Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Solve the Financial Crisis (and Make Some Serious Money)

Peter Van Doren and I have been puzzling over this very interesting NYT op-ed on home foreclosures by Yale economist John Geanakoplos and Boston University law professor Susan Koniak. If G&K’s story is right, then shouldn’t there be an opportunity for some clever financiers to help struggling homeowners keep their houses, help banks and other investors repair their balance sheets — and the financiers could help themselves to piles of cash in the process?

G&K argue that all three parties to a home mortgage — the homeowner, the lender, and the loan servicer who works as a go-between — currently face grim financial prospects:

  • Many homeowners are “underwater” — that is, they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are now worth. According to First American Core Logic, some 20% of mortgages were underwater as of December 2008. The percentage varies greatly from state to state, with 55% of mortgages underwater in Nevada, but only 7% in New York. The homeowners who are underwater include not just those who purchased with little down payment, but also many people who put down the traditional 20 percent when they bought in 2005 or 2006, at the peak of the real estate bubble. According to Case-Shiller index data, house prices nationwide have fallen 27% (as of December) from their May 2006 peak. Some local markets have experienced more dramatic declines, highlighted by Phoenix’s 46% slide. Rental prices are now far below many homeowners’ monthly mortgage payments, and lots of underwater homeowners will have to make payments for years before they have some equity stake in their homes. Many of those homeowners would rather default and risk foreclosure. G&K’s op-ed includes this figure showing that defaults increase dramatically as homeowners sink further and further underwater. Given their current options, default is rational.
  • The mortgage lender faces heavy losses if the home enters foreclosure. According to G&K, ”the subprime bond market now trades as if it expects only 25 percent back on a loan when there is a foreclosure.”
  • The servicer also is at risk. According to G&K, the servicer is obligated to continue paying the lender its monthly payment even if the borrower is in default. That obligation only lifts at foreclosure.

Because of the servicer’s obligation, the servicer has strong incentive to push for quick foreclosure. However, the homeowner and the mortgage lender would likely benefit from a loan modification — even a significant write-down of principal — because that would keep the homeowner in his house and it would deliver a better return to the lender than the 75% loss from foreclosure. G&K thus argue that government, instead of continuing to bail out the banking industry and struggling homeowners (and putting taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars), should simply require that the lenders write down the mortgage principal.

But is government action needed? Couldn’t some private actors accomplish the same thing — and make some serious scratch in the process?

A financial wizard with sufficient backing could approach a troubled lender and offer, say, 50% of the original loan amount in order to take some of the toxic mortgages off the lender’s hands. Now, the lender won’t be happy with selling at a 50% loss, but that certainly beats a 75% loss, so the lender would grudgingly agree. The financial wizard would then approach the homeowner and offer to write down the mortgage principal to, say, 60% on condition that the homeowner purchase mortgage insurance. The homeowner should jump at the offer because it would put him back above water, purchasing a home that’s worth more than its debt. Finally, the financial wizard would get the servicer to release its control over the loan, because the servicer would want to be freed from the risk of having to cover the payments to the lender. The financial wizard would then pocket a cool 10% of the original mortgage’s value.

That is not chump change. G&K estimate some 8 million homes could be foreclosed upon in the coming years. Assume the original mortgage on each of those houses is $199,025 (95% of the median sale price of new U.S. homes in January 2004, about halfway up the bubble); that 10% would represent almost $160 billion.

Of course, if the bank proves recalcitrant and demands more than 50%, or the homeowner demands a write-down of more than 40% or he’ll walk away, that would cut into the profits. And the financial wizard would have to cover his costs and possible risk premiums. Still, at least in theory, there would seem to be a significant pile of money on the table.

So why isn’t this happening? Are there no money-loving financial wizards out there?

To some extent, they are. Last week, the NYT reported that some former Countrywide executives have formed a firm called PennyMac that, with financial backing from hedge funds and other investors, purchases toxic mortgages from insolvent banks at low prices, modifies the loans to increase homeowners’ likelihood of making payments, and profits from the rekindled mortgage revenue stream. In the particular case reported in the NYT, PennyMac paid 38 cents on the dollar. But PennyMac seems like very small potatoes compared to the $160 billion that may be on the table. And the banks were forced to sell the loans because they had been taken over by the FDIC.

