Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

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.

Gagging on SAFRA

With national curriculum standards now getting some real attention, I haven’t been able to give the plan to shove bankrupting student aid legislation down our thoats via health-care reconciliation the scourging it deserves. I will soon, but until then this “Water Cooler” piece from the Washington Times should slake your thirst. Here’s a choice quote:

Watching the Democrats create two massive pieces of rotten legislation by themselves is bad enough, but piling them together is like watching someone make an enormous Dagwood sandwich with mysterious fillings and make you eat the mile high concoction in one sitting.

Darn — acckkk! — right!

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…