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Posts Tagged ‘Bailout Nation’

[Government Bailout Leviathan] Short Huge, Brutish, Nasty

November 17, 2008 | 12:21 am | |

In many ways, the free market financial/mortgage system, without regulatory oversight could be described as Nasty, brutish and short:

Nasty, brutish and short aren’t a firm of particularly unpleasant lawyers but a quotation from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, or the matter, forme, and power of a commonwealth, ecclesiasticall and civill, 1651. The fuller quotation of this phrase is even less appealing – “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Hobbes described the natural state of mankind (the state pertaining before a central government is formed) as a “warre of every man against every man”.

I was struck by a recent case of massive number numbness that was inflicted upon me when I saw the Fannie and Freddie losses for the 3rd quarter:

Fannie Mae: ($29B)
Freddie Mac: ($25B)

For perspective, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac each averaged a $2B loss per quarter in the preceding three quarters. The GSEs were bailed out in early-September and represented the last 3 weeks of 3Q. I know the Freddie loss just reported included a $14B non-cash charge so it lost about $12B cash-wise.

The current administration is leaving still advocating free markets, which a disconnected concept when compared to the situation we find ourselves with – day late and a few trillion short. Dismal Scientist calls it right.

I remember when President Bush decided to call a summit 3 weeks ago, during a crisis which needed daily attention:

The first decision I had to make was who was coming to the meeting. And obviously I decided that we ought to have the G20 nations, as opposed to the G8 or the G13.

hmmm…what flavor of free market thinking will work going forward that didn’t work before?

One of the things we did, we spent time talking about the actions that we have taken. The United States has taken some extraordinary measures. Those of you who have followed my career know that I’m a free market person — until you’re told that if you don’t take decisive measures then it’s conceivable that our country could go into a depression greater than the Great Depressions. So my administration has taken significant measures to deal with a credit crisis. And then we worked with Congress to deal with the credit crisis, as well.

Call me crazy, but how about simple common sense oversight? Despite the actions of the administration, I find that Congress is finally starting to make some sense.

Here’s a series of plans to fix housing summarized by Capital Commerce.

What worries me about much of this is that government has a hard time “thinking big” which should not be confused with “spending big.” Evidence of this is found with Treasury’s foreclosure plan versus FDIC’s Blair. Bair wants to think big.


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[In The Media] Theory Of Negative Milestones Means A New Beginning

November 9, 2008 | 8:30 pm | | Milestones |

I have long believed in what I call the “theory of negative milestones.” There are seminal events that mark new periods of real estate activity. (both map mashups courtesy of NYT)

This weekend’s New York Times real estate cover story was based on my firm’s ongoing research of the Manhattan housing market. The content in the article was thoroughly fleshed out by my friend Noah over at Urban Digs so I won’t elaborate.

In 2008, the influence of the credit crunch has been characterized by various levels of impact on segments and a lower level of activity. Everyone who lives in Manhattan can feel it, especially those in the real estate brokerage business. The events of the past two months have marked a new milestone with the bailout of Frannie, the $700B stimulus package, collapse of Lehman, the purchase of Merrill, the reclassification of Morgan and Goldman to commercial bank status, aggressive actions including cutting rates by the Fed, a culmination of 22 months of campaigning, a new party taking over the executive branch and gaining power in Congress. In other words, change.

The promise or anticipation of change makes people in real estate pause and reflect.

Still, there is real estate activity, albeit at a slower pace. Informed buyers are signing contracts. Many participants are optimistic about the new direction promised by the new administration, and in the short term, that may cause a slight bump up in activity. However, the credit crunch continues to overshadow housing markets in the US.

Stabilize credit, then and only then, can the housing improve.

Speaking of wolves at the door…


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[Jackass Analogy] Securitization Explained

October 20, 2008 | 10:49 am |

Matrix is the blending of economics, real estate and of course, farm animals. Here’s the latest low-brow explanation of how the bailout works, as passed around that series of tubes (Hat tip to Marty).

So here goes:

Young Chuck moved to Texas and bought a donkey from a farmer for $100.
The farmer agreed to deliver the donkey the next day.

The next day he drove up and said, ‘Sorry son, but I have some bad news, the donkey died.’

Chuck replied, ‘Well, then just give me my money back.’ The farmer said, ‘Can’t do that. I went and spent it already.’