So why aren’t there more firms doing what PennyMac is doing, or following the strategy that Peter and I have laid out above? And why aren’t banks lining up to offload their toxic mortgages (or to do the write-downs themselves and pocket the 10%)? Peter and I can think of three possible reasons:

  1. As G&K note in their op-ed, banks and other investors who’re currently saddled with toxic assets may be waiting for some form of government rescue that would enable them to recoup far more than the 50% or so that would be offered by our financial wizards.
  2. Banks are keeping bad mortgages on their books at values much higher than the 25 to 40 cents on the dollar observed in the rare sales of troubled assets, and so the banks are unwilling to sell the assets for 50 cents on the dollar. (Remember that PennyMac is purchasing assets from banks that have been taken over by the FDIC — in other words, these are forced sales.) The banks (and their managers) may strongly prefer to keep the assets on their books rather than sell them at a 50% loss.
  3. The transaction costs involved in this scheme (e.g., analyzing the toxic assets to determine which ones to buy, negotiating with the delinquent and at-risk homeowners) are prohibitively large.

Government can address (1) by committing not to bail out the investors. Unfortunately, it’s unclear how reliable that commitment would be, especially given government actions so far in this financial crisis.

Fixing (2) is difficult. Accounting rules could be changed to force the banks to lower their book values for bad mortgages, but it would be difficult to get that accounting change passed quickly. Besides, some accounting experts argue that, in stressful times, accounting rules should have more wiggle room rather than less.

As for (3), the PennyMac guys claim that the work is difficult. But c’mon, there could be a $160 billion payday for the guys who can figure it out.

So, come on you money-loving financial wizards: your country needs you!

Bailouts, Big Spending and Bull

John Stossel joined economists from around the country Thursday at the Cato Institute for a taping of a 20/20 special that will air Friday March 13 called “Bailouts, Big Spending and Bull.”

The segment is based on Reason TV’s Drew Carey Project, and examines  “bailouts, medical marijuana, universal preschool, private highways, border walls, and the myth of the struggling middle class.”

Check your local listings for exact air time.

stossel20-20_030409_5320stossel20-20_030409_52871Photos by Kelly Anne Creazzo

The Bridge to Your Wallet

The Bridge to Your WalletThe airwaves and Intertubes are filled with images of this bridge in Missouri – the first transportation project in the nation to be funded through the stimulus bill signed by president Obama last month. In their coverage of this project, the media uniformly point to the jobs it has created for local workers, and neglect to reflect on its economic costs.

As Doug Bandow pointed out in his earlier post, even Congress’s own Budget Office expects the stimulus to shrink our economy in the long term. And the CBO’s analysis is arguably too rosy, neglecting the crucial psychological effect of Washington’s unprecedented spending spree on American consumers.

An NBC/WSJ public opinion poll found in January that “60 percent say they’re concerned that the government will spend too much money in trying to stimulate the economy, ultimately increasing the size of the debt.” That’s up from 57 percent who were already terrified by Bailout Mania back in November of 2008. What do people do when they’re scared about the state of the economy? They. Stop. Spending.

Supporters of bailouts and “stimuli” imagine that they can overcome consumers’ tight-fistedness in the short term, but they fail to realize that each new lavish increase in federal spending makes taxpayers more nervous about their ability to repay the ballooning federal debt and about the future of the U.S. economy. So while the Bridge to Your Wallet may have created a handful of local construction jobs in Missouri, it is almost certainly costing many others around the nation.

Cautious taxpayers look at that bridge project, at the mind-boggling accumulation of federal bailouts and stimuli and the biggest federal budget in history, and they cancel major purchases and family vacations. They eat at home instead of supporting their local restaurants. They do exactly the opposite of what the president and Congress are expecting.

If the media insist on doing more stories about the Bridge to Your Wallet, they should look at the polling and spending data showing how Washington’s spending spree is scaring the public into spending less – defeating the very purpose of the stimulus. They should interview restaurant and hotel owners and ask them just how economically stimulated they feel at the moment.

A ‘Stimulus’ Bill that Makes Us Worse Off

Even after being in Washington for nearly three decades, I still occasionally marvel at the stupidity and foolishness of the denizens of Capitol Hill.  Like the recent “stimulus” bill.  There’s no doubt that it is waste and abuse personified, much of it derived from the standard big-spending liberal wish list.  But we were told that wouldn’t matter, since spending, any spending, is what was necessary to get the economy moving.

