Fannie, Freddie, And Obama’s Hidden $6.3 Trillion Red Crayon Math
Please keep this graph of the upcoming Alt A and Option Arm resets from 2010 thru 2012 in mind while reading the following articles. If you folks aren’t choking on your cheerios now, you have much stronger illusionary capabilities than I do.
How many more ways can we say, ‘we are so screwed’…
MCLEAN, Va.—When Charles E. Haldeman Jr. became Freddie Mac’s chief executive officer in August, the ailing housing-finance giant had already consumed $51 billion of government money to stay afloat. It’s likely to need even more.
Freddie’s federal overseers nevertheless have instructed Mr. Haldeman to focus on something that isn’t likely to make the bleak balance sheet look any better: carrying out the Obama administration plan to allow defaulted borrowers to hang onto their homes.
On a recent afternoon, employees at Freddie’s headquarters here peppered Mr. Haldeman with concerns about the company’s future. He responded that they were “fortunate” to have such a clear mission—the government’s foreclosure-prevention drive. “We’re doing what’s best for the country,” he told them.
Freddie and its larger rival, Fannie Mae, were among the first big financial institutions to receive massive federal bailouts after the financial crisis hit in 2008. Government officials have been racing to fix bailed-out car makers and banks and are pushing to reshape the financial-services industry. But Fannie and Freddie remain troubled wards of the state, with no blueprints for the future and no clear exit strategy for the government.
Nearly a year and a half after the outbreak of the global economic crisis, many of the problems that contributed to it haven’t yet been tamed. The U.S. has no system in place to tackle a failure of its largest financial institutions. Derivatives contracts of the kind that crippled American International Group Inc. still trade in the shadows. And investors remain heavily reliant on the same credit-ratings firms that gave AAA ratings to lousy mortgage securities.
Fannie and Freddie, for their part, remain at the core of a housing-finance system that inflated a dangerous housing bubble. After prices collapsed, sending shock waves around the world, the federal government put America’s housing-finance system on life support. It has yet to decide how that troubled system should be rebuilt.
On Dec. 24, Treasury said there would be no limit to the taxpayer money it was willing to deploy over the next three years to keep the two companies afloat, doing away with the previous limit of $200 billion per company. So far, the government has handed the two companies a total of about $111 billion.
The government is willing to tolerate such open-ended exposure for two reasons. First, it sees the companies as essential cogs in the fragile housing market. Fannie and Freddie buy mortgages originated by others, holding some as investments and repackaging others for sale to investors as securities. Together with the Federal Housing Administration, they fund nine in 10 American mortgages. Worries about potential insolvency would cripple their ability to fund home loans, which would hamstring the market.
Remember that graph above with mortgage loan resets? “they fund nine in 10 American mortages.” Which takes us to our next article and Obama’s red crayon, math sleight of hand.
Feb. 4 (Bloomberg) — Look through President Barack Obama’s proposed 2011 budget, and you’ll see a line calling for a $235 million increase in the Justice Department’s funding to fight financial fraud. Lucky for them, the people who wrote the budget can’t be prosecuted for cooking the government’s books.
Whether on Wall Street or in Washington, the biggest frauds often are the perfectly legal ones hidden in broad daylight. And in terms of dollars, it would be hard to top the accounting scam that Obama’s budget wonks are trying to pull off now.
The ploy here is simple. They are keeping Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac off the government’s balance sheet and out of the federal budget, along with their $1.6 trillion of corporate debt and $4.7 trillion of mortgage obligations.
Never mind that the White House budget director, Peter Orszag, in September 2008 said Fannie and Freddie should be included. That was when he was director of the Congressional Budget Office and the two government-backed mortgage financiers had just been seized by the Treasury Department.
The White House is already forecasting a $1.3 trillion budget deficit for 2011, which is about $3 of spending for every $2 of government receipts. By all outward appearances, it seems Obama and his budget wizards decided that including the liabilities at Fannie and Freddie would be too much reality for the world to handle. So they left the companies out, in a trick worthy of Enron’s playbook, except not quite so hidden.
While the president had nothing to do with the mortgage zombies’ collapse, this was supposed to be the administration that, in his words, would put an end to “the era of irresponsibility in Washington.” Instead, he has provided us a new beginning.
Fannie and Freddie aren’t merely wards of the state. Practically speaking, they are the entire U.S. housing market. Their liabilities are the government’s liabilities. As Orszag said at a Sept. 9, 2008, news conference, two days after Fannie and Freddie were seized: “The degree of control exercised by the federal government over these entities is so strong that the best treatment is to incorporate them into the federal budget.”
That control is stronger today. Congress and the Treasury have given the companies a blank check to blow through whatever taxpayer money is necessary to keep the U.S. housing market afloat. Anyone buying large quantities of U.S. government bonds knows these liabilities exist. So why pretend they don’t?
Obama’s White House didn’t invent this kind of fudging. President George W. Bush, for example, kept most war costs out of the budget. Obama’s proposal shows about $289 billion of war costs for 2010 and 2011, plus a $50 billion placeholder estimate for each year after that. Those dollars are small compared with the numbers at Fannie and Freddie, though.
Without federal backing, the mortgage guarantees issued by Fannie and Freddie might not be worth much. In that case, the $973 billion of mortgage-backed securities held by the Federal Reserve would be worth substantially less, rendering its $52 billion capital cushion illusory. Of course, it’s ridiculous to think the government would let this happen.
Excluding Fannie and Freddie, the national debt held by the public is about $7.9 trillion. With them, it exceeds last year’s $13.2 trillion gross domestic product. Even the geniuses at Moody’s Investors Service are warning that the country’s AAA rating might not last. No country can owe more than its yearly productive output for long without giving up its accustomed lifestyle and influence. (emphasis mine)
The nation’s debt has become so immense that it’s corroding the government’s fundamental relationship with its own people. Put yourself in the shoes of a young couple thinking of buying their first home. The government needs folks like them to buy into the market to keep demand for houses up.
Yet without all the trillions of dollars of subsidies the government has pumped into housing, home prices would get creamed even worse than they already have, spurring greater loan defaults and saddling the Treasury with ever-higher costs from the guarantees Fannie and Freddie sold. What’s sickening is that the government can’t afford the subsidies. Suddenly, that $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers looks like a nasty teaser aimed at sucking America’s newlyweds into a giant Ponzi scheme.
Worst of all is the example the government is setting for its citizenry. There still have been no indictments of senior executives at any of the big financial institutions that cratered in 2008 while sporting pristine balance sheets. No wonder. The government lacks moral standing to prosecute crimes such as accounting fraud when its own books lack integrity.
And how does Orszag explain his about-face on including the government-sponsored enterprises in the federal budget? Here’s the response I got in an e-mail from Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget: “The relationship between the GSEs and the federal government is in flux. Until it is settled, it would be too disruptive to change how they are accounted for in the budget.”
That didn’t answer my question. (Are we supposed to believe the relationship wasn’t “in flux” in September 2008 after Fannie and Freddie got seized?) So I asked again. Baer replied: “Our statement is our statement.”
It speaks volumes, too, confirming what we otherwise could only surmise: They don’t have a good explanation.
Have you installed your bucket next to your desk yet?