In my New York Times Best Selling book, A Colossal Failure of Common Sense -- The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers, I make a strong case. Our government allowed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to become a giant mortgage backed security hedge fund, complete with 70-1 taxpayer funded leverage.
They had sub Libor financing, meaning the luxury of borrowing money at one of the lowest interest rates in the world, all risks backed by the US taxpayer. To understand this kind of leverage imaging walking into the most profitable casino in Las Vegas, all you have is $100 in your pocket. Yet, because of your good credit, the casino allows you to play blackjack with $7000 at risk on the table. The slightest loss and your equity is wiped out. That's exactly what happened to Fannie and Freddie and today the US taxpayers have lost well over $360 billion in this reckless risk taking bonanza. That's over half the cost of the entire war in Iraq.
It wasn't always this way but as Samuel Johnson once said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In the 90's Fannie and Freddie only used 30-1 leverage but the great enabler, US Congress, was there all they way either ignoring or clueless as to the real risks lurking below the surface. I know a thing or two about risk and leverage. My former employer was levered 40-1, that was before we filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Uncle Sam chose not to save Lehman yet letting her fail cost the taxpayer dearly. When that $660 billion domino fell, she obliterated the value of Fannie and Freddie's $5 trillion mortgage portfolio, crushing the US taxpayer in the process. Thank you Hank Paulson.
Where We Stand Today
The recent conferences in Washington debating reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are filled with political mud slinging, it's the ultimate blame game. Last week's release of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission's (FCIC) Report and Dissents are making big headlines. Yet, the story within the story is how political infighting tore this dysfunctional commission apart, ten million dollars spent and we have very little to show for it. I am outraged that President Obama has not stepped in here. I think he blew a golden opportunity to lead and protect billions of US taxpayer dollars at stake. The FCIC report is a joke, it's the rehash of all rehashes. It looks like my book, Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail and Michael Lewis' The Big Short. All thrown into one 700 page document.
Is there anything new we have learned in the Commission's report? Are there clear recommendations that will help prevent another financial crisis? No. The commission was divided by politics and their conclusions are as messed up as a Brett Farve retirement party, his 7th one no less. Ironically the most hapless part of the commissions report is probably the most important. What really went wrong with Fannie and Freddie and how do we fix them?
The real battles are being fought within the Obama Administration, among regulators over smaller related housing issues, and between Republicans in the new Congress. The next few weeks will show significant developments in some of these areas, but the process for reforming Fannie and Freddie, the housing finance system more broadly, lags far behind the deficit and job creation in the minds of Congress and the Obama Administration. It's a shame but look for this battle to take years, not months, dragging out the uncertainty and sclerosis which has plagued the housing markets for the past several years.
The Obama Administration has recently leaked reports to the press that their report outlining suggested reforms to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, will be delayed till mid-February, from the statutory due date of January 31.
The Deadly Divide?
My friends at DCTripwire [firewalled] tell me the likely causes of this delay are twofold:
(1) A lack of senior staff at Treasury and the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)--the same over loaded team responsible for implementing many of the rules and regulations of the Dodd-Frank Act. Guess what? They're also in charge of Fannie and Freddie reform.
(2) The fact that there is a divide within the Obama Administration, both substantively and politically on any reform efforts. One side is determined to maintain some sort of government (and hence taxpayer) guarantee of mortgage securities, providing support of middle class homeowners. The other side seeks to remove the government from having either an explicit or even implied guarantee. Instead they hope to trade this removal of the government from the market for the creation of a fund to assist low-income citizens in attaining affordable rental housing.
We all know President Lincoln once said "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Well, this one can't even roll over.
Why? Because Treasury Secretary Geithner (and former National Economic Council Director Larry Summers) are in the former group, while Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan and other progressive members of the Administration are in the latter. This might explain President Obama's silence over the politically handicapped Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.
Even with the Administration's move back towards the political center, I think the President's chum Tim Geithner wins and their report, whenever it is issued, will maintain some government role in the mortgage market.
I'm told the report will also spell out several options for housing finance reform, in very broad terms, and will not be in legislative language. The Obama Administration wants this report to add to the discussions on Fannie and Freddie, but for political reasons, they want to allow Republicans in the House of Representatives to launch the first salvo in this legislative battle.
Inside the Reform Process
Despite the lack of concrete action by the Administration, there are several regulatory actions that are being discussed or implemented at present. The first actions have been taken internally by Fannie and Freddie. They each have improved their balance sheets since conservatorship began. Credit standards have been raised, and both they are refusing to purchase mortgages from borrowers with poor credit scores. Fees that each entity charges to banks to guarantee their loans have also been increased and this income has helped to rebuild their balance sheets.
Fannie and Freddie still owe a substantial quarterly payment to the Treasury Department in the form of a 10% dividend on the Treasury's preferred stock. If this dividend was lowered, it would allow the them to begin to repay the billions in taxpayer support and simplify any future restructuring. Any change to the dividend would need to be approved by both Treasury and the Federal Housing Finance Administration (FHFA) which is the GSEs conservator. Expect that any changes will be subjected to heavy Congressional scrutiny.
In a move I support, Fannie and Freddie are contemplating is a shift in the ways that servicers are compensated. This is crucial because the incentives in the mortgage servicing business are all screwed up and have hurt the foreclosure process. According my DCTripwire, a Federal Housing Finance Administration / HUD study is being made of future mortgage servicing structures and compensation for single-family conforming mortgage loans. Servicer compensation at present is based on a minimum servicing fee that is included in the mortgage rate, and thus decreases the flexibility of servicing non-performing loans, which has the potential to affect negatively both borrowers and guarantors.