But it turns out that even the Congressional Budget Office–the legislative branch’s own analytical agency–figures the legislation will make us worse in the long-term.  On Monday CBO reaffirmed its earlier conclusion:

In contrast to its positive near-term macroeconomic effects, the legislation will reduce output slightly in the long run, CBO estimates. The principal channel for that effect, which would also arise from other proposals to provide short-term economic stimulus by increasing government spending or reducing revenues, is that the law will result in an increase in government debt. To the extent that people hold their wealth as government bonds rather than in a form that can be used to finance private investment, the increased debt will tend to reduce the stock of productive private capital. In economic parlance, the debt will “crowd out” private investment. (Crowding out is unlikely to occur in the short run under current conditions, because most firms are lowering investment in response to reduced demand, which stimulus can offset in part.) CBO’s basic assumption is that, in the long run, each dollar of additional debt crowds out about a third of a dollar’s worth of private domestic capital (with the remainder of the rise in debt offset by increases in private saving and inflows of foreign capital). Because of uncertainty about the degree of crowding out, however, CBO has incorporated both more and less crowding out into its range of estimates of the long-run effects of the stimulus legislation.

Since CBO expects the U.S. to return to full employment, the impact of the lower GDP will be lower wages:

The reduction in GDP is therefore estimated to be reflected in lower wages rather than lower employment, as workers will be slightly less productive because the capital stock is slightly smaller.

So, we are going massively into debt and mortgaging the future of the young for the purpose of … shrinking the economy!  Workers will find themselves paying higher taxes to fund wasteful spending while … earning less!  No wonder Washington is such an alien place to most Americans.  Even after spending most of my adult life here, I still don’t get it.

‘Real Regulators’ Redux

Sunday’s episode of 60 Minutes featured a man named Harry Markopolos who repeatedly reported Bernie Madoff’s scam to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC did not investigate.

Steve Croft: How many times did you send material to the SEC?

Markopolos: May 2000. October 2001. October, November, and December of 2005. Then again, June 2007. And finally, April 2008. So, five separate SEC submissions.

Croft: And in spite of all of the things that you did, it still ended up in disaster.

This is a reminder of what I observed in a recent post here called “A Real Regulator.” CNBC’s Erin Burnett had called for a “real” regulator in the wake of Madoff, to which I replied:

When regulators fail to address a problem ahead of time, when they regulate inefficiently, when they hand their rulemaking organs to the industries they are supposed to oversee, those are all the actions of real regulators. That’s what you get with real regulation.

Markopolos isn’t grinding this same ax against goverment regulation. He says, “… [S]elf-regulation on Wall Street doesn’t work.”

So the question is posed: What allowed this to happen?

I don’t think this huge fraud occured in a “self-regulatory” environment. It occured in a regulated environment. Regulators failed to do their jobs, but investors had abandoned their responsibility to look into the people and firms with which they placed their money. They believed that the SEC was taking care of that.

It wasn’t, so nobody was minding the store. Ultimately, the SEC served as a partner to the crime, providing the “confidence” that made a success of Bernie Madoff’s confidence game.

Back to Markopolos:

That’s typically how the SEC does it. They come in after the crime has been committed, they toe-tag the victims, count the bodies, and try to figure out who the crooks were, after the fact, which does none of us any good.

Is “self-regulation” the alternative to government regulation? No. And neither is deregulation. The alternative is market regualtion, where individuals, responsible for the soundness of their purchases and investments, investigate and study who they do business with. Scams like Madoff’s would have shorter duration and do less damage if investors were not under the impression that they were protected by government regulators. Of course, our policymakers are likely to double-down on the bet on governmental regulation, even though we all just witnessed its failure.

