Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Bernanke’s Hollow Deficit Warning

Even though I’ve been in Washington almost 25 years, I am endlessly amazed at the chutzpah of people who support higher spending and bigger government while piously lecturing the rest of us about the need to control deficits. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is a good (though “bad” might be a better term) example of this hypocrisy. He was an avid supporter of bailouts and so-called stimulus, yet the Washington Post reports that he is now hectoring us to be fiscally responsible:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke warned Wednesday that Americans may have to accept higher taxes or changes in cherished entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security if the nation is to avoid staggering budget deficits that threaten to choke off economic growth. “These choices are difficult, and it always seems easier to put them off – until the day they cannot be put off anymore,” Bernanke said in a speech. “But unless we as a nation demonstrate a strong commitment to fiscal responsibility, in the longer run we will have neither financial stability nor healthy economic growth.”

Is the Obama Mortgage Foreclosure Plan Legal?

While considerable attention has rightly focused on the failure of President Obama’s various mortgage foreclosure plans to actually lower the rate of foreclosures, few have bothered to even ask whether the plan is allowable under the TARP statute.

Alex Pollock at AEI first raised this issue during testimony before the Congressional Oversight Panel.  Alex’s point is that TARP only allows the modification of mortgages that are actually acquired by the government.  Recall the original purpose of the TARP was to buy “troubled assets.”  In managing those assets, Congress required the executive branch to come up with a plan to assist the borrowers behind those troubled assets.

Apparently unlike the Treasury department, I believe we should go back to the language of the statute in determining what it allows and doesn’t allow.  Section 110(b)(1) is quite clear:  “to the extent that the Federal property manager holds, owns, or controls mortgages, mortgage backed securities…” Nowhere else in TARP is there any other ability to establish a mortgage modification program.  In using TARP funds to pay for modifications of loans not owned by the federal government, the Obama administration is acting far outside of its legal authority under TARP.

Many, including myself, have criticized the TARP as a massive delegation of spending power from Congress to the Treasury Department.  Such delegation is, in my mind, clearly unconstitutional.  However, even within such a broad delegation, there are parameters in which Treasury must act.  Treating TARP as simply a large pot of money to spend however Treasury chooses is nothing short of illegal.

Regulation and the Knowledge Problem

Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee but better known as Instapundit, writes in the Washington Examiner that the controversy over big corporations’ reporting the impact of the new health care legislation on their tax bills illustrates the “Knowledge Problem” identified by Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek in “The Use of Knowledge in Society” and other writings. Hayek pointed out that the information needed to run an economy doesn’t exist in any one database or agency. It is scattered among millions of people and made available to others by means of the price system. Planning and regulation do away with the information embodied in prices and try to improve on market outcomes by making use of far less information.

Reynolds writes, “Recent events suggest that it’s not just the economy that regulators don’t understand well enough – it’s also their own regulations.”

ObamaCare’s New Entitlement Spending “Sows the Seeds” of a Budget Crisis

From Robert J. Samuelson’s column in today’s Washington Post:

When historians recount the momentous events of recent weeks, they will note a curious coincidence. On March 15, Moody’s Investors Service – the bond rating agency – published a paper warning that the exploding U.S. government debt could cause a downgrade of Treasury bonds. Just six days later, the House of Representatives passed President Obama’s health-care legislation costing $900 billion or so over a decade and worsening an already-bleak budget outlook.

Should the United States someday suffer a budget crisis, it will be hard not to conclude that Obama and his allies sowed the seeds, because they ignored conspicuous warnings. A further irony will not escape historians. For two years, Obama and members of Congress have angrily blamed the shortsightedness and selfishness of bankers and rating agencies for causing the recent financial crisis. The president and his supporters, historians will note, were equally shortsighted and self-centered – though their quest was for political glory, not financial gain.

I hope Samuelson is wrong, but it’s probably a good idea to behave as if he’s right, and repeal ObamaCare’s new entitlement spending.

New Obama Mortgage Plan: A Backdoor Bank Bailout

Today President Obama announced an expansion and modification of his Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP).  While one can debate the merits of incentives to keep unemployed families in their homes while they search for jobs — I personally believe this will more often than not keep those families tied to weak labor markets — what should be beyond debate is the various bailouts to mortgage lenders contained in the program’s fine print.