Chuck said, ‘Ok, then, just bring me the dead donkey.’ The farmer asked, ‘What ya gonna do with him? Chuck said, ‘I’m going to raffle him off.’ The farmer said You can’t raffle off a dead donkey!’ Chuck said, ‘Sure I can – watch me. I just won’t tell anybody he’s dead.’

A month later, the farmer met up with Chuck and asked, ‘What happened with that dead donkey?’ Chuck said, ‘I raffled him off. I sold 500 tickets at two dollars a piece and made a profit of $998.’ The farmer said, ‘Didn’t anyone complain?’ Chuck said, ‘Just the guy who won. So I gave him his two dollars back.’

Chuck now works for Goldman Sachs.


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[The Navigator] Strategic Planning Can Get Appraisers Under The TARP

October 20, 2008 | 10:13 am | |

Joseph P. Egan is a Massachusetts Certified General Real Estate Appraiser with over 25 years of professional valuation experience. The assignments performed by his firm, Joseph P. Egan & Associates, cover a broad range of commercial real estate properties as well as family and closely-held businesses in Cape Cod, Nantucket and Southeastern Massachusetts. This experience intersects with all major industries such as the automotive, food service, healthcare, lodging, marine, professional services, recreational, and retail sectors. Joe is a thoughtful and thorough writer who draws on this experience when delivering unique insight on issues that impact appraisers in today’s market. I am deeply grateful to have Joe’s to help us “navigate” this challenging environment for appraisers.
– Jonathan Miller



Earlier this month the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) became a done deal and the U.S. Treasury has since been diligently crafting a global strategy to implement the greatest government bailout or rescue since the 1930’s.

Despite the many unknowns of the $700 billion program, one underlying theme being increasingly acknowledged is that TARP related assets will stimulate demand for experienced workout related professionals. Given what we know, it appears the increase will largely concern asset collateralized by commercial real estate and new construction assets.

One piece of evidence of the growing demand are the widely published reports of the FDIC’s efforts to employ more workout professionals beginning with retirees possessing prior on the job experience gained in the prior S&L bailout. In the private sector, Anthony LoPinto of SelectLeaders a leading commercial real estate recruiter stated in a recent blog post that due to “a meltdown of the financial system” and the need to “contend with the large pools and billions of dollars of commercial real estate loans that will be maturing over the next 12 to 36 months”, demand for experienced workout and restructuring professionals is expected to increase. An anecdotal review of available job postings, hiring news, and general industry dialogue all seem to corroborate Mr. LoPinto’s front line perspective.

The positive news is advisory and valuation companies of all types will likely have opportunities to meet the growing need for workout services. Professionals and organizations with prior workout exposure may have a leg up and perhaps be most inclined to seize opportunities. Less experienced professionals seeking to diversify into the arena can still adopt strategic and focused measures to explore opportunities.

Regardless of your level of workout experience, before dipping into this inviting yet clouded pool, it may be best to develop a reasonable short list of what we currently perceive to be in store under TARP and highlight a few differences between the last time workout services was a growth industry. Armed with this perspective (which is being further refined at this moment) a range of possible workout opportunities likely to be offered in the marketplace can be brought into closer focus.

Fully recognizing that the range of differences is an evolving topic, as TARP unfolds the short list of current differences include:

