January 4, 2010 8:23PM

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.