Sunday, October 25, 2009

The “New” FM Watch is…The Old FM Watch; Welcome Back

I am going to play Paul Revere this week and call, “To arms, to arms, the ‘new FM Watch’ is coming.”

Yes, if you didn’t read about it last week, the old coalition--which very effectively helped the Bush Administration sink Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac--once again is registering to lobby against the current secondary mortgage market cripples.

The mystery is why this anti-housing gaggle—not exactly as how they would define themselves but accurate enough--has emerged now. There has to be some reason beyond the fact that FM Watch lobbyists want to send their grandkids to college on the old GSE issue, since they’ve already sent their children?

It's the Money!

The one thing about the “new,” which also applied to the “old,” is that this step is all about MONEY.

Either Fannie and Freddie, in their current nascent modes, still represent threats to the “new FM Watch’s” businesses or in the future, a revamped Fannie and Freddie holds the promise of keeping mortgage markets efficient and consumer costs down, two results which the FMWers would rather see not happen.

Those also are the two reasons why the Homebuilders and Realtors should always find themselves opposing the “new FM Watch.” Add to that, the former GSEs are the only TARP recipients which the Bush Administration managed to ban from lobbying and therefore they can’t protect themselves on the Hill. (When the Bushies decided to zip the GSEs lips last year, famed constitutionalist Dick Cheney was rumored to growl,”Screw their first amendment rights, but can I take them hunting, first?)

With their swords still beaten into plowshares and since few congressional campaigns will take farm equipment as contributions, do Fannie and Freddie represent any congressional threat to their old adversaries? I wish that were the case, but sadly the answer is “no.”

It can’t be the current revenue the former GSEs are taking out of the market. Neither company is pricing their goods and services for optimal business returns.
Although Freddie did report modest earnings last quarter, Fannie still hasn’t and there is that nagging 10% interest—due annually—on their near $100 Billion in Treasury indebtedness which both owe Uncle Sam.

Covering Their Own Weaknesses

Maybe the answer to why these “termites” have returned is that the best defense is a good offense, since the “new FM Watch” member organizations have done a lame job in supporting the mortgage market.

The old FM Watch had mortgage insurers, big banks and mortgage companies as members. I suspect the new group does, too, which means the new FM Watch hardly is going to qualify this year’s “Nobel Mortgage Prize for Market Integrity.” (I think President Obama has a leg on that, as well as the Heisman Trophy and Cy Young awards.)

Is it that Fannie’s and Freddie’s mere existence, even under conservatorship, is a threat to these paragons of finance? Hmmmmm??

The FMWers have reached the same conclusion I have. It is inevitable Congress will consider breathing new life into the old GSEs, because it is clear that the nation needs some dedicated mortgage investors to prime the pump. A partial return to that element of the past mortgage market operation could give the primary market lenders a jump start and revive a needed non-government segment of the mortgage world.

So, why now?

It must be that the structurally crippled former GSEs, being managed by the Treasury Department, scare the bad guys and they want to try and deep six them ASAP before Congress awakens to the fact that F&F could be part of the mortgage solution.

So, I'm left to conclude that the FM Watch spoilers hope to strangle, at the “bassinet stage,” any positives which could produce the “new Fannie and Freddie” (or whatever the Obama Administration and Congress chooses to call them, when the White House and Hill finally pay attention to the nation’s mortgage market.)

There was a time not too long ago, when Fannie and Freddie were like “swans.” Everybody loved them (FM Watch, aside). Everyone wanted to be seen with them, swim in their ponds, and be part of their success. Everyone wanted to be gifted with the swans’ beautiful feathers.

The former-GSEs no longer are swans. But, they might be in the ugly duckling stage and we all know what happens to some ugly ducklings.

Who Cares?

But does anybody, except the predators, care about these current ugly ducklings, since the new FMWers just want to step on them before they become swans, again, and kill the chance that official Washington will love the mortgage giants anew.

That strategy will require congressional enablers. Surely, the FMWers will skulk back to their old GOP congressional allies, like Dick Shelby, John Boehner, Michelle Bachman, Jed Hensarling and the like, not to mention the AEI and certain media.

This time they won’t have the support of a Bush Administration hosting them at the anti-Fannie/Freddie table. The “new FM Watch” should encounter some resistance from Barney Frank, Maxine Waters, Nancy Pelosi, Chris Dodd, Jack Reed, Chuck Schumer, and others.

Cold Shoulder Downtown

The Obama Administration will not be as accommodating as its predecessor in damning the former GSE leadership and business strategy, since today everything Fannie and Freddie do—as well as their senior management—carries the stamp of Tim Geithner’s Treasury Department.

Money is fungible, but it truly would be ironic if some TARP money—sitting in large bank balance sheets--has trickled into the new FM Watch coffers from their “new/old” members. I am sure the group’s lobbyists will answer those kinds of question once asked by the media or the Congress.

I’m glad the FMers are back, since it’s been too quiet on this front since they left and their activities should stimulate some in the real “housing coalition” to respond and demonstrate their understanding of the value of dedicated national mortgage investors.

God, it's almost enough to make me want to haul out my old combat uni, sharpen my katani, and oil my Glock.

Maloni, 10-26-2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cats and Dogs

Public Option

If the history of the residential mortgage market is any measure, Hell, yes, we need a public health insurance option, if only to keep the insurers honest. Nothing will make the industry more responsive than opening the insurance system to competition and, by the way, forcing them to lower their prices if the public has the opportunity to get coverage “elsewhere.”