  • The financial and systemic magnitude of the TARP program and the solution it hopes to provide are much larger and more global than the S&L bailout. From a structural perspective, the range and diversity of market participants, stake holders and service providers will be broader as well.
  • Using the establishment of FIRREA in 1989 as the starting point, the S&L bailout lasted into the mid 1990’s. The timeframe for the TARP program is unknown due to dependent variables such as the type of assets to be acquired, price levels achieved, the degree to which assets are performing, holding periods (some assets may be held to maturity), and the manner in which Treasury adjusts their terms over time. Continued bank mergers and failures along with the dysfunctional state of the commercial credit pipeline, thus triggering the degree to which banks will need to participate in the TARP program, all remain significant variables as well.
  • In the S&L bailout, the bulk of assets acquired by the RTC and resold comprised whole asset sales acquired from a neat profile of U.S. banks. A significantly higher percentage of the troubled assets to be acquired under TARP, however, are expected to comprise internationally held whole mortgages and other financial instruments of many blends, rather than primarily hard assets such as real property. In addition, the troubled assets will be divided among the yet to be named asset managers in two groups handling either whole loans or securities backed by a multitude of mortgages.
  • Based on available information, gaining adequate control of securitized assets, aptly assessing risk, and developing reliable pricing and buy/sell mechanisms, particularly for securitized assets, will be the major challenges.
  • Through the consistent introduction of “innovative debt” structures and greater reliance on private rather than institutional capital, a broader pallet of international stakeholders now exists. The consistent formation of new private venture funds keen on opportunities to acquire distressed assets at favorable terms is just one example of how this realm is already expanding. Another stakeholder may comprise tax payers like you and me under a plan being considered where Treasury financing would be provided in selected joint venture transactions. The equity partnerships are aimed at promoting assets sales while providing the opportunity for tax payers to be a stakeholder.
  • Qualifying banks deciding whether to retain or acquire collateralized assets not sold to Treasury will represent another type of potential workout client. Certainly, the relaxing of market to market requirements, changes on the treatment of distressed assets in whole mergers, along with restrictions on executive pay, equity participation, and recoupment could provide incentives for banks to strongly consider holding or acquiring assets, except for the most seriously impaired. As part of this decision making process, banks will require workout related guidance on assets collateralized by real property.
  • The range of sophisticated analytical tools and the level of readily accessible public and proprietary market data, software applications and information technology have significantly increased since the 1990’s. Consequently, on the regional or local level appraisers providing the most sought after workout services will be required to demonstrate the high value capabilities and specialized technical expertise not readily decipherable from third party data sources or based on remotely developed software models.
  • Participating appraisers must fully understand the needs and structure of this evolving process which over time will ultimately become a sophisticated and highly channeled niche market. Consequently, a new long-term commitment to being properly positioned on the right regional and national radar screens will be paramount. Getting there first, establishing your targeted expertise, and being “top of mind” is even better.
  • Due to the magnitude of the current rescue plan as we know it, efficiency and credible assignments results will even rank higher. Project management skills, accountability, the ability follow defined scope of work requirements, and the willingness to provide high touch follow up service will no doubt reign supreme.
  • Given the volume of assets to be managed and Treasury’s emphasis on the “paramount need for expeditious implementation”, asset managers and other workout clients will seek out service providers with the capacity to reliably complete multi-property or portfolio assignments in the most optimum manner possible.

With these observations in mind, in addition to appraisals, some ideas on the types of targeted workout related services to be requested will include:

  • Liquidation Value The ability to estimate reasonable and adequately supported liquidation values will be needed area of expertise. Assisting banks in the development of “fair value” estimates on ORE properties could perhaps be another related service to be requested. (See FDIC, FIL 62-2008, Guidance on Other Real Estate, issued July, 2008)
  • Development Consulting Professionals and organizations with a firm local and regional grasp on absorption rates, development costs, unit pricing, sales concessions, bulk sale analyses, etc. or the more encompassing market and feasibility studies, will be sought out. Depending on your geographic region, through properly developed scope of work scenarios this niche service sector can offer good opportunities for developing a solid niche and attracting ongoing and repeat assignments.
  • Market Analysis Providing market data and specialized analysis to a range of clients are examples of the type of work out related assignments likely to be requested. Possible scenarios include requests for supplemental market data and analysis to be considered by a client in connection with an existing appraisal they are currently reviewing. Individuals and organizations performing advisory or valuation services in a market area where you have superior expertise or better resources may comprise another client group. The need for up to date and reliable market data and trend analyses to be utilized in connection with a client’s internal portfolio review processes is another area where market analysis services will have a good fit in the workout arena. Since the ability to assess a borrower’s capacity to continue to pay on a performing loan will be front and center, one offshoot in this area could possibly involve assignments supporting the underwriting and risk assessment processes with greater precision. Recognizing that the original mortgage was created at both a different time and underwriting scenario, such clients may require more on the ground intelligence addressing critical topics such as the state of the immediate market area and the competitive environment.
  • Property or Subject Specialization Professional advisory and firms with specialized areas of expertise will be sought out to provide reliable solutions concerning unique properties and problems. And based on what we already know about lax underwriting and loose credit standards, there will be many unique properties and problems. In a workout environment, prudent asset managers realize they cannot know every market or every property type and are inclined to turn to specialists for answers. The byproduct — timely and sound decision making is what they need most. One obvious example of specialized subjects involves the broad category of distressed properties with the possibility of further segmentation. Additional examples may include specialization by property type (e.g., gas stations, net leased restaurants, lodging properties, recreational properties, food processing plants, interval ownership resorts, etc.), by region or perhaps based on very specialized knowledge within a closely aligned field (e.g., geology, agriculture, environmental engineering, etc.).

