Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fannie and Freddie: America's Landlords?

After offering a fairly pessimistic viewpoint on what might occur should Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac become the de facto landlords of much of America, my thoughts continued to race on the topic. Being that the two troubled mortgage insurers are soon to embark upon buying up billions of dollars worth of defaulted residential mortgages by prepaying investors of packaged mortgage-backed securities (MBS), my research led to a couple of interesting observations.

First, whatever becomes of millions of defaulted mortgages, it appears that Fannie and Freddie won't be actually be issuing new mortgages - at least that's how the system is functioning at present. Fannie Mae's very own REO listings appear at a friendly-looking site called HomePath.com, where foreclosed-upon homes are listed for all parts of the country. In all instances, home are offered by local realtors and financing by banks, not the agency itself.

While this may be the case now, the future might be different. Fannie and Freddie, as unofficial branches of the federal government, might be able - in instances in which the current homeowner is offered a restructured payment regime and allowed to stay put - to forego the foreclosure process altogether by working with the affected parties through intermediaries or at their own pleasure.

This appears to be the prevailing direction of the feds, through programs such as Making Home Affordable and the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). Through these programs, the banks which are servicing the loans work with the defaulted homeowner toward a solution, though the programs - celebrating their one-year anniversary today - have not, to date, been very successful.

Eventually, what would be a workable situation should Fannie and Freddie find themselves burdened with defaulted mortgages, would be to hire (Yes, I'm actually advocating the creation of more government jobs.) their own team of specialists to accelerate the process or, as suggested by the eminent economist and forecaster Jim Willie's December 30, 2009 article, Fannie Debt Merger Monetization, become landlords themselves.

The latter seems less likely, though one can hardly argue the logic of Willie's argument that rental income would be a vast new source of revenue for the feds and actually help to stabilize some conditions, not the least of which being the negative effects on neighborhoods resulting from neglected, vacant properties. That the two mortgage insurers are deeply indebted and soon to be much further in the red is a concern for another discussion, but in terms of laying the groundwork for more normalized economic conditions, the F&Fs have the potential to do some good.

So, my assumption in yesterday's post that the feds would be quick to evict might not be all that accurate. At least the current climate seems to suggest quite the opposite. In any case, the prepayments to investors will make more money available to investors (they're getting their principal back) and markets. What they do with the re-found wealth remains to be seen. Whether they might be willing to slide right back into the MBS market or invest elsewhere definitely is up to the investor, though with the now-implicit guarantee from F&F, they might well do that.

Generally, what's happening is more kicking the can down the road a bit further, although the new securities should actually be improved, with better lending standards in place to prevent defaults. The whole securitization process is still at the root of what caused much of the economic woes of recent years, and eventually there are liabilities galore for all parties, especially the US taxpayer, who has to bear the burden of more and more debt.

In a scenario in the F&F become the actual investors, the returns to the taxpayer might be even greater over time, though that argument is debatable as well. The long and short of it is that the government obviously needs to step in to relieve the Federal Reserve of its MBS holdings and the current plan seems aimed directly at that result.

While that's good for the Fed and the dollar, how it plays out in the real estate market remains to be seen. The government surely has the intention of keeping real estate prices at some realistic or sustainable level, but the intervention of Fannie and Freddie can only add to the weight of deflation in the market. Sapped homeowners and smart investors may catch sizable breaks.

The two mega-insurers are soon to be deploying billions, so there's likely to be a noticeable change all along the real estate food chain.

As far as investors in equities were concerned, today was a day for nibbling and rounding out positions. Stocks barely budged after a small, quick opening jump. The carry-through from Tuesday's big leap was moderate. Many doubts still remain for investors of all stripes.

Dow 10,309.24, +40.43 (0.39%)
NASDAQ 2,226.29, +12.10 (0.55%)
S&P 500 1,099.51, +4.64 (0.42%)
NYSE Composite 7,035.20, +21.85 (0.31%)


Advancing issues outpaced decliners, 4136-2326; new highs reached 154. There were just 20 new lows. Volume was a little better than yesterday, which brings up the possibility of repositioning on today's trade. The downtrend short term is still in play and short-timers could be readying for an early exit, as in this week, which seems to be the currently favored play.

NYSE Volume 4,887,593,500
NASDAQ Volume 2,069,575,625


Commodities barely budged. Crude oil gained 19 cents, to $77.33. Gold dropped 20 cents, to $1120.00, and silver slipped 8 cents, to $16.07. Interest in the metals seems to have waned a bit, but, as we well know, that could change overnight. Much of the current weakness is due to the strengthening US dollar, which was higher again today.

While my outlook for the housing sector may have been softened a bit concerning Fannie and Freddie, my general conclusion is that complete debt default by nations is only a matter of time. Though Greece and other Euro-zone nations may have slid off front pages, their horrific fiscal conditions remain and are a proxy for a wide swath of national economies and central banks worldwide, including the United States.

1 comment:

Phil said...

I guess I would say that I completely disagree with your solution, given that it would make the Federal Gov't the landlord of last resort.

You ignore the natural process of working out inflated prices and market distortions based on government intervention in the market.

What would be a more sensible approach is one where the local government takes possession of the property and does one of two things:

A) Rents the property out to a qualified renter

B) Sells the property to a qualified buyer.

Some changes in accounting rules need to be relaxed to make this happen, but the alacrity with which the Federal Gov't. passed the stimulus act demonstrates that it could be done.

Buyers need to know that they are not on the hook for prior mortgage prices, as well as the fact that they can rent these properties out at market prices. Local gov't's need to know that if they take on these liabilities, they won't be adversely affected by them.

Bottom line: a top-down (Federal to State to Local or a one-size-fits-all) approach is the most INEFFICIENT way to work out this problem. Let's get the localities that are most affected to work out the problems the way they see fit, and with tax and accounting rules that make this happen.

It isn't sexy, its isn't a magic bullet, but it would work.