extension.

One of the “off-sets” being discussed is an increase in the guarantee fees (g-fees) that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac charge to cover the credit risk in mortgages that they purchase. Not surprisingly, my friends in the real estate industry have come out against the proposal. NAHB goes as far to say, “This will jeopardize the tenuous rebound and is the last thing this economy needs.”

Accepting that the language is currently in flux and it is not even a given that the g-fee increase will be included, I believe my real estate friends are over-reacting. As presently proposed, the increase would only be 10 basis points (which are 1/100 of a percentage point) a year. This is so modest as to have about zero impact on the housing market. Mortgage rates fluctuate by more over the course of a day.

What I am worried about is that the change is instituted over a 10 year period. Putting aside the bizarre policy of using 10 year “revenue-raisers” to pay for one year of spending, the policy might actually make it harder to eliminate Fannie and Freddie. Why? Let’s say the next Congress and White House administration put the taxpayer above the special interests and decide to end Fannie and Freddie. Now you might have to “pay” for ending them, as their existence has been built into the 10 year budget baseline.

The simple solution to me would be to limit the increase to 5 years. I don’t think anyone really expects the GSEs to disappear before then. We could raise the same amount by increasing the g-fee bump to say 20 basis points, which would also have the advantage of making the GSEs less competitive with other sources of mortgage capital, allowing their market share to shrink.

This is all to say, be careful of what you ask for. I’m the first one to argue for sticking it to Fannie and Freddie, just be careful that there are not any unintended consequences of how you do so.

It Was those Bad Speculators That Drove the Housing Bubble….

A recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York examines the role of speculators in driving the housing bubble. Setting aside the fact that almost everyone who bought a house was “speculating” to some degree, the researchers focus on those who were buying homes they did not intend to live in.

Some have already tried to paint this study as proving the government had little to do with the housing crisis. To their credit, the study’s authors do not go that far. Others, Mark Thoma for instance, show no such constraint:

“This is pretty far away from the (false) story that Republicans tell about the crisis being caused by the government forcing banks to make loans to unqualified borrowers.”

Of course, I’m sure that even Thoma knows that he’s set up a straw-man. Does anyone really believe that the Community Reinvestment Act and the Government Sponsored Enterprises housing goals were the only factors behind the crisis? Perhaps if the New York Fed really wanted to understand the crisis, it should look in the mirror.  It would seem reasonable to me that three years of a negative real federal funds rate might have had some impact on the housing market, particularly in encouraging speculators. After all, the Fed was basically paying people to take money.

None of this takes away from the role that Fannie and Freddie played in the housing market. For mortgages they purchased directly, Freddie’s investor share increased from three percent in 2003 to seven percent in 2007. And this ignores the massive volume of private label mortgage backed securities purchased by Fannie and Freddie. I think its reasonable to believe some of those were investor loans. In addition, the FBI has reported that the most frequent form of mortgage fraud has been borrowers stating the loan was for a primary residence when it was not.  But then it would be impolite of me to suggest we actually prosecute borrowers who committed fraud.

As I argued over two years ago, the relatively high percentage of foreclosures that are driven by pure speculators should make us question the many efforts to slow or stop the foreclosure process. If so many of these foreclosures are speculators, then why do we continue to protect them from losing the homes? They gambled, they lost. It’s time to move on and let the markets continue to adjust.

Now, one can continue to blame private sector actors for following the perverse incentives created by government. After all, the banks didn’t have to make the loans and the borrowers didn’t have to take the money. But it should be the primary objective of public policy to get the incentives correct. It should by now be crystal clear that all of the massive speculation in the housing market didn’t “just happen”—it was the result of massive government distortions in our housing and financial markets.

 

Pages