Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Reassessing FHA Risk

As the Federal Housing Administration edges closer to a taxpayer bailout due to the large number of risky mortgage loans it has insured, it continues to insist that no such bailout will be required. However, a new study from a group of economists at New York University finds that the FHA’s assurances might not be based in reality.

According to the study, the actuarial analysis FHA used to determine it won’t need a bailout seriously understates its exposure to risk:

  • More FHA mortgages are underwater than the FHA’s analysis identifies, and unemployment is naturally particularly high in areas where FHA borrowers are furthest underwater. Therefore, potential default costs are underestimated.
  • FHA’s analysis relies on house values that are inaccurate. Overvalued houses means the FHA could end up recouping less than expected on defaults.
  • Underwater FHA mortgages that were “streamlined” into new FHA mortgages are not properly accounted for, which further underestimates risk.
  • The FHA got clobbered on a previous no-downpayment assistance program. However, the current homebuyer tax credit can effectively eliminate downpayments on FHA loans, but its analysis doesn’t take this into consideration.

One of the study’s authors, Prof. Andrew Caplin, writes the following on his website:

Rather than looking to structure the markets of the future, they [policymakers] have stumbled along in business as usual mode, waiting for kind fate to save them. It may. Then again, it may not. Either way, this is not a good way to run a business, or a government for that matter.

How does he see this story playing out?

My best guess is that it will end with a crash in the housing finance sector, with the federal government forced by popular revulsion at mushrooming losses to remove itself almost entirely from the housing finance equation. The Resolution Trust Corporation will look like an amateur warm-up act…

The bottom line is simple. The continuation of “business as usual” is re-creating the essential problem that made the sub-prime crisis so disastrous. Once again, taxpayers have been forced to subsidize the private purchase of massive amounts of residential housing, and to offer guarantees against future losses, without any effort to reduce costs should their funding help turn some markets around. Warren Buffett made huge profits for his shareholders by investing in under-valued assets. By contrast, our leaders are making massive losses for taxpayers by investing in over-valued assets.

See this essay for more on the problems with housing finance and government intervention.

Sneaky SAFRA

Great column on the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act by Tim Carney in today’s Washington Examiner. He hits the major points — SAFRA hardly threatens a sudden federal takeover of student lending, but also promises anything but “fiscal reponsibility” — while adding a critical warning: the whole stinkin’ bill could be tacked onto health care reconciliation.

Wow! As if the health care bill isn’t abominable enough on its own…

Does Duncan Have Any Clue What a Free Market Is?

On the heels of exploiting the name of perhaps the world’s all-time greatest free-marketeer, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has decided to cut right to the chase and abuse the term “free market” itself. Writing in the Washington Post as part of his ongoing effort to demonize banks and push the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act over the finish line, Duncan offers the following:

The president’s plan actually creates jobs and draws on free-market principles by selecting private companies through a competitive process to service student loans issued directly by the Education Department. These private companies, including Sallie Mae, compete for our business and are evaluated on the quality of their customer service and their default rates.

Got it? When the federal government decides which companies get to service loans that it completely controls, those are “free-market principles” at work.

Right. And the legislation Duncan is trying to sell us really is fiscally “responsible.”

Put Housing GSEs in the Budget and then Privatize

The two large housing government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, have been in government receivership since September 2008. The U.S. Treasury has given the housing GSEs $112 billion in cash infusions, and this past Christmas Eve it quietly announced it would cover all of Fannie and Freddie’s losses beyond the original $400 billion limit through 2012.

The president’s latest budget proposal continues to only count the cash infusions, which it projects to be $188 billion through 2020. On the other hand, the Congressional Budget Office also includes in its budget projections the subsidy cost of new loans or loan guarantees made by Fannie and Freddie, which results in a total projected hit of $370 billion through 2020.

The CBO’s rationale for including the subsidy cost is obvious:

[T]he Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that the institutions had effectively become government entities whose operations should be included in the federal budget.

Is it not obvious to the administration?  Of course it is, but the administration doesn’t want the GSEs “on budget” because it will only make already dismal deficits look worse. It also hinders any effort to count the GSE’s combined $1.5 trillion in outstanding debt against the ever-increasing federal debt limit. Yesterday, Treasury Secretary Geithner waived the idea away when he told the Senate Budget Committee that “we do not believe it’s necessary to consolidate the full obligations of those entities onto the balance sheet of the federal government at this stage.”

Geithner also told Congress the administration will now wait till 2011 to propose an overhaul of Fannie and Freddie. The Associated Press noted the hypocrisy in the administration’s punt:

‘We want to make sure that we are proposing these changes at a time when we have a little bit more distance from the worst housing crisis in generations,’ Geithner said. That argument is exactly the opposite of the case Geithner is making for new financial regulations. Geithner is pressing Congress to move swiftly on new Wall Street rules, saying action must occur before memories of the financial crisis recede.

Geithner said he wanted measures that would ensure “the government is playing a less risky, but more constructive, role in supporting housing markets in the future.” But government “support” of the housing market is what fueled the housing bubble and subsequent damage to the economy. Why should the arsonist be trusted to put out the fire?

Unfortunately, policymakers get a lot of self-serving prompting from the housing industry, as I discuss in this Cato Policy Analysis. For example, the National Association of Realtors is currently shopping a plan on Capitol Hill that would turn Fannie and Freddie into government-chartered non-profits explicitly backed by the government. Instead, policymakers should begin the process of separating housing finance and state by developing a plan to privatize Fannie and Freddie.