Defense of Bank Secrecy by Austria and Luxembourg Is Good News for Tax Competition

It is no exaggeration to say that destroying tax havens is probably the number one goal of the world’s statist politicians and international bureaucrats. The European Commission has a new assault against low-tax jurisdictions. The Paris-based OECD is preparing to renew its ant-tax competition project. And American politicians such as Barack Obama want to persecute tax havens as part of his assault on private capital. Switzerland is the top target of the statists, but other jurisdictions such as Singapore, Austria, and Luxembourg also are being persecuted. Switzerland is doing a good job defending its human rights policy of strong privacy, but it’s good news to read in the European Voice that Austria and Luxembourg just announced that bank secrecy is not a negotiable matter:

Austria and Luxembourg have declared that they will resist attempts to crack down on banking secrecy, despite calls from other EU states and the European Commission for stricter rules to tackle tax evasion. Germany is pushing for tougher action against tax havens, partly motivated by discontent that German citizens are putting their savings in bank accounts in Switzerland and Lichtenstein. … A statement issued by…Josef Pröll, Austria’s finance minister, and Luc Frieden, Luxembourg’s budget minister, said… “banking secrecy is not up for negotiation”. …The European Commission on 2 February proposed that member states should abolish banking secrecy in relations between national tax authorities.

Tax competion, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy limit the power of governments to act like monopolists. Tax havens play an especially important role since politicians know that these jurisdictions give taxpayers some ability to protect themselves from predation. To learn more about the economic benefits of tax havens, click here. To learn more about the moral case for tax havens, click here. And to see why anti-tax haven demagoguery is misguided, click here.

Obama’s Lobbying Bonanza

The Bush administration was good to lobbyists, especially in its final year, when lobbyists earned $3.2 billion, the most ever. But the Obama administration promises to be even better, according to those who follow the field. Marketplace Radio reports:

Washington lobbyists earned a whopping $3.2 billion last year. That’s the highest amount in the decade tracked by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Executive Director Sheila Krumholz says interest groups spent $17.4 million on lobbying every day Congress was in session last year. And with Washington on a spending spree, companies are boosting their influence on Capitol Hill.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: There was this unique opportunity that government was handing out money and anytime that happens, companies will spend what they must to get in line to get a piece of the pie.

And that’s expected to continue. Craig Holman is a governmental affairs lobbyist with the non-profit group Public Citizen.

CRAIG HOLMAN: The amount spent on lobbying is not related to the disclosure or the regulation of the lobbying profession. It is related entirely to how much the federal government intervenes in the private economy.

That’s right. Even the Naderite Public Citizen understands that “the amount spent on lobbying … is related entirely to how much the federal government intervenes in the private economy.”

Marketplace’s Ronni Radbill goes on, “In other words, the more active the government, the more the private sector will spend to have its say…. With the White House injecting billions of dollars into the economy, lobbyists say interest groups are paying a lot more attention to Washington than they have in a very long time.”

Or, as F. A. Hayek explained the process 65 years ago in his prophetic book The Road to Serfdom: “As the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of this directing power.”

And just who is doing all this lobbying? The Center for Responsive Politics says that health and pharmaceutical companies were the biggest spenders, which wouldn’t surprise lobby-watcher Tim Carney, followed by the finance, insurance, and real estate industry (even though many of those companies cut back their lobbying late in the year, after getting the moolah they came for). But, Marketplace also reports, “There’s a report out today from the Center for Public Integrity that says the number of green lobbyists has tripled in the last five years. There are nearly 2,500 people now employed trying to get their clients views heard on climate policy. Wall Street in particular sank a lot money into green.” With the economy slowing, banks were pulling back from investments in so-called renewable energy. “That is, until the stimulus package tossed it a lifeline.”

So the $3.2 billion bonanza for lobbyists in 2008 was just a precursor of the lollapalooza to come. Within three weeks of Obama’s inauguration, the Washington Post reported that more than 90 organizations had hired lobbyists specifically to influence the stimulus bill. Since President Obama has made clear that in his “blueprint for America,” the $800 billion stimulus bill is just the start of his money flow to and from Washington, we can expect lobbying expenditures to keep on rising. Federal spending will be directed by politicians to politically favored recipients. That’s just reality. If you want money flowing to the companies with good lobbyists and powerful congressmen, then all this spending may accomplish something. But we should all recognize that we’re taking money out of the competitive, individually directed part of society and turning it over to the politically controlled sector. Politicians rather than consumers will pick winners and losers. That’s not a recipe for recovery.

I’ll give the last word again to Craig Holman of Public Citizen: “the amount spent on lobbying … is related entirely to how much the federal government intervenes in the private economy.”