The preceding review of the major aspects of the TARP program and brief list of likely workout services serve as only a brief back drop to the anticipated growing need for professional workout services. Certainly, many other key observations are worth noting and no doubt these waters will become clearer in coming weeks. Nevertheless, the preliminary list serves its purpose of being a vehicle to inspire interested professionals to begin to strategically consider the key questions surrounding the future for workout assignments, essentially the who, what, where, when, how, and why of it all. Naturally, for those among us already experiencing a steady increase in workout related assignments sharing your valued observations would be a true reflection of professionalism as we join together and prepare to meet the serious challenges before us in the coming financial and economic environment.


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[Bailout Lobbying] Can’t See The Houses For The Trees

October 1, 2008 | 12:55 am |

Let’s try something different, take another path through the forest….

Close your eyes for a minute and imagine a Congress that will vote for its constituent’s behalf and their conscious. Imagine they will vote on the issue and not worry about the election in a month.

Did you seriously listen to me? Kick yourself for being so darn naive…

One of the great things about technology, is the trend toward transparency. According to MapLight.org, a public database used to provide more political transparency through the tracking of donations, found a clear pattern in the votes cast in the bailout bill H.R. 3997, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008.

House Democrats split their votes on this bill, 140 voting Yes and 95 voting No. Democrats voting Yes received an average of $212,700 each, about twice as much as those voting No, $107,993.

House Republicans also split their votes on this bill, 65 voting Yes and 133 voting No (and 1 not voting). Republicans voting Yes received an average of $273,181 each, 50% more than those voting No, $181,688.

About a 50% vote spread with the takers dominating the takees.

From McCain pulling that last minute ride in and save the day to Obama using this turmoil to aggressively raise funds, it sure seems like the impending financial crisis has gotten lost in the politics.

The US Senate is voting on a revised bailout bill today:

would also raise federal deposit insurance limits to $250,000 from $100,000, as called for by the two presidential nominees only hours earlier.

The move to add a tax legislation — including a set of popular business tax breaks — risked a backlash from House Democrats insisting they be paid for with tax increases elsewhere.

Here are some thoughts on the bailout at Politico

This morning I listened to the president’s commentary on BBC about the failure of Congress to vote for the bill (after he touted the strength of the economy as recently as 2 months ago), this address probably fell on deaf ears and that’s a shame. He’s a lame duck with a 70% disapproval rating. The administration didn’t appear to be aware of the extent of the crisis until the GSE bailout.

Here are some less hyped thoughts on a bailout.


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[Moral Hazard] No Atheists In Foxholes, No Ideologues In Financial Crises

September 22, 2008 | 12:01 am | | Milestones |

A lot has been made of the lack of moral hazard on Wall Street, festering into the current crises.

Michael Lewis, author of a number of great books, including Liars Poker comments in his recent column titled: Bright Side of a Total Financial Market Collapse:

No sooner did Greenspan shuffle off the stage and sell his memoir than the financial system he helped shape fell apart.

He’s left not only a mess but a void. No matter how well- educated we become in our financial affairs, we still need public officials to look up to, unthinkingly.

Slate’s new The Big Money is an excellent resource for financial news commentary. Martha White’s article: What Is a Moral Hazard? The economic reasoning behind bailout or no bailout is a good read.

While bailout seems to be the financial term du jour, right behind it is the more ambiguous “moral hazard.” Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson cited moral hazard as the reason not to swoop in to save Lehman Bros. and Merrill Lynch. Puzzling to many, though, was that while moral hazard was discussed in conjunction with the rescues of Bear Stearns, AIG, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, it wasn’t a deal breaker in any of those cases.

…moral hazard is the idea that insurance in any form makes people riskier.

When I was 15 years old back in the Bicentennial summer of 1976, I rode my bicycle 4,400 miles zig zagging across the US with a group formerly called Bikecentennial. Of 4,000 people who participated, 3 people actually died riding that summer, and within our own group of a dozen riders, those who did wear helmets experienced wrecks and those who didn’t wear helmets (like me), were fine.

