Bethany McLean

Taking government out of the mortgage business is harder than it looks

Bethany McLean
Aug 20, 2013 15:42 UTC

Limbo. That’s the word most people use to describe the state of affairs in a critical part of our economy — housing finance. The government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were nationalized almost five years ago with the seemingly noble goal of eventually getting rid of them, now back some 90 percent of American mortgages. So much for good riddance!

But talk of reform finally seems close to action. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) have proposed a bipartisan bill called, appropriately enough, Corker-Warner. Meanwhile, the House Financial Services Committee, led by Representative Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), has produced its own bill, the more grandiosely entitled Protecting American Taxpayers and Homeowners, or PATH Act. Last Tuesday, during a speech in Phoenix, President Barack Obama weighed in. “Private lending should be the backbone of the housing market,” the president said. That same day there was also a housing policy forum at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Texas, where, among others, Hensarling spoke.

Everyone (well, almost everyone) seems to agree with the president: Private lending should be the backbone of the housing market. But just how much private capital does that entail? Hensarling and most of the Republicans think the government should get out of the game entirely. American Enterprise Institute scholar Peter Wallison, a long-time critic of the GSEs, recently wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Competing Visions for the Future of Housing Finance,” in which he called any remaining government presence “faux reform.”

Corker and Warner (and Obama) want the government somewhat out of the way — but still there as a backstop. Then there’s the liberal Democrat wing, personified by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who announced in a radio interview that he fears Obama’s proposal will crimp home ownership. Unfortunately, these stances are too often vague stakeouts of ideological positions about the role of government — and too rarely about the very basic math of housing finance.

Right now, there is about $10 trillion of mortgage-related debt outstanding. Fannie and Freddie securities make up roughly $4.4 trillion — slightly less than half — of that. The largest holder, in turn, of these Fannie and Freddie securities are U.S. commercial banks, which in the first quarter of 2013 held roughly $1.6 trillion of them. Another huge chunk — more than $1 trillion — is held by the Federal Reserve. About the same amount is held by “the rest of the world” — often foreign central banks and sovereign wealth funds — and another chunk about that size is held by mutual funds. 

The crackdown on bank misbehavior masks a troubling reality

Bethany McLean
Aug 7, 2013 19:45 UTC

“Ex Goldman Trader Found Guilty for Misleading Investors.” “Bond Deal Draws Fine for UBS.” “JPMorgan Settles Electricity Manipulation Case for $410 million.” “Deutsche Bank Net Profit Halves on Charge For Potential Legal Costs.” “US Sues Bank of America Over Mortgage Securities.” “Senate Opens Probe of Banks’ Commodities Businesses.” “US Regulators Find Evidence of Banks Fixing Derivatives Rates.” “Goldman Sachs Sued for Allegedly Inflating Aluminum Prices.”

So goes a sampling of headlines about the banking industry from the past week — yes, just one week. We seem to be living in an era where bankers can do no right. I can’t put it any better than a smart hedge fund friend of mine, who upon reading the news about the $410 million that JPMorgan paid to make allegations that it manipulated energy markets go away, sent me an email. “I am a bank friendly type,” he said. But, he added, in typically terse trader talk, “Something structurally amiss when so much financial activity is borderline.”

By one measurement, the problem has gotten worse by an order of magnitude in recent years. In the annual letter he writes to shareholders, Robert Wilmers, the chairman and CEO of M&T Bank, has started keeping track of the fines, sanctions and legal awards levied against the “Big Six” bank holding companies. In 2011, those penalties were $13.9 billion. In 2012, they more than doubled to $29.3 billion. Wilmers writes that the past two years represent the majority of the cumulative $52 billion in charges, from 236 separate actions in eight countries, over the past 11 years. Wilmers also cites a study done by M&T, according to which the top six banks have been cited 1,150 times by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times in articles about their improper activities. Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest bank, JPMorgan, accounts for a sizable chunk of all this. According to a report by Josh Rosner, a managing director at independent research consultancy Graham Fisher & Co, JPMorgan has paid $8.5 billion in fines between 2009 and 2012, or about 12 percent of its net income over that period.