Saturday, May 23, 2009

I've been expecting a headline about the Federal Home Loan Banks and got it today. These banks have been leveraging up and acquiring mortgages at a record pace since this financial meltdown began. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed my blog (here and here in 2007 and here again). Here is some of the news from this Wall Street Journal Online Edition article:

Financial troubles at some of the Federal Home Loan Banks are raising questions about how well directors of these institutions are supervising their executives.

A plunge in the value of mortgage securities bought by several of the regional home-loan banks has forced them to halt dividends and curtail funding for local housing projects. An annual report issued by the banks' regulator this past week says some of them "paid insufficient attention" to credit risks and haven't invested enough in information technology.

Unlike giant banks or government-backed mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the 12 regional home-loan banks draw little public scrutiny. Created by Congress in 1932 to support the housing market, they are cooperatives owned by more than 8,000 banks, thrifts, credit unions and insurers. Because investors assume the government would bail them out in a crisis, they can borrow money cheaply in the bond market.

If the home-loan banks ever stumble badly, U.S. taxpayers would be called on to "rescue yet another financial entity," warns Karen Shaw Petrou, managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics, a research firm in Washington. These banks have about $1.26 trillion of debt outstanding, putting them among the world's biggest borrowers.

Here is a quote from the FHLB press release:
Operating Results and Affordable Housing Activity:
For the 12 FHLBanks, the combined net loss for the fourth quarter of 2008 was $715 million, compared to combined net income of $846 million for the fourth quarter of the previous year. Combined net income for 2008 decreased 57.3% to $1.2 billion, compared with $2.8 billion for 2007. Combined net income for 2008 was reduced by other than temporary impairment charges of $2.03 billion on certain private label mortgage backed securities (MBS) and home equity loan investments, as well as $252 million of writeoffs/reserves on receivables due from Lehman Brothers Special Financing.

FHLBank Affordable Housing Program (AHP) contribution expenses equaled $188 million in 2008, down from $318 million in 2007, due to the decrease in earnings.

Each FHLBank actively monitors the credit quality of its MBS. If delinquency and/or loss rates on mortgages and/or home equity loans continue to increase, and/or a rapid decline in residential real estate values continues, more FHLBanks could experience further reduced yields or additional losses on MBS investment securities.

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fed Loans Losing Value

This seems like small potatoes now, but those Bear Stearns and AIG loans made by the Fed aren't doing too well. As of May 6, the Fed is under water by over $8 billion. Here are the details:

On the other hand, Commercial Paper Funding Facility outstandings are down from over $325 billion in December 2008 to $164.7 billion, and down $50 billion this past week alone.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

More Bailouts from Taxpayers

I was reading this article in The Wall Street Journal, Online Edition today titled The Next Housing Bust and had to put down an "I told you so." Here is a quote from the article:

The FHA is almost certainly going to need a taxpayer bailout in the months ahead. The only debate is how much it will cost. By law FHA must carry a 2% reserve (or a 50 to 1 leverage rate), and it is now 3% and falling. Some experts see bailout costs from $50 billion to $100 billion or more, depending on how long the recession lasts.

How did this happen? The FHA was created during the Depression to help moderate-income and first time homebuyers obtain a mortgage. However, as subprime lending took off, banks fled from the FHA and its business fell by almost 80%. Under the Bush Administration, the FHA then began a bizarre initiative to "regain its market share." And beginning in 2007, the Bush FHA, Congress, the homebuilders and Realtors teamed up to expand the agency's role.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following this issue. I wrote about this in December of 2007. Keep listening because there may be more surprises, especially from the Federal Home Loan Banks.

Thanks to Val Ivanson for the link!

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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Is Fiscal Stimulus The Right Medicine?

The asset bubble in the United States that has recently burst has wiped out an estimated $13-$14 trillion of net worth between declines in stock and real estate prices. The impact of this value loss is working its way through the economy with dramatic effect. GDP has fallen at a rate of over 6% for the past two quarters, several sectors of the economy are on life support from the government and the Federal Reserve, and we are now entering the 17th month of a recession that began in December of 2007. We already provided an economic stimulus package of approximately $160 billion under the former administration, and we are now looking at a much larger stimulus plan under the current administration. There has been some debate over the effectiveness of fiscal stimulus. Those opposing it claim that fiscal stimulus (that is, when the government borrows to spend and/or provide temporary tax relief) crowds out private sector investment thereby hurting the real economy. Another claim is that fiscal stimulus is ineffective because money that gets to individuals through the stimulus is used to repay debt rather than spent so the economy does not benefit from the multiplier effect of a dollar being spent several times over. I believe fiscal stimulus is the correct response to today’s economic situation, even if a large portion of it goes to repaying debt.