Ban on Short Sales Benefits Banks and Hurts Investors

Today, in what seems like an endless string of 3-2 votes, the SEC moved to restrict the ability of investors to short stocks, claiming that such restrictions would restore stability and protect our financial system.  The truth couldn’t be more different.  Short sellers have long been the first, and often only, voice raising questions about corporate fraud and mismanagement.  For instance, shorts exposed the fraud at Enron, WorldCom and other companies while the SEC largely slept.

Bush’s SEC, lead by former Congressman Chris Cox banned the shorting of various financial industry stocks during the crisis.  The SEC then, as now, would have us believe that Bear, Lehman, AIG, Fannie, Freddie and others were not the victims of their own mismanagement, but rather victims of bear raids by short sellers.  In another instance of Obama and his appointees reading from the Bush playbook, SEC Chair Mary Shapiro finds ever creative ways to expand Cox’s misguided policies.

Short sellers only profit if they end up being correct.  Sadly Washington instead believes in punishing market mechanisms that work and throwing increasingly more money at failed agencies, like the SEC.  Rather than attacking short sellers we should applaud them for doing the SEC’s job.  But then if we had more short selling, providing greater incentives for investors to root out fraud, we might start to question why we even have the SEC.

Son of the Stimulus

Like the sequel to a horror film, the politicians in Washington just passed another stimulus proposal. Only this time, they’re calling it a “jobs bill” in hopes that a different name will yield a better result.

But if past performance is any indicator of future results, this is bad news for taxpayers. By every possible measure, the first stimulus was a flop. But don’t take my word for it. Instead, look at what the White House said would happen.

The Administration early last year said that doing nothing would mean an unemployment rate of nine percent. Spending $787 billion, they said, was necessary to keep the unemployment rate at eight percent instead.

So what happened? As millions of Americans can painfully attest, the jobless rate actually climbed to 10 percent, a full percentage point higher than Obama claimed it would be if no bill was passed.

The President and his people also are arguing that the so-called stimulus is responsible for two million jobs. Yet according to the Department of Labor, total employment has dropped significantly – by more than three million – since the so-called stimulus was adopted. The White House wants us to believe this sow’s ear is really a silk purse by claiming that the economy actually would have lost more than five million jobs without all the new pork-barrel spending. This is the infamous “jobs saved or created” number. The advantage of this approach is that there are no objective benchmarks. Unemployment could climb to 15 percent, but Obama’s people can always say there would be two million fewer jobs without all the added government spending.

To be fair, this does not mean that Obama’s supposed stimulus caused unemployment to jump to 10 percent. In all likelihood, a big jump in unemployment was probably going to occur regardless of whether politicians squandered another $787 billion. The White House was foolish to make specific predictions that now can be used to discredit the stimulus, but it’s also true that Obama inherited a mess – and that mess seems to be worse than most people thought.

Moreover, it takes time for an Administration to implement changes and impact the economy’s performance. Reagan took office in early 1981 during an economic crisis, for instance, and it took about two years for his policies to rejuvenate the economy. It certainly seems fair to also give Obama time to get the economy moving again.

That being said, there is little reason to expect good results for Obama in the future. Reagan reversed the big-government policies of his predecessor. Obama, by contrast, is continuing Bush’s big-government approach. Heck, the only real difference in their economic policies is that Bush was a borrow-and-spender and Obama is a borrow-and-tax-and-spender.

This raises an interesting question: Since last year’s stimulus was a flop, isn’t the Administration making a big mistake by doing the same thing all over again?

The President’s people actually are being very clever. Recessions don’t last forever. Indeed, the average downturn lasts only about one year. And since the recession began back in late 2007, it’s quite likely that the economic recovery already has begun (the National Bureau of Economic Research is the organization that eventually will announce when the recession officially ended).

So let’s consider the political incentives for the Administration. Last year’s stimulus is seen as a flop. So as the economy recovers this year, it will be difficult for Obama to claim that this was because of a pork-filled spending bill adopted early last year. But with the passing of a supposed jobs bill, that puts them in a position to take credit for a recovery that was already happening anyway.

That may be smart politics, but it’s not good economics. The issue has never been whether the economy would climb out of recession. The real challenge is whether the economy will enjoy good growth once the recovery begins. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration policies of bigger government – combined with the Bush Administration policies of bigger government – will permanently lower the baseline growth of the United States.

If America becomes a big-government welfare state like France, then it’s quite likely that we will suffer from French-style stagnation and lower living standards.

A New Fed-Treasury Accord

Charles Plosser, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, gave an important speech last week.  He mounted a strong defense of what is known as Fed independence. “Central bank independence means the central bank can make monetary policy decisions without fear of direct political interference.”

Toward the end of the speech, Plosser admitted the Fed had brought criticism down on itself by blurring the line between monetary and fiscal policy.  In the process, the central bank greatly expanded its balance sheet and substituted “less liquid, long-term assets, such as securities backed by mortgages guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for the short-term securities it typically held before the crisis.”

To extricate itself from conducting fiscal policy and get back to doing conventional monetary policy, Plosser called for a new Fed-Treasury Accord.  (He harkened back to the Accord of 1951, which ended the Fed’s wartime obligation to support the prices of Treasury bonds.)  Under the proposal, the Fed would swap out its illiquid assets for Treasury obligations.  Responsibility for public support of housing would revert to Treasury and be subject to Congressional appropriations.

Additionally, and very importantly, Plosser recommended ending or severely curtailing the Fed’s expanded lending authority, which enabled it to balloon its balance sheet and conduct fiscal policy. (That is the section 13(3) authority.) “Never again” is the message of Plosser’s speech.

It was a landmark speech by a high Fed official.