Monday, April 19, 2010

Fannie and Freddie Amnesia - Taxpayers are on the hook for about $400 billion

Fannie and Freddie Amnesia. By PETER J. WALLISON
Taxpayers are on the hook for about $400 billion, partly because Sen. Obama helped to block reform.WSJ, Apr 20, 2010

Now that nearly all the TARP funds used to bail out Wall Street banks have been repaid, the government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stand out as the source of the greatest taxpayer losses.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that, in the wake of the housing bubble and the unprecedented deflation in housing values that resulted, the government's cost to bail out Fannie and Freddie will eventually reach $381 billion. That estimate may be too optimistic.

Last Christmas Eve, Treasury removed the $400 billion cap on what the government might be required to invest in these two GSEs in the future, and this may tell the real story about the cost to taxpayers. In typical Washington fashion, everyone has amnesia about how this disaster occurred.

The story is all too familiar. Politicians in positions of authority today had an opportunity to prevent this fiasco but did nothing. Now—in the name of the taxpayers—they want more power, but they have never been called to account for their earlier failings.

One chapter in this story took place in July 2005, when the Senate Banking Committee, then controlled by the Republicans, adopted tough regulatory legislation for the GSEs on a party-line vote—all Republicans in favor, all Democrats opposed. The bill would have established a new regulator for Fannie and Freddie and given it authority to ensure that they maintained adequate capital, properly managed their interest rate risk, had adequate liquidity and reserves, and controlled their asset and investment portfolio growth.

These authorities were necessary to control the GSEs' risk-taking, but opposition by Fannie and Freddie—then the most politically powerful firms in the country—had consistently prevented reform.

The date of the Senate Banking Committee's action is important. It was in 2005 that the GSEs—which had been acquiring increasing numbers of subprime and Alt-A loans for many years in order to meet their HUD-imposed affordable housing requirements—accelerated the purchases that led to their 2008 insolvency. If legislation along the lines of the Senate committee's bill had been enacted in that year, many if not all the losses that Fannie and Freddie have suffered, and will suffer in the future, might have been avoided.

Why was there no action in the full Senate? As most Americans know today, it takes 60 votes to cut off debate in the Senate, and the Republicans had only 55. To close debate and proceed to the enactment of the committee-passed bill, the Republicans needed five Democrats to vote with them. But in a 45 member Democratic caucus that included Barack Obama and the current Senate Banking Chairman Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.), these votes could not be found.

Recently, President Obama has taken to accusing others of representing "special interests." In an April radio address he stated that his financial regulatory proposals were struggling in the Senate because "the financial industry and its powerful lobby have opposed modest safeguards against the kinds of reckless risks and bad practices that led to this very crisis."

He should know. As a senator, he was the third largest recipient of campaign contributions from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, behind only Sens. Chris Dodd and John Kerry.

With hypocrisy like this at the top, is it any wonder that nearly 80% of Americans, according to new Pew polling, don't trust the federal government or its ability to solve the country's problems?

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

The SEC vs. Goldman - More a case of hindsight bias than financial villainy

The SEC vs. Goldman. WSJ Editorial

More a case of hindsight bias than financial villainy.
WSJ, Apr 19, 2010

The Securities and Exchange Commission's complaint against Goldman Sachs is playing in the media as the Rosetta Stone that finally exposes the Wall Street perfidy and double-dealing behind the financial crisis. Our reaction is different: Is that all there is?

After 18 months of investigation, the best the government can come up with is an allegation that Goldman misled some of the world's most sophisticated investors about a single 2007 "synthetic" collateralized debt obligation (CDO)? Far from being the smoking gun of the financial crisis, this case looks more like a water pistol.
Let's deconstruct the supposed fraud, in which Goldman worked with hedge fund investor John Paulson, who wanted to bet on a decline in the subprime mortgage market. The SEC alleges that Goldman let Paulson & Co. dictate the mortgage-backed securities on which investors would speculate via the CDO, and then withheld from investors Paulson's role on the other side of the transaction.

The SEC also alleges that Goldman deceived ACA Management—a unit of the largest investor on the other side of the deal and the firm officially selecting which mortgage-backed securities everybody would bet on—into believing that Mr. Paulson was actually investing in an "equity" tranche on ACA's side of the deal.

