Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

If You Like Fannie Mae, You’ll Love Auto Mac

While Bank of America and Citi grabbed most of the attention in the recently released bank “stress tests”  one of the biggest capital holes to be filled is that of GMAC, which under the stress test’s relatively light assumptions will need to raise another $11.5 billion in capital.

As one of the smaller of the stressed tested banks, and having almost no trading and counterparty risk – and hence little or no systemic risk, GMAC would hardly seem the candidate for any additional bailout funds.  Were GMAC to fold, our financial markets would hardly notice.  Who might notice is our auto manufacturers.

Just as easy credit inflated our housing market, it was easy credit – who can forget 0% financing – that lead the auto sales boom of the early 2000’s.  Just as many see Fannie and Freddie – along with help from the Federal Reserve – as leading us to a housing recovery, many also see GMAC as being at the heart of any recovery in the auto industry.

Given the state of the auto industry and the increasing level of defaults on auto loans, the safe bet is that GMAC will have a tough time rasing the needed $11.5 billion from non-governmental sources.

Once the government becomes a majority owner of GMAC, its only a matter of time until its focus shifts from re-bulding its financial health to expanding the American Dream of auto-ownership.

Now Is Not the Time to Reduce Credit Card Availability

With the House having passed credit card legislation and the Senate scheduled to take up its own bill this week, one questions keeps coming back to me: What’s the hurry?

We are in the midst of a recession, which will not turn around until consumer spending turns around—so why reduce the availability of consumer credit now? And the Federal Reserve has already proposed a rule that would address many of Congress’ supposed concerns. The Fed rule will be implemented July 2010. Were Congress to get a bill to the president by Memorial Day, as he has asked, the Federal Reserve and the industry still couldn’t implement it before maybe January, if they were lucky.

Congress should keep in mind that credit cards have been a significant source of consumer liquidity during this downturn. While few of us want to have to cover our basic living expenses on our credit card, that option is certainly better than going without those basic needs. The wide availability of credit cards has helped to significantly maintain some level of consumer purchasing, even while confidence and other indicators have nosedived.

It was the massive under-pricing of risk, often at the urging of Washington, that brought on our current financial market crisis. To now pressure credit card companies not to raise their fees or more accurately price credit risk, will only reduce the availability of credit while undermining the financial viability of the companies, ultimately prolonging the recession and potentially increasing the cost of bank bailouts to the taxpayer.

As Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has repeatedly said, some of the biggest credit card issuers will not be allowed to fail (think Citibank, American Express, Capital One, KepCorp) should they suffer significant losses to their credit card portfolios. Will taxpayers ultimately be the ones covering those losses?

Congress should also further examine the wisdom of restricting credit to college students under the age of 21. Outside of the obvious age discrimination, why treat adults between the ages of 18 and 21 any differently from those above 21? The basic premise of college is making sacrifices today in order to have a wealthier tomorrow—accordingly being able to borrow against that better tomorrow should be an option for any college student. Just as some small number of college students don’t benefit from college, some don’t benefit from credit cards, but throwing the “baby out with the bathwater” hardly seems the idea solution.

Real Cost of Obama’s Foreclosure Plan Is Showing up on Fannie’s Balance Sheet

One of the pillars of President Obama’s plan to turn around the housing market is to allow current homeowners, who are neither late on their mortgage or having trouble paying their mortgage, to refinance into a lower rate if their loan is held by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

All sounds good and well, and was touted by the administration as a plan that would help millions of homeowners at no cost to the taxpayer. However, with Fannie Mae’s recent SEC filings, the true cost of Obama’s plans is starting to show up, and in a way that could potentially cost the taxpayers billions more.

Highlighted in a recent Bloomberg story, Fannie Mae is requesting an additional $19 billion in aid from the Treasury in order to restore its solvency. One of the reasons why Fannie needs additional cash is the cost of “Future activities that our regulators, other U.S. government agencies or Congress may request or require us to take to support the mortgage market and help borrowers may contribute to further deterioration in our results of operations and financial condition,” as stated by Fannie Mae in its SEC filing.

Freddie Mac has also reported that the impact of the president’s foreclosure plan may amount to some $30 billion in losses from the reduction in value of mortgage-backed securities held by Freddie. Given Fannie’s substantial portfolio holdings of similar assets, it is likely that Fannie’s loss from the Obama plan will also top $30 billion.

It would be bad enough if these losses were simply borne by Fannie and Freddie. But given the continued injection of taxpayer dollars into the two GSEs, it is clear that most of those losses will be passed along to the taxpayer. So next time you’re refinancing your Fannie- or Freddie-held mortgage, remember to put aside some of that savings to cover the inevitable tax bill that will be coming to cover it.

Bank Stress Tests: Full of Sound and Fury…

Even with the stress tests completed, the Obama Administration lacks an exit strategy for its deepening involvement in supporting these banks.