I often wondered if wearing a helmet made the riders more prone to take risks. I don’t think so – they represented a cross section of temperaments in our group. In fact, I bought a helmet when I got home and have worn one ever since – and no wrecks.

Perhaps it is more as an argument of convenience. Throw it in if it helps make the case?

The absence of moral hazard of the current situation was created by the GSE structure to begin with. Investors assumed the US would bail out ‘Mac & ‘Mae if they ever ran into trouble because they were “government sponsored”. I can only imagine what would happen to the financial system if the former GSEs were allowed to fail. “Faith and credit of the US” would have meant nothing forever, or at least as long as the current Yankee Stadium is old.

And the system seems to be unraveling quickly judging by more actions this weekend.

Paulson and Bernanke have been making moves faster than Congress or the President can seemingly comprehend. Expect Congress to start fighting the changes once they get it.

There are no atheists in foxholes and no ideologues in financial crises,” Mr. Bernanke told colleagues last week, according to one meeting participant.

A bit unnerving but the Bush administration has been disconnected from the crisis until a few days ago, when it began to back Paulson’s actions. In fact, that was a requirement of Hank’s acceptance of the position to begin with, unlike his predecessors in the current administration.

And the candidates, until a few weeks ago, didn’t discuss the issue directly – and still don’t seem to get and at the very least, didn’t see it coming. Paulson and Bernanke need to move fast.

The lesson learned from this bailout of epic (trillions) proportions, was best said by Floyd Norris in his Reckless? You’re in Luck

If an activity is important enough to justify a government nationalization to prevent a default, it is important enough to be regulated. The regulators need to know what risks are being taken, and by which institutions, in time to act before a crisis develops.

Had the government bothered to do that in years past, it might not have faced the decisions it faced this week. First, it let one big firm go down, and then it became scared enough to nationalize another one to keep it afloat.

Now, showing no sign of embarrassment over how badly they failed before, the current crop of regulators seem to be unified in their determination not to let the markets force them to make a similar choice on some other big financial institution.

It’s not about more regulations, its about regulations that deal with today’s markets.

Paulson and Bernanke will have to wrestle with these issues later, right now, they are suggesting we all wear a helmet.


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[The Surge Redefined] This Time It’s Financial, International

September 9, 2008 | 1:08 am |

Not surprisingly the Dow surged today, signaling the US Treasury is moving in the right direction. This size of this action was beyond the ability of the Fed’s balance sheet.

Do you really think this action was taken to protect the housing market? The GSEs were too big to fail? Dan Gross at Newsweek sees things a bit differently:

The bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will be sold and marketed as efforts to shore up the U.S. housing market. That could be. But they are really meant at shoring up our damaged international financial standing, preserving leadership and making sure the U.S. Treasury Secretary doesn’t get tarred and feathered at the next G-8 meeting. In a world of significant global financial imbalances, the doctrine of “too big to fail,” has been replaced by the doctrine of “too international to fail.”

There is a very well laid out explanation of the US government’s balance sheet in Randall Forsyth’s column in Barrons called: Beginning of the Financial “Surge”. If you don’t subscribe to Barrons Online, you should consider since the financial markets and the housing/credit market are now joined at the hip.

The Treasury Sunday acknowledged the federal government’s role in creating the “ambiguity” leading investors to assume it would stand behind Fannie and Freddie debt and MBS. Now it said it had a “responsibility” to “avert and ultimately address the systemic risk now posed by the scale and breadth of the holdings of GSE debt and mortgage backed securities,” totaling some $5 trillion held by investors around the globe. That doesn’t include the trillions more in derivatives contracts entered into by Fannie and Freddie.

Trillions: I wonder what those derivatives contracts are worth in relation to outstanding MBS? My very limited experience working with Wall Street and housing related derivative products last year tells me it has got to be a mind boggling amount. All the more important to facilitate stabilization now.

Another Barrons piece by Steven Sears, “The Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac takeover signals big trouble, not an all-clear.

indicates there are a lot of market gyrations in the future for investors…

“Once the euphoria ends, we need to decide where to go,” Credit Suisse’s strategists told clients…Investment-bank traders, who cannot be identified because they are not allowed to speak to media, say trading is very slow and what they are seeing gravitates toward adjusting bearish positions. “No call buyers,” is what one trader said.