Democrats will continue to hammer on mortgage servicers and the lack of investigation and sanctions by the Obama Administration on servicers. Special Inspector General for TARP, Neil Barofsky has assured the Congressional Oversight Committee that criminal investigations and audits of the largest servicers are currently underway, in addition to the 50 state attorneys' general investigation, though he also emphasized that the Administration could and should do more in this area.
Fannie and Freddie Reform Efforts in Congress
After the release of the White House report on options for the future of housing finance, look for Congress, especially Republicans in the House of Representatives, to take the lead in proposing GSE reforms.
The House Financial Services Committee has already scheduled four hearings on housing and GSE-related topics. When following these developments, it is important to note that the Committee's rules have reverted to "regular order" whereby the Subcommittee Chairs will hold all, or nearly all, of the hearings on individual topics and investigations, leaving the full Committee hearings, led by Chairman Spencer Bachus (R-AL), for marking up legislation and receiving prominent figures, such as Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke.
Reading between the lines, in my opinion I don't think House Speaker Boehner and House Finance Committee chair Bachus are all that close these days, especially on reform of Fannie and Freddie.
This Subcommittee move is significant change and will introduce important new names and characters into the contentious world of housing finance, including the Rep. Neugebauer (R-TX); Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), Committee Vice-Chair; Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Capital Markets & GSEs (Fannie and Freddie).
The list of hearings shows that housing finance and GSE reform are the main focus of the Committee, save Dodd-Frank oversight and macroeconomic policy. What has also become apparent is that Committee Republicans are no further along in devising a credible plan for reform of the GSEs than they were during Dodd-Frank Act negotiations. After conversations with House staff, it is likely that Vice-Chairman Hensarling's bill from the 11th Congress remains the starting point for Republican legislative reforms. The bill was widely derided in the 111th Congress as "unserious," since it remains ideologically pure, and refuses to acknowledge the fact that the GSEs currently represent nearly 100% of the mortgage securitization market, alongside an extremely weak housing market. With this in mind, look for the Obama Administration, despite their internal disagreements, to acknowledge this reality and allow Republicans to take the lead in this contentious area as part of a delaying tactic, hoping to push reform off for as long as possible.
As mentioned earlier, House Republicans have painted themselves into a corner, consistently and eagerly proclaiming that any government guarantee or involvement in the housing finance markets, save perhaps the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration (for providing assistance to first-time moderate income homebuyers), is unacceptable. Look for any House Republican bill to draw heavily from the work of Peter Wallison, who along with Alex Pollock and Edward Pinto, have recently released a White Paper entitled: "Taking the Government Out of Housing Finance: Principles for Reforming the Housing Finance Market."
Rep. Garrett, who is expected to lead the way on this issue, has been quoted this past week saying definitively, "There can't be any explicit guarantee. The main problem has been that the taxpayer has been on the hook for this credit risk for a long time. We are adamant there should be no more bailouts." This will make any compromise with the Democrat-controlled Senate very difficult, if not impossible, let alone with the Obama Administration.
Although Garrett and his fellow House Republicans are often portrayed as sympathetic to the financial services industry, the Congressman has also been quick to pour his scorn on an industry proposal, from the Financial Services Roundtable, which proposes to replace the GSEs with several privately capitalized firms that would package mortgage-backed securities, while the federal government would guarantee the interest and principal for investors. In theory the very same entities securitizing nonconforming and private label securities would also be the co-owners of the guaranteeing entities, but these would only be allowed to work with traditional, conforming, 30 year mortgages. The Federal guarantee would not apply to the new entity itself, or any debts or securities issued by them to cover the costs of their operation.
The Long Road Ahead
The problem for Garrett and other Republicans will be the presence of a "federal catastrophic insurance fund," similar to that which was put in place after 9/11 for terrorism reinsurance. This fund would support the guarantee only if one of these firms fell into financial trouble. The guarantee firms would contribute to the insurance fund and several layers of capital would need to be used up before the government was responsible. Even this level of taxpayer exposure is unacceptable to many Republicans.
Instead of any government support, the Republican school of thought espouses a housing finance sector where the government operates only on the margins, by setting and enforcing standards for what types of mortgages can be securitized, what are appropriate servicing standards and procedures, and potentially by explicitly offering rental assistance for affordable housing. Most plans for privatization of the GSEs are implemented chiefly through the gradual reduction in the size of the conforming loan limit (at a rate of around 20% per year), so that in theory, the private sector is able to securitize more and more newly originated mortgages, and/or an alternative such as covered bonds are introduced.
Due to the problems that may result from such a plan, it is likely that the Senate Banking Committee will proceed on GSE reform at a far more deliberate pace than the House akin to the recent Dodd-Frank Act preparations. The Senate Committee (which has yet to hold its first organizational hearing) also will have several new personalities, including a new Chairman, Tim Johnson (D-SD). Its increased Republican presence, which is increasingly made up of conservative-leaning members, will likely echo the House Republicans.
Two Senate Republicans are likely to emerge as key thought-leaders in this debate, Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Bob Corker (R-TN). Early indications are that although they each consistently show concern for taxpayers, they both recognize the inherent risks of rushing though a privatization of the GSEs with a weak housing market and without deep and serious reforms of the other aspects of housing finance, such as the rules regarding securitization (including servicing standards, representations and warranties.)
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