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Posts Tagged ‘Freddie Mac’

Today was a big one for housing finance. Treasury kicked things off with its much awaited report to Congress on “Reforming America’s Housing Finance Market.” And then the Brookings Institution hosted a full day conference on “Reforming the U.S. Mortgage Market.

Both Treasury’s report and the conference showed that there’s still important debate about the potential merits and demerits of a continued government backstop in the prime mortgage market. Treasury’s three options, for example, run the gamut from no guarantee to a backstop guarantee that kicks in during bad times to a permanent, broad-based guarantee. I’ll have more to say on these options in the future.

For now, I’d like to highlight several other aspects of the Treasury report and the discussion at Brookings that I found encouraging. Based on what I heard (and what I read between the lines of the Treasury report), there appears to be near-consensus on five important issues:

  1. The multi-trillion dollar investment portfolios of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were a mistake. As the Treasury report puts it: “Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were allowed to behave like government-backed hedge funds, managing large investment portfolios for the profit of their shareholders with the risk ultimately falling largely on taxpayers.” Such government-backed portfolios have no place in our future mortgage finance system.
  2. Any future government assistance must be better targeted. For example, the conforming loan limit (and its FHA counterpart) need to come down.
  3. If there are any future government guarantees for prime mortgages, they must be protected by greater private capital.
  4. If there are any future government guarantees for prime mortgages, they must be explicit, and financial firms must pay at least actuarially fair rates to purchase them.
  5. Affordable housing programs should be transparent and on budget, rather than embedded in regulatory requirements on Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or any successors.

Each of these would be a substantial improvement from the old GSE system.

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Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office released its long-awaited report on the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Role in the Secondary Mortgage Market (written by Deborah Lucas and David Torregrosa, with input from a cast of dozens — including, full disclosure, me as an outside reviewer) provides an outstanding overview of Fannie and Freddie’s history, the arguments for and against a government role in the secondary mortgage market, the flaws of the precrisis structure of Fannie and Freddie, and the pros and cons of possible reform models.

Readers may recall that last spring Phill Swagel and I proposed a reform in which Fannie and Freddie would be privatized, the government would sell guarantees on mortgage-backed securities composed of conforming loans, and that this guarantee would be available not only to Fannie and Freddie but also to qualified new entrants. (Here’s the blog version; here’s the full paper.)

CBO provides a thoughtful overview of such hybrid models:

A Hybrid Public/Private Model

Many proposals for the secondary mortgage market involve a hybrid approach with a combination of private for-profit or nonprofit entities and federal guarantees on qualifying MBSs. At its core, the hybrid public/private approach would preserve many features of the way in which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have operated, with federal guarantees (combined with private capital and private mortgage insurance) protecting investors against credit risk on qualifying mortgages. However, most hybrid proposals would differ from the precrisis operations of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in several important ways: A possibly different set of private intermediaries would participate in securitizing mortgages backed by federal credit guarantees, the guarantees would be explicit rather than implicit, and their subsidy cost would be recorded in the federal budget.14 As the public-utility and competitive market-maker models illustrate, a hybrid approach could be implemented in a way that involved more or less federal regulation of participants in the secondary market and a smaller or larger number of competitors in that market.

Advantages of a Hybrid Approach

Regardless of its exact design, a hybrid model with explicit federal backing for qualifying privately issued MBSs would have several advantages over the precrisis model, as well as over either a fully federal agency or complete privatization (approaches that are discussed below). An explicit federal guarantee would help maintain liquidity in the secondary mortgage market, in normal times and particularly in times of stress, and could retain the standardization of products offered to investors that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bring to that market. Compared with the precrisis model, imposing guarantee fees would ensure that taxpayers received some compensation for the risks they were assuming.

Compared with a fully federal agency, a hybrid approach would lessen the problem of putting a large portion of the capital market under government control, encourage the inflow of private capital to the secondary market, and limit the costs and risks to taxpayers by having private capital absorb some or most losses. Putting private capital at risk would also provide incentives for prudent management and pricing of risk.