In other words, its really a new playing field. Let’s not let our expectations surge too soon.


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[I.O.U.S.A.] Sooner Or Later It’s Real Money

August 21, 2008 | 10:41 pm |

A must see movie is coming out this weekend: I.O.U.S.A

To view more preview clips.

From the press release

Throughout history, the American government has found it nearly impossible to spend only what has been raised through taxes. Wielding candid interviews with both average American taxpayers and government officials, Sundance veteran Patrick Creadon (Wordplay) helps demystify the nation’s financial practices and policies. The film follows former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker as he crisscrosses the country explaining America’s unsustainable fiscal policies to its citizens.

As we slog through the current credit condition, its really an opportunity to reconsider the over reliance of debt as a way for government (and ourselves) to avoid making hard choices.

In fact, there is very little wiggle room with efforts for debt reduction on a federal level largely because of entitlements. Add to that a GSE bailout that may well exceed $100M and counting.

One for two

The Congressional Budget Office found that “typical estimates of the economic [deadweight] cost of a dollar of tax revenue range from 20 cents to 60 cents over and above the revenue raised.”3 Studies by Harvard’s Martin Feldstein have found that deadweight losses are even larger. He noted that “the deadweight burden caused by incremental taxation … may exceed one dollar per dollar of revenue raised, making the cost of incremental governmental spending more than two dollars for each dollar of government spending.”


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[GSE Reminder] Hey, There Are No Guarantees

July 21, 2008 | 1:58 pm | |

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are government sponsored enterprises (GSE). Yet they have shareholders and are profit driven. They play a critical role in the stability of the US mortgage market (and housing) by promoting liquidity, helping mortgage rates and availability consistent throughout the country.

One of the things that made them have a competitive advantage over others was their inferred backing by the federal government.

In the New Yorker this week, James Surowiecki writes in his column Sponsoring Recklessness

The two companies have long been required to tell investors that their securities are not guaranteed by the federal government. But in the financial markets everyone has always assumed that this demurral was just window-dressing, and everyone, it turns out, was right. Last week, when fears of a possible collapse of the two companies threatened to spark a major financial crisis, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve quickly came up with a rescue package. What had been an implicit guarantee became an explicit one

Fannie was privatized in 1968 so president Johnson could move the debt off the federal books to help sell the Vietnam War budget, not to help the mortgage market.

Help to the consumer in terms of their impact on keeping low mortgage rates may be exagerated.

A paper by the economist Wayne Passmore, of the Federal Reserve, suggests that in fact Fannie and Freddie have only a small effect on the interest rates that homeowners pay, saving them less than one-tenth of a percentage point.

The GSE self-preservation mechanism has been aggressive lobbying using former high placed government officials, very effective in enabling them to grow to $5 trillion in mortgage debt. A blip on the radar could cause more damage than Congress is able to burden the taxpayers with.

More than $10 billion in losses in the past two quarters, the GSEs (and FHA) are looking for more money to capitalize to help bailout the housing market at Congress’ urging.

Holden Lewis over at Bankrate wrote a great post on this last week called The GSEs and moral hazard.

Daniel Gross, my friend over at Slate and Newsweek, makes a better argument for the help GSEs provide to the taxpayer/homeowner suggesting that a bailout of the GSEs would actually be a bargain.

I guess I have a hard time accepting that anything the federal government would do would be a bargain and the long term concept of nationalization of the GSEs would be cost effective, but hey, I don’t have to refinance my mortgage.


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[Bailing Out The Housing Ship] Pirate Economics And Democracy

May 22, 2008 | 11:07 am | |

Pirates of several hundred years ago have been getting a lot of attention of late via the 3 Johnny Depp/Disney movies.

Well, apparently pirates formed some of the first petri dishes of modern economics and democracy according to a new book “The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates” written by an economics professor at George Mason (hat tip to Freakonomics).

The book caught me eye, arrgh, as someone who fancies the likes of (sorry, I digress) Talk Like A Pirate Day each September 19th as well as my friend Chris Miles’ site TalkLikeAPirateDay.com. The “founders of International Talk Like a Pirate Day acknowledge that there is, in people who love to say “Aargh,” a yearning for a certain kind of freedom.”

Aargh!