That’s what happened to mortgage products and prices in the residential mortgage market when Fannie and Freddie began forcing banks and savings and loans to compete for those lenders perceived was their God-given mortgage lending business.

F&F didn’t actually compete directly with the primary market lenders, because by law the GSEs were in the “secondary market,” buying loans from lenders, and the depository institutions were originating loans for families in the “primary market.”

But what the banks and thrifts started complaining about more than 20 years ago—and consumers loved--was that Fannie and Freddie succored a mortgage companies, non-depository exclusive mortgage lenders, which unlike banks and thrifts did not keep mortgage portfolios, but sold every loan they made to investors. (Mortgage “banker” is a euphemism, since mortgage companies never have been depositories, although today most are owned by large banks.)

This is the “competition” for which the commercial bankers blamed Fannie and Freddie and for years they battled, trying to hold onto their little honey pot making the mortgage market pricey and inefficient, with excessive fees and charges. GSE competition ended that behavior (which is one of the reasons the commercial banker anger and hostility aimed at the former GSEs seldom diminished).

The analog to what the Congress and the public seems to want to introduce into the healthcare debate is the equivalent mortgage industry “public option,” i.e. Fannie and Freddie providing high quality and low cost conventional mortgage products to the mortgage companies forcing the dominant mortgage providers of that era (banks and thrifts) to join the party offering the public competitive products and prices or face losing the business.
Remember, financial services companies—which is what an insurance company is-- all borrow money at one rate and invest it at a higher one. Competition and efficiency was good for the mortgage market. It should bring out the best in the health insurance industry and do away with some of the worst practices. In the meantime, the Congress should ignore the fear mongering that will flow from the insurance industry’s PR operations. They’ll say and do anything to hold onto their financial edge.

From my perspective, a big “Yes” on the public health care option.

Is The Congress Angry??

I hope so. Supposedly, it is so angry at the health insurance industry that it is planning hearings to examine the industry anti-trust exemptions, with the implied threat that Congress will alter this huge business benefit.

Go for it Congress, don’t just threaten.

It’s amazing to me that the Hill never has learned the lesson of taking concerted, definitive action, instead of blowing all so much hot air and doing little. (“My staff is looking…I have introduced a bill, which I hope will be referred to my subcommittee so that I…..I’ve asked the Chairman to ask GAO to……” Haff, Kaff, yak, gag!!)

Whack that industry and show the American public that their health care worries can be solved and their health protected.

And, while you are at it House and Senate, give the back of your hand—or a mailed fist--to the large commercial bankers who have screwed over you and the public on TARP, regulatory reform, consumer agency, restructuring bad mortgage loans, and executive compensation. (Having supped at the federal trough and still supping, how can they justify those comp levels?)

The Washington Post had a headline the other day suggesting that the financial services industry was losing its clout on the Hill.

I’ll believe it when I see the results, not the interim steps, which mean nothing since—in no other city in the world is “It’s not over, until it’s over” the rule as it is in Washington.

Until President Obama signs into law legislation which the banks hate—and the final regs are written implementing that law—I’ll never believe that the big banks have gotten paid back for their perfidy on the issues I mentioned and that’s just this year.

Fannie and Freddie, Keefe Bruyette Notwithstanding

Periodically, I receive calls from analysts and investors asking my opinion about the “future of Fannie and Freddie.”

I tell them, “I have no damn idea.”

But then, I offer them a few salient facts.

We have no conventional, non-government mortgage market, right now. And, nobody else has stepped up to take over the F&F role.

Every institutional mortgage investor today is funded by the government or is a government agency. That includes FHA and HUD, the former GSEs, and some banks still taking in or living large from their TARP dollars.

That is not a tenable situation and the easiest fix is to resurrect a private Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in some form.

Keefe Bruyette and Woods this week opined that both companies are worthless and their common and preferred stock have no value, because of their new relartionship to Traesury and the Fed as well as their taxpayer debt.

True now, but--in the ways of Washington--none of it may matter. When the Obama Administration and Congress finally take a breath from their other priorities and look at the mortgage market, I think it will become obvious that the “secondary mortgage market model” works, which means a plethora of primary market lenders dealing with the public and then selling or securitizing those loans with a few dedicated national mortgage investors is an ideal structure for the nation.

Any money F&F owes can be paid to the Treasury over time, say 30 years, and if changes in their mission (please make those!) are necessary, as well as limits on their business, Congress can make those, too.

The toughest thing the politicians will face when the time comes to fix Fannie and Freddie is swallowing all of the bile they heaped on the two companies, accusing them of every crime under the sun and a few that aren’t there.

Thank God for Speed Dial

It was widely believed inside Fannie Mae, when I worked there, that its regulator, then the Office of Financial Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO) was engaged in a guerilla campaign to knock down the company’s stock price and embarrass its officials, because of the agency’s impotence in dealing with both Fannie and Freddie.

There have been several law suits, some still ongoing, to prove this allegation.
Recently, lawyers for three former Fannie officials still involved in litigation, sought to interview a former OFHEO official, whom they argued might shed light on these matters, including why her boss at the time--who was head of OFHEO ‘s external operations--claimed more than “200 times” that he couldn’t remember salient agency facts and issues.

That’s a ton of bad, weak, lame, and distorted memories. With memory grasp like that, no wonder those OFHEO guys did such a crappy job! It makes you wonder how they could even remember the reporters’ numbers to whom they leaked all of that bad mojo.

Maloni 10-20-2009