Compared with a fully private market, hybrid proposals would give the government more ongoing influence over the secondary market and an explicit liability in the case of large mortgage losses that would be reflected in the budget. That arrangement might have the advantage of leading to a more orderly handling of crisis situations.

Disadvantages of a Hybrid Approach

Relative to other approaches, a public/private model has a number of potential drawbacks, the importance of which differs depending in part on the specific design chosen. Experience with other federal insurance and credit programs suggests that the government would have trouble setting risk-sensitive prices for guarantees and probably would shift some risks to taxpayers. A hybrid approach also might not eliminate the tensions that exist—with regard to risk management and pursuit of affordable housing goals—between serving private shareholders and carrying out public missions.

Another concern is that over time, the secondary-market entities might push for broader guarantees of their product lines and attempt to reestablish themselves as too-big-to-fail institutions backed by implicit federal guarantees. Consequently, regulators would need to be vigilant to control risks to the financial system and avoid regulatory capture, while also being open to market innovations.

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The Economist asked several experts to recommend options for resolving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two failed mortgage giants.

In addition to comments, the magazine’s web site allows users to recommend responses they like. It’s hardly scientific, but since the rankings (as of 9:15pm eastern time) work to my favor, let me rank them in declining order of recommendations:

My co-author Phill Swagel (a whopping 13 recommendations) describes our joint proposal for fully private GSEs that purchase an explicit backstop from the government for their mortgage-backed securities. Pros: The relationship is explicit and transparent, taxpayers are compensated for bearing risk, the portfolios are eliminated, the government backstop will soften severe mortgage meltdowns, and competition can discipline the Fannie and Freddie duopoly. Cons: There are still risks from the remaining government role.

Larry Kotlikoff (11 recs) outlines another proposal to restructure the companies into more sensible private entities. His model: mortgage mutual fund companies.

John Makin (7 recs) wins the award for brevity, arguing that they should be liquidated over 5 years.

Mark Thoma (4 recs) suggests a continued role for the firms, as long as they face much tighter regulation.

Tom Gallagher (4 recs) proposes putting them back on the federal budget as real agencies. This avoids some potential pitfalls of having them run as private companies.

P.S. As an anonymous commenter helpfully points out, the entries over at the Economist have these newfangled things called “dates” associated with them. Not sure how I missed that. The two highest scorers are also the oldest. Also, I must confess that I clicked the recommend button on Phill’s piece, lifting it to 14 votes. Because of some weird interaction between Safari and the Economist site, however, that resulted in it believing that I recommended all five pieces. Ah the perils of technology.

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Updates on some previous posts:


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Sunday’s Washington Post has an encouraging editorial about the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac reform proposal that Phill Swagel and I recently put forward. An excerpt:

[Their plan would] abolish the most toxic features of the old “government-sponsored enterprise” model. In particular, the plan would get Fannie and Freddie out of the business of directly purchasing mortgage-backed securities, which was highly profitable to them in large part because their implicit government guarantee enabled them to fund a large portfolio at artificially low rates. Their existing $5 trillion pile of securities and guarantees would be wound down or sold off to the private sector.

But Mr. Marron and Mr. Swagel would keep a government role in Fannie and Freddie’s other business: securitizing conventional, moderately sized “conforming loans,” which is both necessary to mortgage liquidity and relatively less risky. And instead of a non-transparent, implicit government guarantee, the new securities would carry an explicit one, for which the securitizers would pay a fee. Accumulated fees, in turn, would cover losses, thus shielding taxpayers. To promote innovation and competition, this business would be open not only to Fannie and Freddie but to any other well-capitalized financial institution capable of taking it on.

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Economists have traditionally drawn a sharp distinction between monetary and fiscal policy. Monetary policy should try to promote growth and limit inflation by setting short-term interest rates, managing the money supply, and providing liquidity during times of financial stress. Fiscal policy should also encourage growth and, more broadly, promote the general welfare through careful choices about spending, taxes, and borrowing. The Federal Reserve has responsibility for monetary policy, while Congress and the President handle fiscal policy.