Several of the largest mortgage lenders, including some that have already received huge bailouts, carry hundreds of billions worth of second mortgages on their books.  As home prices have nationally declined by almost 30 percent, these second mortgages are worthless in the case of a foreclosure.  Second mortgages are usually wiped out completely during a foreclosure if the price has decreased more than 20 percent.  Yet the Obama solution is now to pay off 6 cents on the dollar for those junior liens.  While 6 cents doesn’t sound like a lot, it is a whole lot more than zero, which is what the banks would receive otherwise.  Given that the largest lenders are carrying over $500 billion in second mortgages that may need to be written down, we are looking at tens of billions of taxpayer dollars again being funneled to the very banks behind the mortgage crisis.

If that bailout isn’t enough, the new plan increases payments to lenders to not foreclose, all at the expense of the taxpayer.  While TARP was passed under Bush’s watch, and he rightly deserves blame for it, Obama continues these bailouts in the name of avoiding a much needed correction in our housing market.

Don’t Need More Rental Subsidies

At Tuesday’s congressional hearing on the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) said that “It’s a mistake for the government heavily to subsidize homeownership.” Coming from one of the biggest cheerleaders for federal homeownership subsidies, and an architect of the housing meltdown, a conversion from Frank would be welcome.

Unfortunately, Frank followed the comment with a call for more rental housing subsidies:

We are much better off trying to subsidize rental housing, because when you put people into decent rental housing, you do not confront the problems we have seen putting people inappropriately into homeownership.

Frank is correct that tying oneself to a mortgage is much riskier than renting. The federal bias toward homeownership has been predicated on its alleged civic virtues, but there’s no virtue in being a slave to an expensive mortgage, especially when one’s house is worth less than the note.

But the government’s dismal experiences with rental subsidies, including public housing, demonstrate that more federal interventions are unwarranted. In addition to abolishing homeownership subsidies, the federal government should also abolish rental subsidies, as a Cato essay by Howard Husock argues.

The following are some key points from the essay:

  • Before federal subsidy programs were begun, and before the widespread use of detailed housing regulations and zoning ordinances, private markets did a good job of provided housing for lower-income Americans. During the period from 1890 to 1930, for example, vast amounts of new working-class housing were built in American cities. Data from that period show that a significant percentage of residents of poor neighborhoods did not live in overcrowded tenements, but instead lived in small homes that they owned or in homes where the owners lived and rented out space.
  • Since the 1930s, the federal government has funded one expensive approach to low-income housing after another—without seeming to notice that the new approaches were made necessary less by market failure than by the failure of past public policies. Public housing projects erected to replace slums soon became severely distressed, housing vouchers meant to end “concentrated poverty” instead moved it around, and the low income housing tax credit program provides large subsidies to developers and few benefits to low-income families.
  • A major social benefit of private and unsubsidized rental and housing markets is the promotion of responsible behavior. Tenants and potential homeowners must establish a good credit history, save money for security deposits or downpayments, come with good references from employers, and pay the rent or mortgage on time. Renters must maintain their apartments decently and keep an eye on their children to avoid eviction. By contrast, public housing, housing vouchers, and other types of housing subsidies undermine or eliminate these benefits of market-based housing.
  • Federal housing subsidies are very expensive to taxpayers. In 2010, the federal government will spend about $26 billion on rental aid for low-income households and about $8.5 billion on public housing projects.

Moody’s Caves In to Political Pressure on Municipal Bonds

Moody’s has announced that it will change its methods for rating debt issued by state and local governments.  Politicians have argued that its current ratings ignore the historically low default rate of municipal bonds, resulting in higher interest rates being paid on muni debt, or so argue the politicians.

First this argument ignores that the market determines the cost of borrowing, not the rating.  And while ratings are considered by market participants, one can easily find similarly rated bonds that trade at different yields.

Second, while ratings should give some weight to historical performance, far more weight should be given to expected future performance.  Regardless of how say California-issued debt has performed in the past, does anyone doubt that California, or many other municipalities, are in fiscal straights right now?

Last and not least, politicians have no business telling rating agencies how to handle different types of investments.  We’ve been down this road before with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  During drafting of GSE reform bills in the past, politicians put constant pressure on the rating agencies to maintain Fannie and Freddie’s AAA status.

The gaming over muni ratings illustrates all the more why we need to end the rating agencies govt created monopoly.  As long as govt has imposed a system protecting the rating agencies from market pressures, those agencies will bend to the will of politicians in order to protect that status.  As Fannie and Freddie have demonstrated, it ends up being the taxpayers and the investors who ultimately pay for this political meddling.