Tag: fannie mae and freddie mac

Need a Mortgage? Your Papers, Please …

In case you need any evidence that the federal background check system would expand to cover many more things than employment, that process is already underway. H.R. 4586 would require someone seeking modification of a home mortgage loan held by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac to be verified under the E-verify program. (Same would go for modifying mortgages insured under the National Housing Act.)

Fed Governor Starting to Make Sense

Despite still defending the Fed’s bailouts, Fed Governor Kevin Warsh gave a speech this morning offering a few insights about reforming our financial system that seem to be lost on both Obama and Bernanke.

A few highlights:

The mortgage finance system is owed far stricter scrutiny to gather a fuller appreciation of the causes of the crisis. The government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example, were given license and direction to take excessive risks.

One has to hope that both Bernanke and Obama are listening.  The silence of the Obama administration on fixing Fannie and Freddie is nothing short of shocking and irresponsible.  Any commitment to real reform has to include the GSEs.

Granting new powers to resolve failing firms in the discretionary hands of regulators is unlikely, in the near-term, to drive the market discipline required to avoid the recurrence of financial crises.

…Some newly-empowered and untested regulatory structure is not likely – in and of itself – to be sufficient to tackle institutions that are too-big-to-fail, particularly as memories of the crisis fade. Regulation is too important to be left to regulators alone.

I believe these two points cannot be stated more strongly:  what we need is more market discipline, rather than less.  Putting the entire weight of our financial system on the backs of our financial regulators is a crisis just waiting to happen.  Sadly the direction of both President Obama and Congress seems to be in undermining market monitoring of firms and relying solely on regulators to “get it right” – the very same regulators who were asleep at the wheel prior to the last crisis.

Obama Bank Tax Is Misguided

Perhaps I am a little confused, but didn’t the Obama Administration tell the American public only months ago that TARP was turning a profit?   But now the same administration is proposing to assess a fee on banks to cover losses from the TARP. Maybe President Obama is coming around to the realization that the TARP has indeed been a loser for the taxpayer. He appears, however, to be missing the critical reason why: the bailouts of the auto companies and AIG, all non-banks. This is to say nothing of the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose losses will far exceed those from the TARP. Where is the plan to re-coup losses from Fannie and Freddie? Or a plan to re-coup our rescue of the autos?

If the effort is really about deficit reduction, then it completely misses the mark.  Any serious deficit reduction plan has to start with Medicare and Social Security.  Assessing bank fees is nothing more than a rounding error in terms of the deficit.  Let’s put aside the politics and get serious about both fixing our financial system and bringing our fiscal house into order.  The problem driving our deficits is not a lack of revenues, aside from effects of the recession, revenues have remained stable as a percent of GDP, the problem is runaway spending.

The bank tax would also miss what one has to guess is Obama’s target, the bank CEOs.  Econ 101 tells us (maybe the President can ask Larry Summers for some tutoring) corporations do not bear the incidence of taxes, their consumers and shareholders do.   So the real outcome of this proposed tax would be to increase consumer banking costs while reducing the value of bank equity, all at a time when banks are already under-capitalized.

But now the same administration is proposing to assess a fee on banks to cover losses from the TARP.  Maybe President Obama is coming around to the realization that the TARP has indeed been a loser for the taxpayer.  He appears, however, to be missing the critical reason why:  the bailouts of the auto companies and AIG, all non-banks. This is to say nothing of the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose losses will far exceed those from the TARP. Where is the plan to re-coup losses from Fannie and Freddie? Or a plan to re-coup our rescue of the autos?

Did the Fed Buying MBS Make a Difference?

Recent years have witnessed a multitude of new Federal Reserve programs aimed at bringing stability to our financial markets.  One of the largest programs has been the Fed’s purchase of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guaranteed mortgage-backed securities (MBS).  The program was initially announced in November 2008 with the goal of buying up to $500 billion, later expanded to $1.25 trillion.  Clearly we are talking a lot of money.

The ultimate objective of the FED MBS purchase program was, in the words of the Fed, to reduce mortgage rates “relative to what they otherwise would have been.”  Did the Fed meet this objective?  According to a new study by Stanford University Economists Johannes Stroebel and John Taylor the Fed did not. 

More specificially, the professors “find that the MBS program has no significant effect.  Movements in prepayment risk and default risk explain virtually all of the movements in mortgage spreads.”  So while it is clear that mortgage rates declined over the time the Fed has operated the MBS purchase program, those declines were due to factors outside of the Fed’s control.

Professors Stroebel and Taylor only look at the claimed benefits of the Fed’s MBS purchase program, leaving aside the issue of cost.  Since any losses on MBS purchased by the Fed reduces the amount of funds transferred from the Fed to Treasury, these losses are ultimately borne by the taxpayer, as that reduction will have to be made up elsewhere.  With close to a trillion in purchases, even minor declines in value can result in large losses for the taxpayer.  For instance, a 5% loss in value would translate to $50 billion loss to the taxpayer.  Another good reason to audit the Fed.