That clean distinction was one of many casualties of the financial crisis. As credit markets froze, the Fed pursued unconventional policies that blurred the line between fiscal and monetary policy. For example, it purchased more than $1 trillion in mortgage-backed securities (MBS) issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, created new lending facilities for commercial paper and asset-backed securities, and provided special support for such key financial institutions as AIG, Bank of America, and Citigroup.

Those actions differed from conventional monetary policy in two ways. First, they exposed the Fed to more financial risk. Short-term Treasury securities, the Fed’s usual fare, carry no credit risk and almost no interest rate risk. In contrast, the Fed’s new portfolio has healthy doses of both. Second, in several cases the Fed offered to purchase financial assets at above-market prices or, equivalently, to make loans at below-market interest rates. In effect, the Fed chose to subsidize some specific financial activities.

Both changes increased the Fed’s fiscal importance.

Most visibly, Fed profits have jumped as its portfolio expanded and it acquired higher-yielding assets. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that Fed profits will hit $77 billion in 2010, up from $32 billion in 2008. That makes them the fourth largest source of federal revenues, after personal income, social insurance, and corporate income taxes, but ahead of estate and excise taxes. Actual returns could be higher or lower, however, depending on how well its investments perform.

Also important, though less visible, are subsidies implicit in some of the Fed’s financing programs. The Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF), for example, offered favorable long-term funding to investors who wanted to finance investments in securities backed by auto loans, student loans, and certain other types of debt. Similar programs provided favorable funding to support commercial paper markets and to assist AIG, Bank of America, and Citigroup. CBO recently pegged the initial cost of the resulting subsidies at $21 billion.

Not all programs created subsidies, however. CBO concluded, for example, that the MBS purchase program did not involve subsidies because the Fed made its purchases at market prices.

To be sure, the Fed’s fiscal initiatives were dwarfed by the explicitly fiscal actions taken by Congress and Presidents Bush and Obama. The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), for example, was originally estimated to involve subsidies of $189 billion (a figure that has fallen as financial markets have healed), and support to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has added tens of billions more. Still, CBO’s estimates do highlight the Fed’s move into fiscal territory as it battled the financial crisis.

Those steps were appropriate given the severity and suddenness of the crisis, but have fueled concerns about the Fed’s scope of authority. Some members of Congress, for example, have questioned whether the Fed should be able to engage in even moderate amounts of fiscal policy without congressional oversight. Their increased interest in Fed oversight, in turn, has raised concerns about defending the Fed’s traditional independence in making monetary policy.

As Chairman Ben Bernanke argued in a speech last week, maintaining the Fed’s independence in monetary policy would be easier if policymakers would “further clarify the dividing line between monetary and fiscal responsibilities.” Let’s hope such guidance comes along before the next financial crisis strikes.

This post first appeared on TaxVox, the blog of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

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The past few years have demonstrated that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mortgage giants, were built on a flawed business model. One that paired private profit in good times with taxpayer burdens in bad times; created systemic risks to the world financial system; concealed the degree of federal involvement in mortgage markets; and directed many of the benefits of government assistance to shareholders and management, rather than homeowners.

The folks at e21 asked Phill Swagel and me to ponder how Fannie and Freddie ought to be restructured when they emerge from government conservatorship.

Our proposal, “Whither Fannie and Freddie: A Proposal for Reforming the Housing GSEs” has just been released.

Here’s the gist:

The two firms would become private companies that buy conforming mortgages and bundle them into securities that are eligible for government backing. The reformed firms would not have the investment portfolios that were the main source of risk under their previous structure. The federal government would offer a guarantee on mortgage-backed securities composed of conforming loans. This guarantee would be explicit, backed by the full faith and credit of the United States. To compensate taxpayers for taking on housing risk, Fannie and Freddie would pay an actuarially fair fee to the government in return for the guarantee, and the shareholders of the firms would take losses before the government guarantee kicks in. Other private firms such as bank subsidiaries would be allowed to compete by securitizing conforming loans and purchasing the government guarantee. Over time, entry into these activities would help ensure that the benefits of the government support are passed through to homeowners and would reduce the risk that the failure of any one firm would pose a threat to the housing market or the overall economy.

