Please read and comment on the entries that follow.  The most current one will be highlighted on this page; earlier entries can be found under the archives link below.

Buckle Your Seat Belts

August 14, 2010

Buckle Your Seat Belts

The tenor of the coming debate over how to reorganize the mortgage finance system and the difficulties that will be faced in reaching an effective consensus is beginning to show up in the days before the Obama Administration's August 17 conference on the topic in Washington, DC.

On August 12, the National Republican Conference released a policy brief in advance of the conference in which it blames everything that went wrong in the mortgage market on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and everything that went wrong with them on Democratic lawmakers or company leaders, and on affordable housing goals Congress enacted in 1993.

The statement also gratuitously recounts a discredited story that speculated that the Administration would require the GSEs to write down principal on underwater loans, ostensibly as part of an election season "gimme" to voters who owe more on their mortgages than their house is worth. The Treasury Department has categorically denied the story, and informed mortgage industry observers have deconstructed the odd mixture of rumor and speculation that generated it, but the Conference's brief nevertheless resurrects it in order to criticize it.

The brief provides only a summary of the Conference's policy recommendations, which they summarize as follows:

Taxpayer Protection: The Republican GSE reform plan would put an end to the taxpayer bailouts for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie's and Freddie's current government-subsidized structure will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. The Republican plan would end the model that allows privatized profits and socialized losses by phasing out the GSE charter. Once the charter ends, Fannie and Freddie would be required to conduct all new operations as fully private sector companies competing on a level playing field.

Restoring Market Discipline: The plan would repeal the GSEs' exemption from paying state and local taxes and repeal the exemption allowing GSE securities to avoid full registration with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The plan would also end the current GSE conservatorship by a date certain and place Fannie and Freddie in receivership if they are not financially viable at that time. If they are viable, the plan would initiate the process of transitioning Fannie and Freddie into fully private entities. Lastly, the plan would provide for the orderly wind down of the GSEs' existing business commitments, following the model successfully used in transitioning Sallie Mae from a GSE to a private company.

Encourage Innovation and Choices for Consumers: Fannie and Freddie have monopolized mortgage finance and used their government privileges to crowd out competition, stifling innovation and increasing systemic risk. Consumers benefit from competition as a result of innovation and lower costs. The Republican plan would put an end to Fannie's and Freddie's monopoly and force them to compete fairly in the financial marketplace.

How mortgages would be financed in the future, how consumers would be assured access to long term, fixed rate financing, and what would happen to the $5 trillion in outstanding MBS guaranteed by the companies and currently backstopped by the US Government is not explained.

If the debate about mortgage finance's future cannot be raised above the level of a partisan turkey shoot, the prospects for any meaningful change are likely to be dim.

Controversy Over the Dividend

Also this week, the National Association of Realtors© sent Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner a letter urging him to reduce the current 10 percent compounding dividend on the money provided to shore up the companies.

The letter states that,

This dividend is twice the amount charged to banks that received assistance under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and more than other firms have been required to pay in exchange for federal support. The Treasury- GSE contract imposes what we think is a punitive dividend that works as an unnecessary drag on the housing and economic recovery. The required dividend should be significantly reduced for a number of reasons.

The letter makes three further points about the dividend. First, the burden of paying is a factor driving the companies to raise fees and make mortgages more expensive as they try to rebuild a profitable business model. Recent reports that Fannie Mae's new book of business is "pristine," the letter notes, means it has gone too far in tightening the credit screws.

Second, reducing the dividend will simplify any transition plan for the companies as the mortgage finance sector's future is designed by reducing the ultimate cost of repaying the contributions.

Third, the letter notes that "it makes no apparent sense for the Treasury Department to transfer amounts to the GSEs so they will have enough money to pay the dividend back to Treasury." Both Fannie and Freddie's most recent quarterly reports stated that payment of the dividend will become a larger driver of future requests for capital as the dividend repayments are outstripping profit levels in any recent years before the crash.

The letter suggests reducing the dividend to either the Treasury cost of borrowing or the GSEs' cost of borrowing given the Treasury backstop guarantee.

Guest List

Finally, the Administration's invitation list to the August 17 conference has stirred its own controversy. The list is not public, and no small amount of time in the last few weeks has been spent trying to find out "who's in, who's not." (I was invited and will be attending.)

The issue of the list broke into the news Thursday with a story in the Washington Post quoting National Community Reinvestment Coalition President John E. Taylor criticizing the line-up of panelists at the conference, followed by a posting on Salon and the American Prospect's blog, TAPPED.

The stories focused on the list of participants in the plenary session panels that will kick off the scheduled four and one-half hour conference. Because the list of those invited to participate in the plenaries and six subsequent smaller break outs on specific topics is not public, the relative mix of consumer advocates, industry representatives and others is hard to know. But the history of the Administration's outreach to consumer groups on this and other pertinent housing finance issues generally has been good. It will be interesting to show up next Tuesday and see who's actually in the crowd and which groups were asked to attend.


Add your comment

comments powered by Disqus

Page 1 of 1 pages

Blog Archive »