Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fannie & Freddie, McCain & Obama, Subprime & Wallstreet

A good article in the WSJ discusses both how the subprime loan market came about and how Democrats, including Obama, were both the cause of the problem and the roadblock to a solution that would have averted this catastrophe. A good post from Dafydd at Big Lizard's explains how Mortgage Backed Securities worked on Wall Street.

The first is an article by Charles Calomiris, professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School, and Peter Wallison, former general counsel of the Treasury Department in the Reagan administration, writing at the WSJ:

Many monumental errors and misjudgments contributed to the acute financial turmoil in which we now find ourselves. Nevertheless, the vast accumulation of toxic mortgage debt that poisoned the global financial system was driven by the aggressive buying of subprime and Alt-A mortgages, and mortgage-backed securities, by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The poor choices of these two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) -- and their sponsors in Washington -- are largely to blame for our current mess.

How did we get here? Let's review: In order to curry congressional support after their accounting scandals in 2003 and 2004, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac committed to increased financing of "affordable housing." They became the largest buyers of subprime and Alt-A mortgages between 2004 and 2007, with total GSE exposure eventually exceeding $1 trillion. In doing so, they stimulated the growth of the subpar mortgage market and substantially magnified the costs of its collapse.

It is important to understand that, as GSEs, Fannie and Freddie were viewed in the capital markets as government-backed buyers (a belief that has now been reduced to fact). Thus they were able to borrow as much as they wanted for the purpose of buying mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. Their buying patterns and interests were followed closely in the markets. If Fannie and Freddie wanted subprime or Alt-A loans, the mortgage markets would produce them. By late 2004, Fannie and Freddie very much wanted subprime and Alt-A loans. Their accounting had just been revealed as fraudulent, and they were under pressure from Congress to demonstrate that they deserved their considerable privileges. Among other problems, economists at the Federal Reserve and Congressional Budget Office had begun to study them in detail, and found that -- despite their subsidized borrowing rates -- they did not significantly reduce mortgage interest rates. In the wake of Freddie's 2003 accounting scandal, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan became a powerful opponent, and began to call for stricter regulation of the GSEs and limitations on the growth of their highly profitable, but risky, retained portfolios.

If they were not making mortgages cheaper and were creating risks for the taxpayers and the economy, what value were they providing? The answer was their affordable-housing mission. So it was that, beginning in 2004, their portfolios of subprime and Alt-A loans and securities began to grow. Subprime and Alt-A originations in the U.S. rose from less than 8% of all mortgages in 2003 to over 20% in 2006. During this period the quality of subprime loans also declined, going from fixed rate, long-term amortizing loans to loans with low down payments and low (but adjustable) initial rates, indicating that originators were scraping the bottom of the barrel to find product for buyers like the GSEs.

The strategy of presenting themselves to Congress as the champions of affordable housing appears to have worked. Fannie and Freddie retained the support of many in Congress, particularly Democrats, and they were allowed to continue unrestrained. Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass), for example, now the chair of the House Financial Services Committee, openly described the "arrangement" with the GSEs at a committee hearing on GSE reform in 2003: "Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have played a very useful role in helping to make housing more affordable . . . a mission that this Congress has given them in return for some of the arrangements which are of some benefit to them to focus on affordable housing." The hint to Fannie and Freddie was obvious: Concentrate on affordable housing and, despite your problems, your congressional support is secure.

In light of the collapse of Fannie and Freddie, both John McCain and Barack Obama now criticize the risk-tolerant regulatory regime that produced the current crisis. But Sen. McCain's criticisms are at least credible, since he has been pointing to systemic risks in the mortgage market and trying to do something about them for years. In contrast, Sen. Obama's conversion as a financial reformer marks a reversal from his actions in previous years, when he did nothing to disturb the status quo. The first head of Mr. Obama's vice-presidential search committee, Jim Johnson, a former chairman of Fannie Mae, was the one who announced Fannie's original affordable-housing program in 1991 -- just as Congress was taking up the first GSE regulatory legislation.

In 2005, the Senate Banking Committee, then under Republican control, adopted a strong reform bill, introduced by Republican Sens. Elizabeth Dole, John Sununu and Chuck Hagel, and supported by then chairman Richard Shelby. The bill prohibited the GSEs from holding portfolios, and gave their regulator prudential authority (such as setting capital requirements) roughly equivalent to a bank regulator. In light of the current financial crisis, this bill was probably the most important piece of financial regulation before Congress in 2005 and 2006. All the Republicans on the Committee supported the bill, and all the Democrats voted against it. Mr. McCain endorsed the legislation in a speech on the Senate floor. Mr. Obama, like all other Democrats, remained silent.

Now the Democrats are blaming the financial crisis on "deregulation." This is a canard. There has indeed been deregulation in our economy -- in long-distance telephone rates, airline fares, securities brokerage and trucking, to name just a few -- and this has produced much innovation and lower consumer prices. But the primary "deregulation" in the financial world in the last 30 years permitted banks to diversify their risks geographically and across different products, which is one of the things that has kept banks relatively stable in this storm.

As a result, U.S. commercial banks have been able to attract more than $100 billion of new capital in the past year to replace most of their subprime-related write-downs. Deregulation of branching restrictions and limitations on bank product offerings also made possible bank acquisition of Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch, saving billions in likely resolution costs for taxpayers.