Our proposal would also free Fannie and Freddie from regulatory requirements that promote affordable housing. As worthy as those efforts can be, we believe they should not be run through these reformed organizations with their narrower missions (and no investment portfolios). If policymakers think that the conforming mortgage market should help finance those efforts, that can be done through a tax on the MBS guarantees, above-and-beyond the actuarially-fair fee for the government insurance. The resulting revenue can then be directed to affordable housing programs through usual budget channels.

How did we come to this proposal? Well, we were trying to fix what we see as the major flaws of the old model (lack of transparency, uncompensated taxpayer risk, misalignment of incentives), while maintaining its benefits (e.g., that mortgage credit kept flowing for conforming loans even during the depths of the crisis and that government-insured MBS are a useful asset class when the Fed wants to do quantitative /credit  easing). In addition, we felt that some backstop role for the government is inevitable as a matter of political economics and that it ought to be explicit at the outset.

P.S. For a nice overview of the Fannie & Freddie situation, see this article by Nick Timiraos in the Wall Street Journal; it includes a brief mention of our plan.

Disclosure: I do not have any positions, long or short, in any Fannie or Freddie securities. Also, a close relative once served as a board member of one of the companies, but that ended several years ago.

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In my testimony to the Senate Budget Committee the other day, I recommended that Congress set specific fiscal targets for bringing our out-of-control deficits and debt under control. My particular suggestion? Get the publicly-held debt down to 60% of GDP in 2020.

By budgeting  standards, that makes for a great bumper sticker: “60 in 20“.

But as the New York Times points out in two articles today, a measurable target isn’t enough. You also need to make sure that the government doesn’t game the accounting to hide its liabilities.

Exhibit A is Greece. The story was originally broken by Der Spiegel earlier in the week, and is described in the NYT by Louise Story, Landon Thomas Jr., and Nelson D. Schwartz in “Wall St. Helped Greece to Mask Debt Fueling Europe’s Crisis“:

As worries over Greece rattle world markets, records and interviews show that with Wall Street’s help, the nation engaged in a decade-long effort to skirt European debt limits. One deal created by Goldman Sachs helped obscure billions in debt from the budget overseers in Brussels. …

Instruments developed by Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and a wide range of other banks enabled politicians to mask additional borrowing in Greece, Italy and possibly elsewhere.

In dozens of deals across the Continent, banks provided cash upfront in return for government payments in the future, with those liabilities then left off the books. Greece, for example, traded away the rights to airport fees and lottery proceeds in years to come.

Critics say that such deals, because they are not recorded as loans, mislead investors and regulators about the depth of a country’s liabilities.

The winning quote:

“Politicians want to pass the ball forward, and if a banker can show them a way to pass a problem to the future, they will fall for it,” said Gikas A. Hardouvelis, an economist and former government official who helped write a recent report on Greece’s accounting policies.

Exhibit B are all the contingent liabilities of the United States government, of which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been the most prominent (and expensive). In “Future Bailouts of America,” Gretchen Morgenson interviews budget expert Marvin Phaup (now at George Washington University and previously a colleague of mine at the Congressional Budget Office). She writes:

“If we are extending the safety net, extending the implied guarantee to the debts of a lot of other financial institutions, and we know those guarantees are valuable and costly, then we ought to start budgeting for it,” Mr. Phaup sad in an interview. “We can’t reduce the costs of these subsidies if we can’t recognize them.” …

As the number of firms with implicit government backing has risen because of the crisis, so too have the expected costs of those commitments, Mr. Phaup said. And yet, under current budget policy, those costs will be ignored until the recipient of the guarantee collapses — the precise moment when the guarantee is likely to cost taxpayers the most.

