Friday, October 16, 2009

Almost two-thirds of all bad mortgages in our financial system were bought by government agencies or required by government regulations

Barney Frank, Predatory Lender. By PETER J. WALLISON
Almost two-thirds of all bad mortgages in our financial system were bought by government agencies or required by government regulations.
WSJ, Oct 16, 2009

Recent reports that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) will suffer default rates of more than 20% on the 2007 and 2008 loans it guaranteed has raised questions once again about the government's role in the financial crisis and its efforts to achieve social purposes by distorting the financial system.

The FHA's function is to guarantee mortgages of low-income borrowers (the mortgages are then sold through securitizations by Ginnie Mae) and thus to take reasonable credit risks in the interests of making mortgage credit available to the nation's low-income citizens. Accordingly, the larger than normal losses that will result from the 2007 and 2008 cohort could be justified by Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, as "policy"—an effort to ease the housing downturn through the application of government credit. The FHA, he argued, is buying more weak mortgages in order to help put a floor under the housing market. Eventually, the taxpayers will have to judge whether this policy was justified.

Far more interesting than the FHA's prospective losses on its 2007 and 2008 book are the agency's losses on its 2005 and 2006 guarantees, when the housing bubble was inflating at its fastest rate and there was no need for government support. FHA-backed loans during those years also have delinquency rates between 20% and 30%. These adverse results—not the result of a "policy" effort to shore up markets—pose a significant challenge to those who are trying to absolve the U.S. government of responsibility for the financial crisis.

When the crisis first arose, the left's explanation was that it was caused by corporate greed, primarily on Wall Street, and by deregulation of the financial system during the Bush administration. The implicit charge was that the financial system was flawed and required broader regulation to keep it out of trouble. As it became clear that there was no financial deregulation during the Bush administration and that the financial crisis was caused by the meltdown of almost 25 million subprime and other nonprime mortgages—almost half of all U.S. mortgages—the narrative changed. The new villains were the unregulated mortgage brokers who allegedly earned enormous fees through a new form of "predatory" lending—by putting unsuspecting home buyers into subprime mortgages when they could have afforded prime mortgages. This idea underlies the Obama administration's proposal for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. The link to the financial crisis—recently emphasized by President Obama—is that these mortgages would not have been made if regulators had been watching those fly-by-night mortgage brokers.

There was always a problem with this theory. Mortgage brokers had to be able to sell their mortgages to someone. They could only produce what those above them in the distribution chain wanted to buy. In other words, they could only respond to demand, not create it themselves. Who wanted these dicey loans? The data shows that the principal buyers were insured banks, government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the FHA—all government agencies or private companies forced to comply with government mandates about mortgage lending. When Fannie and Freddie were finally taken over by the government in 2008, more than 10 million subprime and other weak loans were either on their books or were in mortgage-backed securities they had guaranteed. An additional 4.5 million were guaranteed by the FHA and sold through Ginnie Mae before 2008, and a further 2.5 million loans were made under the rubric of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which required insured banks to provide mortgage credit to home buyers who were at or below 80% of median income. Thus, almost two-thirds of all the bad mortgages in our financial system, many of which are now defaulting at unprecedented rates, were bought by government agencies or required by government regulations.

The role of the FHA is particularly difficult to fit into the narrative that the left has been selling. While it might be argued that Fannie and Freddie and insured banks were profit-seekers because they were shareholder-owned, what can explain the fact that the FHA—a government agency—was guaranteeing the same bad mortgages that the unregulated mortgage brokers were supposedly creating through predatory lending?

The answer, of course, is that it was government policy for these poor quality loans to be made. Since the early 1990s, the government has been attempting to expand home ownership in full disregard of the prudent lending principles that had previously governed the U.S. mortgage market. Now the motives of the GSEs fall into place. Fannie and Freddie were subject to "affordable housing" regulations, issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which required them to buy mortgages made to home buyers who were at or below the median income. This quota began at 30% of all purchases in the early 1990s, and was gradually ratcheted up until it called for 55% of all mortgage purchases to be "affordable" in 2007, including 25% that had to be made to low-income home buyers.