Presidential candidates, take note: Long before they made their way into the workings of modern government, the democratic tenets we hold so dear were used to great effect on pirate ships. Checks and balances. Social insurance. Freedom of expression.

The pirates who roamed the seas in the late 17th and early 18th centuries developed a floating civilization that, in terms of political philosophy, was well ahead of its time. The notion of checks and balances, in which each branch of government limits the other’s power, emerged in England in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. But by the 1670s, and likely before, pirates were developing democratic charters, establishing balance of power on their ships, and developing a nascent form of worker’s compensation: A lost limb entitled one to payment from the booty, more or less depending on whether it was a right arm, a left arm, or a leg.

Aside from walking the plank analogies, what the heck does this have to do with housing?

I’m getting to that.

If you think about it, one of the arguments against anything in the form of a bailout, is that we let the free markets decide (aka “Aargh”). Good honest hard working people should not be asked to foot the bill for other’s greed. I agree.

But all the “help” done so far is explicitly presented as anything but a “bailout” which is not true. That’s because any “fix” is essentially a bailout.

In a pure sense, the “anti-bailout” sentiment is based on the idea that people took advantage of the lending system to their own personal gain at other’s expense so they should suffer their free market fate.

If people broke laws, they should be punished. But what if they didn’t and gamed the system to its full advantage because there were no regulations or significant repercussions?

My entry into blogging in 2005 was born out of frustration that people around me were gaming the system “legally” (definitely not ethically) and seemingly nothing could be done about it or no one in government was willing to or understood what the problem was. Until now.

Which brings me to my point.

Free markets don’t work if there aren’t guidelines (remember that quote from Pirates of the Caribbean?). The problem with the lending environment of the past 5 years was the lack of appropriate regulation, oversight and enforcement. There was not a level playing field and risk could be shifted off to unwitting (misinformed, naive or stupid) investors.

In other words, it was a systemic problem.

Yet a business enterprise made up of the violent and lawless was clearly problematic: piracy required common action and mutual trust. And pirates couldn’t rely on a government to set the rules. Some think that “without government, where would we be?” Leeson says. “But what pirates really show is, no, it’s just common sense. You have an incentive to try to create rules to make society get along. And that’s just as important to pirates as it is to anybody else.”

Unless all parties have skin in the game, whether it is lenders, investors, borrowers, appraisers, mortgage brokers, mortgage bankers, investment banks, government, regulators, GSEs, ratings agencies, there is no financial democracy and we will have another systemic breakdown.

In other words, we need a workable regulatory structure.

The pirates were a lot more innovative than we probably give them credit for – you do need to lose an arm or a leg if you do something wrong.

Aye…

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[Premature Lecture] Agencies Go Full Court Press On Self-reflection

May 20, 2008 | 11:05 am | |


It seems a bit early to start reflecting on the lessons learned from the housing/mortgage problems we face, since, well, we still face them.

Don’t get me wrong.

It is always good to look back over your efforts and evaluate whether anything different could have been done to yield a different result. It is just that this infers closure and it is too early to summarize.

OFHEO – James Lockhart, the director spoke last week at the 44th Annual Conference on Bank Structure and Competition in Chicago (think Auto show, only less metallic paint) on the “Lessons Learned from the Mortgage Market Turmoil.”

He arrived on the scene after the party already begun and despite the criticisms levied towards both him and his agency, I actually think he did well with what powers he has to employ.

Plus, he likes charts “To set my remarks in context, I often like to start with a chart that gives some perspective…” Start with a chart and I am on your side.

Key lessons learned

  • what goes up too far goes down too far. In other words, bubbles burst.
  • mortgage securities are risky and that there is a long list of financial firms that have had problems with those securities, including problems related to model, market, credit, and operational risks. A key lesson from the savings and loan crisis that was ignored was not to lend long and borrow short, as structured investment vehicles (SIVs) did.
  • Another lesson ignored is that in bull markets investors and financial institutions tend to misprice risk, which can result in inadequate capital when markets turn.
  • A new lesson that should be learned is that putting subprime mortgages, which almost by definition need to be worked, into a “brain dead” trust makes no sense.
  • Another lesson is that overreliance on sophisticated, quantitative models promotes a hubris that has frequently caused serious problems at many financial institutions

Lessons learned specific to the GSEs

  • The first is about pro-cyclical behavior during the credit cycle. An important issue for supervisory agencies is how to create incentives for institutions to behave in a less pro-cyclical manner without interfering with their ability to earn reasonable returns on capital.
  • A second lesson from recent experience is the importance of capital. Capital at individual institutions not only reduces their risk of experiencing solvency and funding problems and of contributing to financial market illiquidity, but also helps them avoid the need to retrench in bad times and miss what may be very attractive opportunities in weak markets.
  • Those two lessons provide compelling arguments for a third: legislation needs to be enacted soon that would reform supervision of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and, specifically, give a new agency authority to set capital requirements comparable to the authority the bank regulatory agencies possess.