If we are going to set an explicit target for the publicly-held debt–60 in 20!–, we need to think carefully about what politicians may strategically omit from the calculation of the 60.


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Looking Back at Fiscal 2009

A few days ago, CBO released its latest snapshot on the federal budget, documenting the remarkable challenges of fiscal 2009, which ended on September 30. The key phrase in the report is “in over 50 years” as in:

  • At $1.4 trillion, the budget deficit was 9.9% of gross domestic product, the largest, relative to the economy, in over 50 years.
  • At $3.5 trillion, spending was almost 25% of GDP, the largest, relative to the economy, in over 50 years.
  • At $2.1 trillion, tax revenues were about 15% of GDP,  the lowest, relative to the economy, in over 50 years. (I get the sense that this point is less well-known than the other two.)

Other highlights from the report:

  • As expected, CBO estimates that the 2009 deficit was about $1.4 trillion, below the $1.58 trillion estimate in the Administration’s August budget forecasts. Assuming CBO is right, that means that next week, when the official Treasury figures are released, the Administration will be able to put a good news spin on the results, saying the deficit was less than it anticipated.  (As noted in an earlier post, CBO’s summer update, released on the same day as the Administration’s, predicted a $1.4 trillion full-year deficit, when calculated on an apples-to-apples basis. The report was a bit complicated to interpret, however, because its headline deficit estimate used different accounting for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which resulted in a higher figure of about $1.6 trillion.)
  • As shown in the following chart, the deficit exploded in 2009 for three main reasons:

Budget Deficit Fiscal 2009

  • Tax revenues fell off a cliff (down 17% or $419 billion relative to fiscal 2008). The sharpest declines were in corporate income taxes (down 54%) and individual income taxes (down 20%). The declines reflect both the weak economy and, to a lesser extent, efforts to provide stimulus.
  • The financial rescue required $245 billion in new spending. TARP accounted for $154 billion, while cash injections into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac accounted for $91 billion.
  • Other spending increased (up 13% or $347 billion relative to last year). These increases were spread across many spending programs, but were most pronounced for unemployment insurance (up 156%) and Medicaid (up 25%).

In addition:

  • Interest payments provided a sliver of good news. Interest payments fell by 23% (or $61 billion) thanks to low interest rates and small inflation adjustments on indexed bonds.
  • CBO estimates that the budget impact of the stimulus totaled about $200 billion by the end of September.

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As you have undoubtedly noticed, this week marks the one-year anniversary of the fall of Lehman Brothers–the moment at which the financial crisis became a severe economic crisis.

I did an interview on Fox Business on Tuesday to discuss some of the lessons learned. (My wife’s comment  on the interview: “You need to straighten your collar next time.”)

Going in, I had two basic points I wanted to make:

  • First, the fall of Lehman Brothers was the moment that the abstract threat of “systemic risk” became tangible to many policy makers and the public. As we progressed from propping up Bear Stearns to taking over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, many observers began to suffer from policy fatigue, and, in some circles, there was concern that the scale of the government actions might be disproportionate to the alleged, but little-seen, risk of a systemic crisis. That changed when Lehman fell, and the dominoes started toppling.
  • Second, we still have our work cut out for us. The major items on our to do list include:

(1) Taking steps to avoid such enormous shocks in the future (e.g., by increasing capital requirements and reducing allowed leverage for financial firms).

(2) Fixing the problem of too-big-to-fail (or, if you prefer, too-interconnected-to-fail). Unfortunately, this problem has worsened, in many ways, since the crisis began. Some gigantic firms have grown even larger. And the necessary interventions to prop up the financial sector have reinforced the idea that the government will prevent these firms from failing in the future.

(3) Disentangling the government from private firms, so that it can again act as a referee, not as a player. That will take time given the enormous investment portfolio that the government has amassed in financial firms and the auto companies. It is heartening, however, that even Citigroup is beginning to ponder how to raise outside capital and reduce the government stake.

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