From John Curry, July 13, 2008
"It's dispiriting indeed to watch the United States financial system, supposedly the envy of the world, being taken to its knees. But that’s the show we’re watching, brought to you by somnambulant regulators, greedy bank executives and incompetent corporate directors."
“It is crystal clear that the Fed not only made mistakes, they had the pompoms out, cheering for deregulation,......."
"A week ago, Bridgewater Associates, a research firm, estimated that losses from the credit crisis we’re now mired in might amount to $1.6 trillion when all is said and done. We’ll have to wait years to see if this is accurate. But whatever the number is, it will also represent, in stunning red ink, the cost to society of financiers who are shortsighted and greedy and regulators who don’t regulate."
IT’S dispiriting indeed to watch the United States financial system, supposedly the envy of the world, being taken to its knees. But that’s the show we’re watching, brought to you by somnambulant regulators, greedy bank executives and incompetent corporate directors.
This wasn’t the way the “ownership society” was supposed to work. Investors weren’t supposed to watch their financial stocks plummet more than 70 percent in less than a year. And taxpayers weren’t supposed to be left holding defaulted mortgages and abandoned homes while executives who presided over balance sheet implosions walked away with millions.
Over the course of this 18-month financial crisis, we have lurched from land mine to land mine. Last week’s was all about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant government-sponsored enterprises set up to provide affordable housing across the nation. By issuing debt, these shareholder-owned companies guarantee or own more than $5 trillion in home mortgages. Got that? $5 trillion.
Because the federal government established the companies, investors view them as backed, at least implicitly, by taxpayers. And that implied guarantee is what drove Fannie and Freddie’s business models.
The advantages the companies gained from this unique arrangement were huge. They had to keep less cash on hand than traditional lenders, for example. They also made more money on their mortgages than lenders because they paid less to borrow money in the bond market. These profits enriched Fannie and Freddie shareholders over the years and bestowed significant wealth on the companies’ executives.
Now it looks as if the bill for that largess is coming due. Of course, it will be borne by the usual bagholders: United States taxpayers. You and me.
For years, anyone warning that Fannie and Freddie should beef up their financial positions was ridiculed or run over by the lobbying machines these companies kept oiled and close at hand. So their lucrative arrangement remained the same: business as usual, with all its riches, was the goal. After all, wasting money by inflating their cash cushions would just crimp their style.
Suddenly, Fannie and Freddie’s relatively anemic capital supply is a concern. Last week, Fannie’s stock plummeted to $10.25, down 74 percent in 2008. Freddie’s shares also dived, closing at $7.75, a loss of 77 percent this year.
Even as investors were stampeding out of these stocks, the claque in Washington rushed to reassure them. Both Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve Board chairman, and Henry M. Paulson Jr., the Treasury secretary, said the mortgage giants’ regulators confirmed that the companies were “adequately capitalized.”
THAT was supposed to signal that the companies wouldn’t have to raise capital immediately because regulators had the problem firmly in hand. But investors have good reason to be skeptical. In the first half of 2007, both Mr. Bernanke and Mr. Paulson sang a similar tune when they opined that problems in the mortgage market were “contained” to subprime loans.
Talk of adequate capital also brings to mind comments made last March, when Bear Stearns was on the ropes, by Christopher Cox, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. He tried to calm investors by telling them that Bear Stearns passed financial muster. Days later, the firm was toe-tagged.
Which brings us to the main problem: credibility. Wall Street and our senior regulators seem to be running out of that precious commodity almost as quickly as cash.
It wasn’t as if this problem came out of left field. Fears that Fannie and Freddie were getting too big have been a recurring theme in recent years. And Congress has had ample opportunity to create a new regulator that would be vigilant about ensuring the safety and soundness of both companies.
But even after both companies were found to have accounted for their results improperly, Freddie Mac in 2003 and Fannie Mae in 2004, Congress failed to act. As a result, Fannie and Freddie were allowed to become high-growth companies and stock market darlings.
“These companies would have been fine had they been forced to be the cyclical utilities they were intended to be,” said Josh Rosner, an analyst at Graham-Fisher, an independent research firm in New York. “They would be healthy and able to help the markets in this time of illiquidity.”
Instead, they are in trouble and their woes are infecting the entire stock market.
The surprise is not that Fannie and Freddie grew too large for the taxpayers’ good. That was to be expected among companies run by executives whose pay is based on profit growth.
MAYBE the loans held or backed by Fannie and Freddie will turn out to be better performers than those held by other lenders. That would mean fewer losses than investors seem to be anticipating now and would still the cries for fresh capital.
But if their losses follow the patterns seen at other lenders, some sort of regulatory takeover may occur. That would mean a lot of pain for a lot of folks — especially both companies’ stockholders and the broader community of people depending on a secure, smoothly functioning mortgage market.
“The real outrage is that none of this had to happen,” said William A. Fleckenstein, co-author of “Greenspan’s Bubbles: The Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve” and president of Fleckenstein Capital in Issaquah, Wash. “We did not have to ruin the financial system and ruin the financial lives of a huge chunk of the middle class in the United States.”
“It is crystal clear that the Fed not only made mistakes, they had the pompoms out, cheering for deregulation,” he adds. “Until people recognize why we are in this mess, I don’t see how we get out of this thing.”
A week ago, Bridgewater Associates, a research firm, estimated that losses from the credit crisis we’re now mired in might amount to $1.6 trillion when all is said and done.
We’ll have to wait years to see if this is accurate. But whatever the number is, it will also represent, in stunning red ink, the cost to society of financiers who are shortsighted and greedy and regulators who don’t regulate.