These are important points because the GSEs dwarf other debt and the GSEs have been losing money as of late. Here’s a few charts that may be of interest from his speech:


FDIC – Sheila Bair, FDIC CHairman was speaking in Washington, DC at the Brookings Institution Forum, The Great Credit Squeeze: How it Happened, How to Prevent Another http://www.fdic.gov/news/news/speeches/chairman/spmay1608.html on the same day Lockhart was speaking in Chicago. A full court press of self-reflection. Like Lockhart, Bair has been very outspoken and I believe lucid in her depiction of the problems at hand. To her credit, she has clearly articulated the problem with the mortgage system.

Her salient points are:

  • …things may get worse before they get better. As regulators, we continue to see a lot of distress out there.
  • Data show there could be a second wave of the more traditional credit stress you see in an economic slowdown.
  • Delinquencies are rising for other types of credit, most notably for construction and development lending, but also for commercial loans and consumer debt.
  • The slowdown we’ve seen in the U.S. economy since late last year appears to be directly linked to the housing crisis and the self-reinforcing cycle of defaults and foreclosures, putting more downward pressure on the housing market and leading to yet more defaults and foreclosures.
  • Reform is not happening fast enough
  • She explains HOP loans are NOT a bailout
  • The housing crisis is now a national problem that requires a national solution. It’s no longer confined to states that once had go-go real estate markets.
  • The FDIC has dealt with this kind of crisis before.

Take away

Both OFHEO and FDIC seem to be saying we need to take action now and they were powerless to do anything before this situation evolved into its current form?

It makes me wonder whether any regulatory proposals will do much good. Regulators did not take action or propose safeguards while the problem was building. How can they suddenly have wisdom now? While these recommendations and insight seem prudent but isn’t it kind of late for that?

Speaking of monoliths, here’s Steve Ballmer getting egged in Hungary.


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[GSE Searchlight] Oversight Is So Not Over

April 23, 2008 | 12:35 am |

There is a whole lot of oversight going on these days. OFHEO [Office of Housing Enterprise Oversight] and others are very concerned about the ability of the GSEs to avoid getting into trouble.

I wonder why there was so little oversight before the credit crunch? Was it an…oversight (sorry)?

It’s pretty scary to think that Fannie and Freddie (and HUD) are seen as the saviors of the housing market in the creation of a jumbo conforming mortgage product, expanded portfolio size and a housing market condition that continues to weaken (default rates rise as prices decline). They are already vulnerable.

Although few are predicting an imminent need for a bailout just yet, credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s recently placed an estimated price tag on this worst case scenario — $420 billion to $1.1 trillion of taxpayer’s money.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are getting a lot more attention from the Treasury Department these days.

Treasury officials have stepped up efforts to strengthen the regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two largest buyers of home mortgages, pressing key senators to break a legislative stalemate that has lasted for years.

In OFHEOs Report to Congress, it summarizes the concerns quite efficiently:

$5.0 trillion in guaranteed mortgage-backed securities outstanding and mortgage investments. Their market share of total mortgage originations grew from 37.4 percent in 2006 to 75.6 percent by the fourth quarter of 2007. There is increasing pressure for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to do even more to support the mortgage market, which is problematic in absence of GSE reform legislation to strengthen the regulatory process.

As evidenced by the lack of market enthusiasm for the new jumbo conforming mortgage product that was supposed to help the housing market (allowing some homeowners to refi their way out of trouble – which can’t be good for FNMA’s portfolio). And OFHEO is just wrapping up actions against former FNMA executives who manipulated earnings to enhance their bonus income.

It doesn’t seem reasonable to place all of our hopes for a solution on the GSEs.

Consider oversight in the classroom: How students see their classroom today.


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