Regarding the second point, the offering documents for the 2007 CDO made no claim that we can find that Mr. Paulson's firm was betting alongside ACA. The documents go so far as to state that an equity tranche was not offered by Goldman, as ACA must have known since it helped put the deal together and presumably read the documents. The SEC complaint itself states that ACA had the final word on which assets would be referenced in the CDO. And in some cases, ACA kicked out of the pool various assets suggested by the Paulson firm.

More fundamentally, the investment at issue did not hold mortgages, or even mortgage-backed securities. This is why it is called a "synthetic" CDO, which means it is a financial instrument that lets investors bet on the future value of certain mortgage-backed securities without actually owning them.

Yet much of the SEC complaint is written as if the offering included actual pools of mortgages, rather than a collection of bets against them. Why would the SEC not offer a clearer description? Perhaps the SEC's enforcement division doesn't understand the difference between a cash CDO—which contains slices of mortgage-backed securities—and a synthetic CDO containing bets against these securities.

More likely, the SEC knows the distinction but muddied up the complaint language to confuse journalists and the public about what investors clearly would have known: That by definition such a CDO transaction is a bet for and against securities backed by subprime mortgages. The existence of a short bet wasn't Goldman's dark secret. It was the very premise of the transaction.

Did Goldman have an obligation to tell everyone that Mr. Paulson was the one shorting subprime? Goldman insists it is "normal business practice" for a market maker like itself not to disclose the parties to a transaction, and one question is why it would have made any difference. Mr. Paulson has since become famous for this mortgage gamble, from which he made $1 billion. But at the time of the trade he was just another hedge-fund trader, and no long-side investor would have felt this was like betting against Warren Buffett.

Not that there are any innocent widows and orphans in this story. Goldman is being portrayed as Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life," exploiting the good people of Bedford Falls. But a more appropriate movie analogy is "Alien vs. Predator," with Goldman serving as the referee. Mr. Paulson bet against German bank IKB and America's ACA, neither of which fell off a turnip truck at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets.

IKB describes itself as "a leading investor in CDOs" and "a leading credit manager in the German market." ACA, for its part, participated in numerous similar transactions. The Journal reports that ACA was known for embracing more risk than its competitors, because, with a less-than-stellar credit rating, it had a higher cost of capital.

By the way, Goldman was also one of the losers here. Although the firm received a $15 million fee for putting the deal together, Goldman says it ended up losing $90 million on the transaction itself, because it ultimately decided to bet alongside ACA and IKB. In other words, the SEC is suing Goldman for deceiving long-side investors in a transaction in which Goldman also took the long side. So Goldman conspired to defraud . . . itself?

As for the role this trade played in the financial crisis, its main impact was transferring $1 billion from the long-side housing gamblers to Mr. Paulson. Ultimately, this meant big losses for the Royal Bank of Scotland, which acquired one of the long-side players after the transaction and had to be rescued by a capital injection from the U.K. government. But RBS made more than enough bad choices of its own that contributed to its failure. These hedge-fund trades make for entertaining tales of financial derring-do, but they are hardly the root of the panic.
Which leads us to the real impact of this case, which is political. The SEC charges conveniently arrive on the brink of the Senate debate over financial reform, and its supporters are already using the case to grease the bill's passage. "I'm pleased that the Obama Administration is using all of the tools in its arsenal to bring accountability to Wall Street and standing up for homeowners and small businesses across America," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Friday about the SEC case. "This is also why we need to pass strong Wall Street reform this year." Of course, this case matters to homeowners not at all.
We have had our own disputes with Goldman, and we've criticized the firm for its explanations of its dealings with AIG. We have also urged the Senate to rewrite its flawed financial regulatory-reform bill precisely because it would benefit Goldman and other giant banks with explicit bailout powers available to assist them. There are serious questions about the role of Goldman and other too-big-to-fail banks in the American financial market. Yet this case addresses none of these questions.
Perhaps the SEC has more evidence than it presented in its complaint, but on the record so far the government and media seem to be engaged in an exercise in hindsight bias. Three years later, after the mortgage market has blown up and after the panic and recession, the political class is looking for legal cases to prove its preferred explanation that the entire mess was Wall Street's fault. Goldman makes a convenient villain. But judging by this complaint, the real story is how little villainy the feds have found.