It was not easy to find candidates for traditional mortgages—loans to people with good credit records or the resources for a substantial downpayment—among home buyers who qualified under HUD's guidelines. To meet their affordable housing requirements, therefore, Fannie and Freddie reduced their lending standards and reached into the FHA's turf. The FHA, although it lost market share, continued to guarantee what it could, adding to the demand that the unregulated mortgage brokers filled. If they were engaged in predatory lending, it was ultimately driven by the government's own requirements. The mortgages that resulted are now problem loans for the GSEs, the FHA and the big banks that were required to make them in order to burnish their CRA credentials.

The significance of the FHA's troubles is that this agency had no profit motive. Yet it dipped into the same pool of subprime and other nontraditional mortgages that the GSEs and Wall Street were fishing in. The left cannot have it both ways, blaming the private sector for subprime lending while absolving the government policies that created the demand for subprime loans. If the financial crisis was caused by subprime mortgages and predatory lending, the government's own policies made it happen.

Mr. Walllison is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Borrow from the Federal Reserve at zero and lend to Treasury for a profit. That's some racket

The Banking System Is Still Broken. By ANN LEE
Borrow from the Federal Reserve at zero and lend to Treasury for a profit. That's some racket.
WSJ, Oct 16, 2009

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have announced that the recession is over. Now that the Dow Jones Industrial Average has broken the 10,000 mark, we'll surely be hearing assurances that economic growth is here to stay. But the credit markets are in much worse shape than some indicators suggest.

First of all, not all U.S. banks are created equal. A few multinational banks such as Citigroup are officially too big to fail. Credit spreads in the markets reflect the relatively risk-free nature of these large companies, which now have implicit government guarantees.

But this protection doesn't apply to smaller banks, some of which are being shut down by the FDIC without much media attention. These smaller banks have done most of the lending to the many small and medium-sized enterprises that do the bulk of the hiring in our economy. They've now had to cut off the flow of credit to their clients.

According to Automatic Data Processing Inc.'s August employment report, large businesses shed 60,000 jobs, and employment at medium-sized and small businesses declined by 116,000 and 122,000, respectively, in August alone. Small businesses, defined as employing anywhere from one to 49 people, account for 48 million jobs in the U.S., and medium-sized businesses, between 50 and 499 employees, account for 42 million jobs. Large businesses account for just 17 million. Without access to capital, these small and medium-sized businesses will continue to lay off their employees, creating a vicious cycle of shrinking consumer credit and demand.

The volume of overall bank lending has not returned to pre-crisis levels. While credit spreads have contracted, not much debt has been underwritten. In fact, banks that received government bailout money reduced their average loan balance by $54 billion in July, compared to the previous month, according to the Treasury's Capital Purchase Program Monthly Lending report.

The first reason for this slowdown in lending is that underwriting standards have risen across the board, making it much more difficult for businesses to obtain loans. Institutional investors no longer tolerate the easy loans so characteristic of this latest credit bubble. Banks are now also being asked to retain a portion of any loans they underwrite in order to align their interests with their investors. As a result, credit has scaled back dramatically. According to reports issued by the major rating agencies, in 2007 $700 billion of asset-backed securities were underwritten. Only $10 billion has been issued in 2009. This has a significant knock-on effect across every sector of the economy.

The banks have no incentive to lend. Most of them still have a significant amount of bad loans sitting on their books that they don't want to recognize as nonperforming. If the banks recognize these bad loans, all the write-offs may force them into bankruptcy. Instead, they hope that over time renegotiated loan terms will eventually allow the borrowers to make their payments. This ordeal could last at least a decade if this cycle is similar to other crises, like Japan's lost decade of the 1990s. As the fed funds rate goes to zero and existing loans in technical default continue to sit in bank portfolios, why should banks make new loans when they can make money for free with the government? There is no longer a stigma associated with borrowing from the Fed, so banks can earn a huge spread by borrowing virtually unlimited amounts for nothing and lending that same money back to the Treasury.

Wall Street will most definitely get richer again. But a return to easy credit for the average consumer and business is not likely in the near future. The only reason that credit spreads have tightened is because of the extraordinary interventions by the Fed and the Treasury.

