Sunday, September 21, 2008

Credit Market Developments

Treasury has proposed a $700 billion taxpayer funded (through issuance of debt) purchase program to acquire real estate assets from the financial industry. This has been coming for a long time, and goes all the way back to the failed Super SIV that was being discussed last Fall. Of course, the numbers have grown from what was a $70 - $100 billion plan to the current $700 billion plus plan, and this plan has the taxpayers purchasing the bad assets directly. The accounting issues of valuation, however, have not changed. What has changed is that the crisis has become so bad we are probably willing to throw out the rules to save the game.

The plan is essentially a $700 billion revolving line to acquire real estate assets at whatever prices and from whatever sellers Treasury wants. There is no protection for taxpayers in Treasury’s proposal, and I can only assume Treasury has left this aspect of the plan for Congress to address. If this isn’t ringing alarm bells all over Washington and Main Street I don’t know what will.

Treasury Secretary Paulson has submitted a very broad plan that gives him extraordinary discretion and prohibits any agency or judicial review. You can see a copy of what was submitted in this CNN article and read a description of the plan at the Treasury’s website. The submission raises many questions, three of which I will point out.

1. There is no provision for protection of taxpayers. As written, it seems that Treasury will simply purchase, at whatever price Treasury determines,

Mortgage-Related Assets.--The term "mortgage-related assets" means residential or commercial mortgages and any securities, obligations, or other instruments that are based on or related to such mortgages, that in each case was originated or issued on or before September 17, 2008.
The big question – at what price? If Treasury purchases securities at current market prices it doesn’t necessarily help the financial institutions that own them. Right now losses that would occur at market prices are being deferred through secured lending by the Federal Reserve, but this is obviously insufficient. If these assets are in addition to those pledged to the Fed, then this is a multi-trillion dollar problem. If Treasury pays more than current market prices, then how is the taxpayer protected? Not to get off on a rant here, but it seems to me that any financial institution that sells securities to taxpayers pursuant to this program should, at a minimum, direct all dividends to the Treasury until taxpayers have been fully repaid, at which time they can have the balance of the securities returned. It really irks me to think that financial institutions could sell the crap they profited from so handsomely over the past decade to taxpayers, letting us assume the risk, while the owners continue to collect dividends. Absolutely horrible result that I truly hope Congress will address. Some may argue that this would make it difficult for these institutions to raise capital, but that should be irrelevant now since the taxpayers are providing the capital if we pay above market prices for their securities. Another point – why are we purchasing commercial real estate assets and what are the limitations on commercial vs. residential?

2. I think there is a lack of transparency. The current proposal provides for a report to Congress three months after the program begins and then every six months. As a taxpayer whose money is being spent on these assets I want to know every week how much, who, when, and so on. I want to know which institutions are benefiting, how we are getting compensated for it, what is the asset rated, what is the mark-to-market value, and so on. Without full disclosure this plan is ripe for abuse and all purchases need to be fully disclosed. I suppose there is an argument that disclosing which institutions are selling assets to taxpayers could jeopardize the institutions, but since they would be receiving a capital infusion from the purchase this should not be an issue. Poor disclosure is one of the issues that got us here in the first place and any plan to address this crisis must include full disclosure.

3. The amount of this bailout is unclear. It specifies that:
The Secretary’s authority to purchase mortgage-related assets under this Act shall be limited to $700,000,000,000 outstanding at any one time
. This means we could be purchasing a lot more than $700 billion worth of this stuff, we just will not own more than $700 billion at any one time. How do we account for the value of these assets? If Treasury purchases an asset for $1 million and receives principal payments that reduce the face amount of the asset, do those payments reduce the $700 billion even though we may still take a loss on the balance of the $1 million we paid? If so, this is more likely a $1 trillion plan (or more).

In other bailout news (post AIG taxpayer bailout), the Fed established a line of credit that is reportedly $230 billion to purchase asset-backed commercial paper on a non-recourse basis (meaning the Fed will own the stuff). Asset backed commercial paper was at the heart of this crisis to begin with and is where funding dried up last week. What does this commercial paper fund? Everything, including auto loans, credit cards, and so on. If this market freezes your credit card may not work, and the resulting panic could be devastating. Think how you would react if told you could not charge your groceries on your credit card because Citibank doesn’t have the money to lend you. In addition, companies could find it impossible to fund payrolls causing more panic. This is one of the reasons Treasury acted on its plan – justified fear. (For a good explanation about how asset backed commercial paper works see this fitch report).

So what happened in the commercial paper market? In general, money market investors put money into money market mutual funds that then use the money to purchase assets including asset-backed commercial paper. But when a large money market mutual fund reported that it took a loss and that investors would lose money, money market mutual funds in general received calls for redemptions from investors who feared losing their money – a run on money market mutual funds. As night follows day, the mutual funds stopped purchasing commercial paper and put their liquidity into Treasury securities, driving the interest rate on short term Treasuries to negative on at least one issue and the interest rate on commercial paper way up. This is a clear dislocation in the credit markets and the Fed jumped in to provide liquidity for commercial paper. In addition to the Fed’s new plan to purchase commercial paper, Treasury reached back to a depression era law to insure money market mutual funds. Funds can buy into the plan that will insure investors against losses. This has irked some banks that believe this places them at a competitive disadvantage to insured money market mutual funds and could cause their funding to dry up – more unintended consequences (do I hear whack-a-mole?).