Homeownership Myths

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Professor Joseph Gyourko, chair of the Wharton School’s Real Estate Department, lists what he sees as the five biggest myths about homeownership. Given the central role of federal housing policy, particularly Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, in our recent financial crisis, it is worth following Professor Gyourko’s suggestion and question whether a national policy of ownership, all the time for everyone, really makes sense.

Professor Gyourko’s five myths:

1.  Housing is a great long-term investment.

2.  The homebuyer tax credit makes buying a house more affordable.

3.  Homeowners are better citizens.

4.  It’s safe to buy a house with a very low downpayment.

5.  Owning is always cheaper than renting.

You’ll have to read the op-ed to see his explanations.  An important qualification on his analysis is that in many cases what can be good for the buyer, such as putting no money down, may not be good for the economy if it results in additional foreclosures.

Fed Opposed by Left and Right

On its front page today, the Washington Times reports that expanded powers for the Federal Reserve are being opposed by “odd allies.”  The Fed’s imperial over-reach for additional regulatory powers is being opposed by Democrats and Republicans, and liberals and conservatives alike.  As well it should be.  As Senator Shelby observed, “Anointing the Fed as the systemic-risk regulator will make what has proven to be a bad bank regulator even worse.”

The regulation of financial services failed conspicuously to prevent the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.  The Fed failed most conspicuously as it was charged with oversight of all the major banks, including notably Citigroup and Bank of America. Bank regulation now functions to insulate banks from the consequences of their own bad acts.  The regulatory system enables banks to engage in excessive risk taking.

The Obama Administration and Chairman Barney Frank of the House Financial Services Committee propose that an expanded role for the Fed and generally more of the same will improve matters. Instead, the proposed legislation will worsen the situation by codifying the status of the major financial institutions as “too-big-to-fail.”  It would thereby provide them with special legal status.  We have all seen this movie and how it ends.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had such a status and collapsed.  Do we need 20 more such disasters?

Three cheers for all those opposing this destructive piece of legislation. End “too-big-to-fail” instead.

Putting Private Insurance Out of Business

Over at Think Progress, Matt Yglesias takes me to task for saying that the so-called public option in the House’s health care bill “would all but eliminate private insurance and force millions of Americans into a government-run system.”

Yglesias apparently still buys into the myth that the public option is, well, an option.

For people who receive health insurance through their employers, which is to say the vast majority of the Americans who currently have health insurance, the House bill would change very little. Or, rather, the biggest change would simply be the confidence that if, in the future, you cease to get health insurance from your employer (maybe you’ll lose your job or want to change jobs) that you’ll still be able to get health care. What’s more, of the minority of Americans who would be getting health care through the new “exchange,” the majority will probably sign up for private health insurance and everyone will have the option of doing so. If the government-run public plan is, for whatever reason, vastly more appealing than the private options then it will dominate. But if you believe the government can’t run health care well, there’s no reason to think that will happen. Whatever you think of that, though, the basic fact is that even if the public option does dominate the exchange most people will still have private employer-provided insurance.

That might be true if the new government-run program were going to compete on anything close to a level playing field.  But, because the public option is ultimately supported by the taxpayers, the playing field can never be level.   True, the bill does say that the new program is supposed to be self-sustaining, covering administrative and benefit costs entirely out of premium revenues.  But remember that Medicare Part B was originally supposed to support 50 percent of its costs through premiums.  That has shrunk to the point where premiums pay for less than 25 percent of the program’s cost.

And the government has a myriad of ways to prevent the true cost of the program from showing up in premium prices.  For example, the government-run plan will not have to pay state or federal taxes, and unlike private insurance plans, who can be sued in state courts, the government-run plan could only be sued in federal court.

At the very least, the program carries with it an implicit guarantee against future losses.  Suppose the public option prices its products too low and loses money.  Can you imagine that Congress is simply going to let it go bankrupt, go out of business?  Would a Congress that has bailed out banks and automobile companies because they are “too big to fail” resist subsidizing the government’s insurance plan if it began to lose money?   Even without the actual bailout, such an implicit guarantee has a value. For example, the implicit guarantees behind Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were estimated to have saved those institutions $6 billion per year.

All of this means that the government-run plan would be significantly cheaper than private insurance, not because it would out-compete private insurance or because it was more efficient, but because it had unfair advantages.  The lower cost means that businesses, in particular, would have every incentive to dump workers from their current health insurance plan into the government plan.  And, if other provisions of the bill make insurance more expensive, as is likely, the incentive for employers to shift workers to the government plan would be even greater.   Estimates suggest that nearly 90 million workers could eventually be forced into the government plan.

As Robert Samuelson, dean of economic columnists, writes in the Washington Post, “a favored public plan would probably doom today’s private insurance.”

Samuelson is right.  There is nothing “optional” about a public option.  And that is just the way the Left wants it.