What the administration needs to do is give the American people a road map for getting out of the business of owning banks. However, instead of a roadmap, the Administration keeps digging more potholes. Secretary Geithner’s recent remarks, in which he suggested imposing additional requirements before letting banks repay their TARP obligations, raise serious questions regarding the administration’s desire to actually exit the current situation. Treasury should reconsider its position and not only allow banks to repay, but encourage them to do so. The quicker we get these institutions out from under the government, the quicker our financial markets will get moving again.

As the witching hour of 5 pm on the East Coast approaches, when the Treasury will release both aggregate and individual stress test results, the overwhelming feeling in Washington and on Wall Street is one of closure: finally the circus can come to an end. In terms of the actual results, details of which have been leaking for days, the stress tests come close to telling us absolutely nothing we did not already know.

One purpose of the stress tests was to determine if the 19 bank holding companies could withstand “higher losses than generally expected.” However, what started out as extreme economic projections are beginning to look like the consensus forecast. For instance, the stress tests assume a base case level of unemployment of 8.9 percent for 2010, and an extreme “stress” level case of 10.3 percent for 2010. There’s a good chance that we’ll reach that extreme; what the new extreme is, one can only guess, but what we do know is that the banks have not been tested for it.

While the aggregate results have yet to be released, it is a good bet that they will fall somewhere within the range of exactly just how much TARP funds Treasury has left. We can expect Treasury to announce capital shortfalls of just over $100 billion, while the real shortfalls are likely to be in excess of $200 billion. Treasury is understandably reluctant to go back to Congress for additional TARP funds, so it will likely do its best to stretch its existing resources.

One way of stretching those resources is converting preferred equity holdings into common stock. How this is to be done, and what kind of voting rights Treasury will have is yet to be seen. As Treasury has repeatedly said it will not let any of these banks fail, shifting the government’s holding from preferred to common equity is little more than an accounting game that fails to address the underlying economic realities at many of these institutions.

Mortgage ‘Safe Harbor’ Anything But Safe

After the Senate’s rejection last week of allowing bankruptcy judges to re-write mortgage contracts, the so called “cramdown” provisions, it was starting to look as if the Senate cared about respecting private contracts. Sadly, such concern has been short-lived.

Tucked away in the mortgage bill is a provision that gives servicers of mortgages, that is, the entities that collect payments and perform modifications on behalf of the actual investors in mortgages, a “safe harbor” from any litigation by investors if the servicer chooses to follow the interests of the borrower or the government, rather than fulfilling their fiduciary duty to the investors.

Supporters of the safe harbor claim that too many foreclosures have taken place due to contractual restrictions on the ability of servicers to modify mortgages in a manner that would allow borrowers to stay in their homes. Most pooling and servicing agreements allow mortgage modifications without the investors’ approval if the modification increases the net present value of the mortgage. However, if the mortgage modification resulted in a loss to the investor, over what they would recover in a foreclosure, then they are not allowed under current contracts. The safe harbor intends to fix this “problem” by allowing the servicer to impose additional losses on investors, as long as that servicer follows President Obama’s foreclosure plan.

Allowing parties to a contract to ignore their contractual obligations as long as they sign-on to presidential initiatives is a dangerous precedent, and one that will ultimately raise the cost of entering into and enforcing contracts.

As these costs will have to be borne by someone, it is likely in the future that these efforts at undermining contracts in our credit markets will result in higher interest rates for all borrowers.

An attempt was made by Senator Corker to modify this provision, restoring some protections for basic contract rights. Rather than taking the opportunity to reduce the damage done to contracts from this provision, the Senate rejected Senator Corker’s amendment by a rather large margin.

After the President’s recent attacks on minority debt-holders in Chrysler, the President’s support for mortgage cramdown, and now the Senate moving on the so-called “safe harbor” provisions, it is becoming increasing clear that investors themselves will soon be in need of a safe harbor from Washington.

Brother, Can You Spare A Trillion?

With the economy in a deep recession and policymakers turning to massive government intervention in an attempt to create jobs and bolster the financial system—it feels like the 1930s all over again.  Today’s new New Deal is rapidly unfolding, with the Obama administration and many lawmakers making it clear that any question of the success of FDR’s New Deal policies was resolved long ago: government intervention worked, and history bears repeating.  

However, there are deep disagreements about the New Deal, and whether Roosevelt’s policies deepened the depression and delayed recovery. 

Join us at the Cato Institute on June 1 to be a part of a highly informative half-day conference. Recognized national experts will discuss the economic and legal impact of the New Deal, and how its legacy is being used and misused to shape policy responses to current economic hardships.

Name That Company: Fiasco

NPR asks listeners what the new company created by President Obama out of the remains of the Chrysler corporation, to be controlled by the United Auto Workers, funded by the American taxpayers, and managed by Fiat, should be called.

One listener suggested AutomObama, with the slogan ”You’ll Be Paying on It for Years.” Another offered “FIAT: Fix It Again, Barack.”

Of course, the name Fiat works pretty well for this new company. After all, “fiat” means, according to Webster’s, ” a command or act of will that creates something without or as if without further effort” or ”an authoritative or arbitrary order.” (And note that when you look up “fiat” in Webster’s, you get an ad for the new company.)

But it’s hard to beat the name suggested by most listeners: Fiasco.