One more item on the list of things being done to avoid a total meltdown – relaxation of regulations on financial firms. Since these firms cannot raise any capital because their business models are in question regulators have relaxed capital requirements – temporarily, of course. Another thing regulators did was relax the restriction on using commercial bank deposits to fund investment bank operations. After the great crash of 1929 and the ensuing depression, Congress split up the investment banks and commercial banks because investments made by investment banks in equities were too prone to value fluctuation that could wipe out depositor funds. The FDIC was established to insure deposits and banks were limited as to what they could do with those deposits (to protect the taxpayers from having to bail out excessive risk taking). The law that kept investment and commercial banks separated was repealed in 1999, but there was regulation in place that prohibited these new combined banks from transferring commercial bank deposits to investment bank affiliates. Some of this regulation is currently being relaxed so that investment banks that are affiliated with commercial banks can get access to the stable deposit based funds of the commercial banks. The result is that to some extend the FDIC and taxpayer are now behind assets of the investment banking affiliates of the large commercial banks that have such affiliates. We have gone backwards (I bet Merrill Lynch and Bank of America appreciated this change that occurred the same time they merged).

For a time I was keeping tabs on the total cost of this credit implosion and the risk to taxpayers but the numbers are getting hard to follow. Based on current media reports the Fed is now up to $700 - $800 billion in credit and commitments, Treasury is asking for a $700 billion revolving credit facility from the taxpayers that is likely to be more than $700 billion in aggregate purchases, and so far the Federal Home Loan banks have issued some $250 - $300 billion in new taxpayer guaranteed debt to lend to banks against mortgage collateral. Oh yes, FHA has approximately $100 billion in new loan guarantees from FHA Secure and has another $300 billion authorized guarantee capacity to refinance defaulted mortgages. Are we at $2 trillion yet? If not, just add the GSE loans and MBS purchases Treasury plans (there are no limits on the amounts here) and whatever funds the GSEs need to stay solvent, and we have taxpayer exposure of well over $2 trillion even before the federal guarantees of the GSEs’ debt. These numbers don’t include losses that banks have reported on write-downs of securities. The result so far - Treasury has asked for an increase in the debt ceiling twice, this time to $11.3 Trillion (approximately 80% of GDP). One more point. If the total of all residential mortgages in The United States is in the $10.6 trillion range, and taxpayers now explicitly guarantee $5.5 trillion through Fannie and Freddie and are or will be at risk for say $2.5 trillion through all of the interventions noted above, then taxpayers could ultimately be on the hook (either through guarantees or ownership) for some 75 - 80% of the entire outstanding amount of residential mortgages in The United States. I find that staggering.

A couple of nits that I have:
1. Too bad Treasury didn’t go out and raise the money last week when interest rates on Treasuries were at historic lows. Probably would have saved a lot in interest.
2. CNBC should stop praising Jim Cramer as though he is some sort of visionary for talking about a bailout plan like this one. Everyone has always known that the government could step in and get behind lots of private debt to shore up the markets. In fact, everyone has been talking about it for some time. Treasury just didn’t until it was necessary because if it did it wouldn’t get approval for it. No great vision here. When Cramer comes up with a way to protect taxpayers that Congress will pass and that will resolve the credit crisis call me.
3. If there was ever a time to fix the unfair and disproportionate tax treatment for hedge fund and private equity managers (the 15% rate on “carried interest”), now would be it. In fact, several years ago would have been better. When this was in the public discourse several months back industry pundits argued that if you taxed hedge funds you would get less of them. Right now that sounds like a good idea. Fewer hedge funds, fewer credit default swaps, less systemic risk.
4. Like many of the talking heads on television, I am angered by all of the blatently excessive amounts of compensation paid to Wall Street bankers and executives over the past six years or so that is ultimately proving to be gains from the largest Ponzi scheme in the history of the world. There should be some recourse, though I don't claim to know how that could work.
5. With absolutely no proof that trickle down Reagan/Bush-onomics has ever worked, an exploding national debt, an exploding national deficit, and the impending baby boom retirement isn’t it time to stop talking about tax cuts for the investor class?
6. And finally, when will we, as a taxpaying and voting public, stop allowing the politicians to distract us with witch hunts for evil short sellers from the real issues – the fact that the political system has been for sale to the highest bidder and the highest bidder often turns out to be Wall Street and Wall Street.

PS - there are other developments, such as the Fed now accepting equities as collateral for certain loans under the Primary Dealer Credit Facility. To find out more about what the Fed is up to you can go to its website and click around the press releases.

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1 comment:

Palermo's Blog said...

Some of this may be double counting. For example, if Treasury purchases securities that are currently pledged to the Fed, you would not treat that as an addition to taxpayer exposure. Still, this is staggering.