Such unprecedented actions by the government have led to speculation over when inflation might get out of control. But why not question whether our current banking system actually makes any sense? Rather than giving capital to businesses with real products and services, Wall Street plays a government-backed shell game, enriching bankers' pockets at everyone else's expense.

If banks are being supported by taxpayer dollars as a public good, wouldn't it be logical to make Citigroup and Goldman part of the government so that they can serve the public like the Department of Motor Vehicles? The powerful banking lobby will likely prevent the nationalization of the entire banking system. But expect new challenges to our assumptions about the status quo if this recovery and the proposed regulatory reforms fail.

Ms. Lee, an adjunct professor at New York University, is a former investment banker and hedge-fund partner.

Al From: Democrats Don't Need the Public Option - Transformational reforms have always passed with bipartisan majorities

Democrats Don't Need the Public Option. By AL FROM
Transformational reforms have always passed with bipartisan majorities.
WSJ, Oct 16, 2009

Now that the Senate Finance Committee has voted for a health-care bill that does not include a government-run plan, it would be a mistake for Democrats to insist on adding the public option to reform legislation this year.

By insisting on the public option, liberal Democrats will allow the Republicans, who have no ideas of their own, to cloud the prospects for reform. If this happens, Republicans will be able to divert attention away from reforms most Americans want and instead focus on what Americans disagree on—whether we need a new government-run health plan.

As President Barack Obama has made clear, we need to reform. Right now, health insurance is too costly and the health-insurance market is not competitive enough. Too many people lack insurance or the chance to choose a plan that best suits their needs. Too many people are denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions or lose their coverage when they become sick. And our most successful public program—Medicare—is on the road to going broke. Doing nothing is not acceptable.

With control of the White House and Congress, the American people will rightly hold Democrats accountable for the outcome of the health debate. At the same time, the focus on the public option and level of discord it has generated is already taking a toll on the president's approval ratings and hurting the party more generally. In January, Democrats enjoyed a double digit lead on the "generic ballot"—a measure of support for a party. Last week, a Gallup poll showed that Democrats are now essentially in a dead heat with Republicans on the generic ballot. Particularly significant, the poll showed a nearly 20-point drop in Democratic support since the last election among independents, the key to our victories in 2006 and 2008. Insisting on the public option could cost many Blue Dogs in the House and a number of red-state moderates in the Senate their seats.

Now is the time for Mr. Obama to lead the way to historic health-care reform. He's the only one who can. I'd suggest he do so by taking these three steps:

• First, say unequivocally that he wants a plan that jettisons the public option and contains real reforms to cut health-care costs. As the Senate Finance Committee bill shows, a public option is unnecessary to expand coverage. Dropping it should win support of most centrist Democrats.
• Second, make clear that he does not want Congress to use parliamentary maneuvers, like the budget reconciliation process, to ram through a bill that can't command 60 votes in the Senate. Health-care reform needs broad support; it is too important and too controversial for Congress to pass by resorting to legislative chicanery or short-circuiting the legislative process.
• And finally, make one more effort to bring moderate Republicans along. Transformational reforms, such as civil rights legislation and Medicare in the 1960s, have always been passed with bipartisan majorities. Health-care reform should be no exception. The president promised a post-partisan politics. What better place to forge it than on his most important initiative?

If Mr. Obama takes these steps, I'm convinced Congress would pass a bill that requires every American to buy insurance, offers consumers a choice of plans through a new health exchange like the successful Commonwealth Connector in Massachusetts, provides subsidies that assure everyone can afford a basic plan, and prevents insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions or dropping coverage for people who become sick. All of these are reforms most American can agree on.

I'd personally like to see health-care reform include fees (as the president proposed) on Cadillac health-care plans, incentives to replace fee-for-service payments with more cost-effective models (the best way to bring down health-care costs over the long haul), and measures to limit abuses in malpractice suits (which Republicans have long called for).

Such a plan would meet the objectives the president has already outlined—expanding coverage, lowering costs, and improving quality—without adding to the federal deficit. With centrist Democrats signed on, such a plan should garner the 60 votes necessary to pass the Senate. Even without a public option, it would achieve most of what liberals have long fought for. Open-minded Republicans might even find it hard to resist.

Mr. From, the principal of The From Company LLC, is the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council.