To work through the current situation we need a few economic basics. Individuals earn income. We spend some of this income and we save some. When we save we provide a source of funds for businesses to invest. Our savings flow to businesses through the financial system and the institutions that make up the financial system. Banks are the prime example. Banks take deposits and then use those deposits to make loans. Businesses borrow from the banks to invest in new opportunities. The stock market is another example where businesses raise equity capital to invest from the savings of individual households. Business investment means more jobs and that means more income, more spending, saving, and so on. This is how the economy grows in normal circumstances. Today, however, circumstances are anything but normal. For a long time we borrowed from our future income to consume more in the present (and support a price bubble) running up household debt relative to our incomes. We borrowed for lots of reasons, but the primary asset we borrowed against was our real estate. To put this in perspective, our household debt (that includes mortgages, credit cards, auto loans, etc.) to disposable personal income (that is, income after taxes) has increased from 66% in 1983 to 135% in 2007. The graph below shows the trend in household debt to disposable personal income (debt-to-income) from 1977 through 2008.

(DPI from HH Debt from Federal Reserve Z1)

The debt to income ratio peaked in 2007 at 135%. It has since fallen back to 130% by the end of 2008. 76% of the debt was mortgage debt in 2007 as opposed to 66% in 1987. The 2008 decline in the debt-to-income ratio illustrates the fact that people are now borrowing less than they were relative to their incomes. The lower level of borrowing means less spending. In addition, we have begun to save again. While we were on our borrow-and-spend spree of the last decade we also spent more of our incomes and saved a lot less. The next graph illustrates the trend in the personal savings rate.

(Personal Saving Rate from

From this perspective we now see the impact of the rapid declines in housing and stock prices. This mountain of debt, concentrated in mortgage loans, is no longer supported by the price of the underlying collateral. Many homeowners owe more on their home than it is worth and the home as a source of collateral for borrowing additional spending cash has dried up. In addition to this balance sheet impact there is also the cash flow impact. As payments adjust upward incomes are squeezed making it difficult to spend or to borrow more. It’s like a huge number of families borrowed as much as they could and blew it on a mega-vacation and are now saddled with paying back the debt for years to come. Finally, there is the wealth effect. If you thought you had a large portion of your retirement needs accounted for in the value of your home and investments in stocks you are feeling a lot less wealthy today. For all of these reasons households have switched from borrowing and spending to saving as illustrated by the personal savings rate turning up and household debt-to-income ratio turning down. So, this sounds like we are on the right path. If everyone saves we will eventually pay down the debt and everything will be OK, right? Wrong.

Welcome to the paradox of thrift. Saving is good for individuals and for the economy. Remember that savings becomes investment and that helps the economy grow. But when everyone increases saving at the same time overall spending goes down. As we collectively start saving and stop spending business contracts. In this environment business investment falls because there are fewer good business opportunities. So, at the very time individuals start to save businesses don’t need the savings for investment. This is why I do not believe that government stimulus crowds out private investment in the current environment. When businesses are investing less there is nothing to crowd out. And when businesses aren’t investing, people aren’t finding new jobs. As more businesses cut back, more people lose their jobs and can’t find new ones. That means less spending again, and that leads to less investment, and fewer jobs, and so on. This is one way economies fall down into long-term underutilization. How far down and how long depend on a multitude of factors, including the size of the bubble that burst. The losses in tax revenue and other costs to society can be very dramatic. So what do we do about this problem?

Enter the Federal Government, the one borrower that can raise cheap money when everyone else is too worried to borrow and/or can’t find anyone willing to lend (the willing to lend problem is the other side of the rescue plan - repairing bank balance sheets to assure loan supply). As the government spends the money it borrows it provides income to individuals just when individuals need the income because many are losing their jobs and needing to save. If the government provides enough stimulus it may stop the downward spiral of lower incomes and investment discussed above. If those receiving income from the stimulus spend the income there will be some immediate impact on demand in the economy and that could help jump-start business investment. On the other hand, if those who receive the income from the stimulus use it to pay down debt there will be less of an immediate impact on the economy but incomes will be supported while individuals pay down debt. Once debt levels are back to normal individuals should return to spending more of their income. In effect, we are replacing private debt with public debt by providing income through fiscal stimulus to avoid the potential devastation that can result from the de-leveraging of household balance sheets that needs to take place. So even if the recipients of stimulus income use the money to repay debt the economy benefits from the resulting de-leveraging necessary for economic activity to return to normal.

In the end, whether fiscal stimulus is a smart investment depends on its impact on the economy. If it helps to prevent a long protracted depression but costs less than a long protracted depression would, then the stimulus provides a positive economic return. Of course we will never know the true cost-benefit analysis because we will have no way of measuring exactly how much of an economic downturn was prevented.

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