economics

May 13, 2010

Ignoring the Elephant in the Bailout

IF you blinked, you might have missed the ugly first-quarter report last week from Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance giant that, along with its sister Fannie Mae, soldiers on as one of the financial world’s biggest wards of the state.
Freddie — already propped up with $52 billion in taxpayer funds used to rescue the company from its own mistakes — recorded a loss of $6.7 billion and said it would require an additional $10.6 billion from taxpayers to shore up its financial position.

The news caused nary a ripple in the placid Washington scene. Perhaps that’s because many lawmakers, especially those who once assured us that Fannie and Freddie would never cost taxpayers a dime, hope that their constituents don’t notice the burgeoning money pit these mortgage monsters represent. Some $130 billion in federal money had already been larded on both companies before Freddie’s latest request.

But taxpayers should examine Freddie’s first-quarter numbers not only because the losses are our responsibility. Since they also include details on Freddie’s delinquent mortgages, the company’s sales of foreclosed properties and losses on those sales, the results provide a telling snapshot of the current state of the housing market.

That picture isn’t pretty. Serious delinquencies in Freddie’s single-family conventional loan portfolio — those more than 90 days late — came in at 4.13 percent, up from 2.41 percent for the period a year earlier. Delinquencies in the company’s Alt-A book, one step up from subprime loans, totaled 12.84 percent, while delinquencies on interest-only mortgages were 18.5 percent. Delinquencies on its small portfolio of option-adjustable rate loans totaled 19.8 percent.

The company’s inventory of foreclosed properties rose from 29,145 units at the end of March 2009 to almost 54,000 units this year. Perhaps most troubling, Freddie’s nonperforming assets almost doubled, rising to $115 billion from $62 billion.

When Freddie sells properties, either before or after foreclosure, it generates losses of 39 percent, on average.

There is a bright spot: new delinquencies were fewer in number than in the quarter ended Dec. 31.

Freddie Mac said the main reason for its disastrous quarter was an accounting change that required it to bring back onto its books $1.5 trillion in assets and liabilities that it had been keeping off of its balance sheet.

NONE of the grim numbers at Freddie are surprising, really, given that it and Fannie have pretty much been the only games in town of late for anyone interested in getting a mortgage. The problem for taxpayers, of course, is that the company’s future doesn’t look much different from its recent past.

Indeed, Freddie warned that its credit losses were likely to continue rising throughout 2010. Among the reasons for this dour outlook was the substantial number of borrowers in Freddie’s portfolio that currently owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.

Even as its business suffers through a sour real estate market, Freddie must pay hefty cash dividends on the preferred stock the government holds. After it receives the additional $10.6 billion it needs from taxpayers, dividends owed to Treasury will total $6.2 billion a year. This amount, the company said, “exceeds our annual historical earnings in most periods.”

In spite of these difficulties, Freddie and Fannie are nowhere to be seen in the various financial reform efforts under discussion on Capitol Hill. Timothy F. Geithner, the Treasury secretary, offered a vague comment to Congress last March, that after some unspecified reform effort someday in the future, the companies “will not exist in the same form as they did in the past.”

Fannie and Freddie, lest you’ve forgotten, have been longstanding kingpins in the housing market, buying mortgages from banks that issue them so the banks could turn around and lend even more. After both companies overindulged in the lucrative but riskier end of home loans, they nearly collapsed, prompting the federal rescue. Since then, the government has continued to use the firms as mortgage buyers of last resort, to help stabilize a housing market that is still deeply troubled.

To some, the current silence on what to do about Freddie and Fannie is deafening — as is the lack of chatter about Freddie’s disastrous report last week.

“I don’t understand why people are not talking about it,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, referring to Freddie’s losses. “It seems to me the most fundamental question is, have they on an ongoing basis been paying too much for loans even since they went into conservatorship?”

Michael L. Cosgrove, a Freddie spokesman, declined to discuss what the company pays for the mortgages it buys. “We are supporting the market by providing liquidity,” he said. “And we have longstanding relationships with all the major mortgage lenders across the country. We’re in the business of buying loans, and we are one of the few sources of liquidity available.”
But Mr. Baker’s question gets to the heart of the conflicting roles that Freddie and Fannie are being asked to play today. On the one hand, the companies are charged with supporting the mortgage market by buying loans from banks and other lenders. At the same time, they must work to minimize credit losses to make sure the billions that taxpayers have poured into the firms don’t disappear.

Freddie acknowledged these dueling goals in its quarterly report. “Certain changes to our business objectives and strategies are designed to provide support for the mortgage market in a manner that serves our public mission and other nonfinancial objectives, but may not contribute to profitability,” it noted. Freddie said that its regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, has advised it that “minimizing our credit losses is our central goal and that we will be limited to continuing our existing core business activities and taking actions necessary to advance the goals of the conservatorship.”

Mr. Baker’s concern that Freddie may be racking up losses by overpaying for mortgages derives from his suspicion that the government might be encouraging it to do so as a way to bolster the operations of mortgage lenders.

That would make Fannie’s and Freddie’s mortgage-buying yet another backdoor bailout of the nation’s banks, Mr. Baker said, and could explain the government’s reluctance to include them in the reform efforts now being so hotly debated in Washington.

“If they are deliberately paying too much for mortgages to support the banks,” Mr. Baker said, “the government wants them to be in a position to keep doing that, and that would mean not doing anything about their status until further down the road.”

It’s no surprise that the government doesn’t want to acknowledge the soaring taxpayer costs associated with these mortgage zombies. The truth about Fannie and Freddie has always been hard to come by in Washington, and huge piles of money seem to circulate silently around both firms.

REMEMBER last Christmas Eve? That’s when the Treasury quietly decided to remove the $400 billion limit on federal borrowings available to Fannie and Freddie through 2012.

That stealth move didn’t engender much confidence in either the companies or their government guardian.

But because taxpayers own Freddie and Fannie, we should know more about their buying habits, as Mr. Baker points out. Unfortunately, if the government’s past actions are any indication of what we can expect, then don’t hold your breath waiting for the facts.

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