If the Democrats had let the 2005 legislation come to a vote, the huge growth in the subprime and Alt-A loan portfolios of Fannie and Freddie could not have occurred, and the scale of the financial meltdown would have been substantially less. The same politicians who today decry the lack of intervention to stop excess risk taking in 2005-2006 were the ones who blocked the only legislative effort that could have stopped it.

There is also an excellent post from Dafydd at Big Lizards. Its jist is how Democrats are tring to hijack the response to the mortgage crisis. This vignette relates to how Morgate Backed Securities came into being on Wall St.

Back in the cretaceous period, when a bank or S&L issued a mortgage, it held that mortgage until the borrower paid it off. But in the contemporary era, what starts out as a mortgage is typically bundled with other mortgages into a "mortgage-backed securitie" (MBS) -- essentially bonds that can be traded on the open market. Bizarrely, in the process, bad debt automagically becomes good investment.

How are MBSs created? Let me quote from an excellent sumary in a newsletter by John Maudlin (free registration required):

Let's jump back 18 months. I spent several letters going over how subprime mortgages were sold and then securitized. Let's quickly review. Huge Investment Bank (HIB) would encourage mortgage banks all over the country to make home loans, often providing the capital, and then HIB would purchase these loans and package them into large securities called Residential Mortgage Backed Securities or RMBS. They would take loans from different mortgage banks and different regions. They generally grouped the loans together as to their initial quality as in prime mortgages, ALT-A and the now infamous subprime mortgages. They also grouped together second lien loans, which were the loans generally made to get 100% financing or cash-out financing as home owners borrowed against the equity in their homes.

Typically, a RMBS would be sliced into anywhere from 5 to 15 different pieces called tranches. They would go to the ratings agencies, who would give them a series of ratings on the various tranches, and who actually had a hand in saying what the size of each tranche could be. The top or senior level tranche had the rights to get paid back first in the event there was a problem with some of the underlying loans. That tranche was typically rated AAA. Then the next tranche would be rated AA and so on down to junk level. The lowest level was called the equity level, and this lowest level would take the first losses. For that risk, they also got any residual funds if everyone paid. The lower levels paid very high yields for the risk they took.

Then, since it was hard to sell some of the lower levels of these securities, HIB would take a lot of the lower level tranches and put them into another security called a Collateralized Debt Obligation or CDO. And yes, they sliced them up into tranches and went to the rating agencies and got them rated. The highest tranche was typically again AAA. Through the alchemy of finance, HIB took subprime mortgages and turned 96% (give or take a few points depending on the CDO) of them into AAA bonds. At the time, I compared it with taking nuclear waste and turning it into gold. Clever trick when you can do it, and everyone, from mortgage broker to investment bankers was paid handsomely to dance at the party.

So what started as mortgages -- ranging from very secure prime mortgages, which are doing fine, to lousy subprime mortgages for too much money to borrowers who really didn't have either the credit history or income to justify such loans, many of which are currently in default 60 days or more -- were, by the magic of "securitization," turned into bond-like securities; and in the process, many of the bad and even defaulted loans were transmaugrified into AAA-rated investments.

The banks and other financial institutions that securitized mortgages (and resecuritized already securitized MBSs) would make their nut by skimming some percent, typically fifty basis points (0.5%), off the loan rate; thus, if they began with a package of mortgages at 6.5% (they tried to bundle like with like), they would securitize them into an MBS that paid 6%, keeping the difference -- and hoping there would be few enough defaults that the mortgages would produce more than 6% net.

What happens when loans are defaulted is very complicated and not really germane to this post; they created different tiers, or "tranches," with different ratings -- AAA down to junk -- for different prices, that distributed the losses from worst tranch up to best.

I highly recommend the entire post.

Prior Posts:

McCain, The Fannie and Freddie Crisis, and Obamafuscation - Obama and the entire Democratic Party are trying to blame Republicans for the subprime crisis. But this crisis was created by Bill Clinton and protected against Republican efforts to reign it in over a decade – until it failed, nearly pulling out entire economic system into a depression. McCain needs to start telling this story.

A Washington Post Front Page Hack Job - The Washington Post does a hit job on McCain, grossly distorting his record on regulatory matters and ignoring his cosponsoring of legislation to establish much stronger regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Dodging a Depression - The NYT and WSJ document just how serious is the subprime crisis. Quite literally it brought us to the point of a complete and catastrophic stoppage of our financial systems as institutions lost confidence in their fellow institutions. This was not a stock market crash, it was a lending and credit crash. The WSJ describes the events of the week leading up to the crisis point.

The Origins – And Foreseeability – Of the Subprime Crisis - A 1999 article in the NYT describes the Clinton Administration forcing subprime loans onto America and also forecasts that this will create a house of cards that will fall apart in a down market.

Covering The Left’s Fannie - The NYT tries to play up old ties of a McCain campaign worker with Fannie Mae while minimizing the fact that McCain himself, in 2005, co-sponsored legislation that may well have prevented the fiscal crisis we are in now.

The Left’s Subprime Meltdown - A post by the Anchoress discusses this subprime crisis as a creation of the left and a system that was protected to the end by the left. She adds additional sites, quotes and links to explain the mosaic.

No comments: