Dismantling the economy’s legal infrastructure V-4: the transformation of mortgage finance in the 1980s

The 1980s saw dramatic reform of the structure of the banking system as the 1970 Hunt Commission’s recommendations for increasing the flow of funds into the mortgage market began to be adopted: first, bank and thrift funding was put on an equal footing; then, existing restrictions on mortgage lending by both commercial banks and thrifts were largely eliminated; at the same time, a policy of regulatory forbearance towards the troubled thrifts was enacted – in the vain hope that they would earn their way to solvency.

Legislation during these years also promoted the growth of mortgage securitization which played an increasingly important role in the mortgage market. The originate-to-distribute model of mortgage finance was born, where non-bank affiliates of commercial banks originated mortgages, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac set the standards that “conforming” mortgages had to meet in order to be salable. In short, over the course of the 1980s the mortgage finance system was completely transformed from one in which banks played a peripheral role to one where banks played the most important role. This took place because the predominant theory at the time, portfolio theory, saw no reason to maintain the distinction between banks and thrifts that had been drawn when banking theory was dominant.

It was in this period that the US banking system was effectively divided into two classes. An elite segment of very large banks thrived in the new environment and were able to leverage the new system of “market-based” finance into special treatment: these were the too-big-to-fail banks. The rest of the banking system, however, struggled in this environment where non-banks and the elite banks had special privileges that the typical bank did not. This section addresses the reforms that directly affected the majority of banks, while the next section will focus on the nascent too-big-to-fail banks.

Charts 1 through 4 below, drawn from FDIC data, demonstrate how very different the business model of the 7 largest US commercial banks was from that of the bulk of the banking system. Over the course of the 26 years covered by these charts the 7 largest US banks grew from accounting for only 20% of US bank assets to accounting for about 50% of US commercial bank assets just prior to the 2007-09 crisis. They continue to account for about 50% of assets today.

Chart 1: US commercial bank assets excluding the seven largest banks

Assets CB less 7

Chart 2: Seven largest US commercial bank assets

Assets Big 7

Chart 3: US commercial bank liabilities excluding seven largest banks

Liab CB less 7

Chart 4: Seven largest US commercial banks liabilitiesLiab big 7

The problem of monetary control

By the end of the 1970s many commercial banks were struggling. Their key source of funding was being eroded by competition with financial intermediaries that had been granted preferential regulatory status: the thrifts in the Northeast could pay interest on transaction accounts, MMFs could pay interest while offering limited checkwriting privileges, and for their biggest clients the banks had to compete with the totally unregulated Eurodollar market. In this difficult environment regulators had suddenly authorized the writing of “off balance sheet” guarantees. Unsurprisingly this set off destabilizing competitive dynamics, where the largest banks began to shift their business to fee-earning off-balance-sheet activities, promoting disintermediation at the expense of the banking system as a whole. Thus, in Chart 5 we see significant growth in MMFs and deposit substitutes at the end of the 1970s even as the growth in demand deposits stagnates.

Chart 5: Cash assets

Cash assets

Through the 1970s the Federal Reserve actively managed reserve requirements and their application to different instruments – including Eurodollar funding – in order to control the supply of credit. The Fed found, however, that banks were giving up their Federal Reserve membership in order to escape the regulatory burden of maintaining non-interest-bearing required reserves. Over the course of the 1970s the percent of transaction deposits held by member banks fell from 75% to 65% (and this measure did not include MMFs). The Fed’s ability to implement monetary policy was being eroded. A unilateral Fed proposal to start paying interest on reserves was blocked by Congressional opposition (Feinman 1993: 575-78). The Fed believed that monetary control required extending its authority to impose reserve requirements to cover all depository institutions (Volcker 1979). (Note that Volcker in his testimony on this issue is clearly aware that MMFs also have implications for monetary control, but does not appear to have solutions to offer.)

The Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980 (“DIDMCA,” Pub. L. 96-221) largely eliminated the distinction between thrifts and commercial banks on the liability side of the balance sheet (as the 1970 Commission had recommended):[1] it authorized thrifts to offer checkable deposits, phased out Regulation Q’s interest rate caps on all depository institution accounts, made thrifts subject to the Federal Reserve’s reserve requirements (with an eight year phase in), opened the Fed’s discount window to the thrifts, and raised the deposit insurance limit for both banks and thrifts to $100,000. On the asset side of the balance sheet, it repealed all usury restrictions on mortgages, including those at the state level (CEA 1981: 111).

Observe that the standard view at the time attributed the stabilization of the banking system in the 1930s to deposit insurance[2] (since the structural reforms of the 1930s were viewed as misguided) and thus there was an expectation that the expansion of deposit insurance mandated by the 1980 Act – together with the elimination of Regulation Q – would give the banks and thrifts a decisive competitive advantage over MMFs and Eurodollar accounts (FDIC 1997: 93). While DIDMCA was effective at stemming the outflow of deposits (see Chart 5), it slowed the growth of MMFs only temporarily.

In fact, there is strong evidence that any government sanction of a financial instrument that, like a bank deposit, is convertible at par into currency will be perceived as official support by the general public: the second wave growth of MMFs (see Chart 5) dates to the 1983 decision by the SEC (48 FR 32555) to formally authorize accounting for money market funds like bank deposits (that is, with a $1 net asset value) instead of using investment fund accounting. It is doubtful that MMFs are consistent with the intent of the Investment Company Act of 1940, which has two sections on “face amount certificate” companies that specify the capital and reserves that these companies are required to hold. As a result, in order for MMFs to operate as they had at the end of the 1970s, the SEC had to grant them exemptions from the Act and Rule 2a-4 (see 47 FR 5428). The 1983 Final Rule formalized this process of granting exemptions to the law in a regulation. In short, the post-Depression regulatory structure was explicitly designed to prevent investment funds from competing with deposits – unless they, like banks had capital and reserves. We have apparently learned the hard way that this structural separation was as important as deposit insurance in stabilizing the banking system post-Depression.

The Garn St Germain Act and its consequences

By 1980 the thrifts had been struggling for years with their legacy portfolios of long-term mortgages that had low fixed interest rates. The dramatic interest rate increases that accompanied Volcker’s policy of taming inflation had a devastating effect on these institutions, leaving many of them insolvent. Instead of recognizing the need to follow Roosevelt’s 1933 model of dealing assertively with a banking crisis by closing some thrifts and recapitalizing others, policymakers chose to eliminate restrictions on the thrifts’ asset portfolios in the hope that the thrifts would be able to earn their way to solvency.

The 1980 DIDMCA had already eliminated all interest rate ceilings on mortgages. In 1982 legislation dramatically broadened not just the types of residential mortgages the thrifts could make, permitting adjustable rate mortgages, balloon payments and negative amortization, but also dramatically increased what had been strict caps on commercial real estate lending (Pub. L. 97-320; McCoy et al. 2009: 499). It also eliminated entirely statutory limits on mortgage lending by commercial banks (§403(a)) such as the requirement that aggregate real estate loans not guaranteed or insured by a government agency could not exceed the greater of bank capital plus surplus or savings plus time deposits.[3]

For the first time in US history the regulation of bank mortgage lending was being left entirely in the hands of regulators. That is, the statutory restrictions on banking that legislators of the 1930s had put in place to protect financial stability and prevent real estate bubbles were first reframed by portfolio theory as “anti-competitive” and “inefficient,” and then eliminated by legislators unfamiliar with the actual history of the legislation. The OCC responded promptly with a regulation that placed no restrictions on national bank real estate lending (FDIC 1997: 95). In addition, within 5 years of this dramatic shift away from statutory restrictions, every single member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors had been appointed by Reagan and the Fed was throwing its weight behind a deregulatory agenda.

Another part of the same legislation, known as the Garn St. Germain Act, made it easier for the depository institution insurers to provide assistance to troubled banks. Since 1935 the FDIC and FSLIC had been authorized to provide assistance to the merger of a failing bank with a sound one (Isaac 1984: 202). In some cases, the insurers provided “open bank assistance” to these mergers in the form of loans, deposits or purchases of assets, so that deposit-holders and other bank counterparties of the failed institution would experience no inconvenience. Prior to the Garn St. Germain Act the statutory requirements for such assistance were the determinations (i) that the institution was in danger of closing and (ii) that its services were “essential to the community.” Subsequent to the act these criteria were broadened significantly: the insurers could provide open bank assistance for the purpose of preventing the closing of an institution, restoring a closed institution to normal operation, or due to the danger of financial instability (§§ 111, 122; Gorinson & Manishin 1983: 1325).[4] They also could provide this assistance in additional ways including purchasing securities, assuming liabilities, and making contributions. The issue of “net worth certificates” to undercapitalized institutions whose loan portfolios were at least 20% mortgages were authorized (Title II).[5]

Observe that it was not just the thrifts that would be transformed by the Garn St. Germain Act. The law made it possible for the FDIC in 1984 to take Continental Illinois National Bank over on the basis of financial stability concerns. The development of the “too big to fail” doctrine protecting large banks will be explored in the next section. The same legislation also raised the statutory limit on national bank loans to a single borrower from 10% of bank capital to 15% of capital or, if the loan was secured by marketable assets, to 25% of bank capital (FDIC 1997: 94). While small rural banks were the public poster child for this reform, it had obvious benefits for the too-big-to-banks that often dealt with large corporate and government accounts.

As for the thrifts, as might have been expected, the reforms proved disastrous. Insolvent institutions are, after all, not well positioned to go through the learning process of mastering a new business. By 1989 the thrifts’ worsening condition could no longer be ignored and was addressed in the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (“FIRREA,” Pub. L. No. 101-73) by a complete overhaul of the regulatory structure governing them. The FHLB Board was abolished and replaced by two new agencies, the Office of Thrift Supervision governing the thrifts and the Federal Housing Finance Board governing the Federal Home Loan Banks. Freddie Mac was placed under the supervision of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, just like Fannie Mae (Colton 2002: 14). At long last, a new Resolution Trust Corporation was created to administer the assets of the failed thrifts, and the FSLIC was replaced by a fund administered by the FDIC. FIRREA required those thrifts that were solvent to lower their risks by selling loans and increasing their holdings of liquid assets. The resolution of the insolvent thrifts would end up costing more than $130 billion. As an additional step in the elimination of the structural distinction between the thrifts and the commercial banks, FIRREA opened membership in the FHLB system to commercial banks.

We should also note that in 1987 the Competitive Equality Banking Act was passed (“CEBA”, Pub. L. 100-86).[6] It had the important effect of closing the “non-bank bank” loophole, that had been created in 1970 when the Bank Holding Company Act had been amended to define a bank as an entity that accepted demand deposits and made commercial loans. By either restricting funding to exclude demand deposits or avoiding making commercial loans, a financial institution could preclude Federal Reserve regulation of its holding company. In the early 1980s the OCC did a brisk business in such “non-bank” charters. CEBA redefined a bank to include any entity insured by the FDIC in addition to any entity that accepted transaction accounts and made commercial loans (FDIC 1997: 98).[7]

Mortgage Securitization

One consequence of the efforts to deal with the troubled thrifts was the stimulation of securitization. When a thrift sold a below-market-rate mortgage, instead of taking the loss immediately – which would have reflected the reality of the transaction – thrifts were permitted by an FHLB Board policy adopted in 1981 to spread the loss over the remaining years of the mortgage (Lea 1996: 166). The result of this policy was a boom in mortgage securitization that facilitated a transition in the finance of conventional mortgages from the thrifts to the GSEs. As a result, the GSEs were financing more than half of all mortgages originated in the US from the late 1980s on and most of these mortgages were then securitized (Lea 1996: 166). In short, the collapse of the thrifts was eased dramatically by the rise of agency securitization.

While Freddie Mac’s business model from its founding in 1970 was based on the securitization of conventional mortgages (Howard 2014: 117), through the 1970s Fannie Mae focused on purchasing loans for its own portfolio and addressed the challenges of mortgage finance in the 1970s by shortening the length of its funding. Thus, the high interest rates of 1979 affected Fannie Mae in the same way that it had affected the thrifts: Fannie Mae was losing money on a daily basis and risked exhausting its capital. Fannie Mae, however, unlike the thrifts was not offered capital relief or allowed to change its mission. Indeed, the recommendation of the 1982 President’s Commission on Housing was that the GSEs should be fully privatized. Left to earn its way into solvency, Fannie Mae was successful in doing so by (i) dramatically widening the types of mortgages it purchased to include for example ARMs (On these mortgages Fannie required originator guarantees instead of underwriting the loans itself.) (ii) funding new purchases with debt issues that were maturity matched; (iii) generating fee income by securitizing mortgages (starting in 1981); and (iv) as interest rates fell extending debt maturities (Howard 2014: 27-28).

In 1983 Freddie Mac developed the first mortgage backed securitization that used tranching to address the uncertainty inherent in the timing of mortgage prepayments: some tranches were designed to pay off first. (This product was called a Collateralized Mortgage Obligation or CMO, but to limit the use of jargon I will call it a multi-tranche MBS.) While the multi-tranche MBS had more desirable properties for investors than the single tranche MBS, it was not clear under contemporary tax laws whether pass-through taxation would always apply or whether the structure itself could be subject to taxation (creating an undesirable situation of taxation both at the level of the structure and at the level of the investor) (Howard 2014: 118). This problem was addressed in the 1986 Tax Reform Act (Pub. L. 99-514) which created Real Estate Mortgage Investment Conduits (REMICs). By qualifying as a REMIC an MBS could have pass-through taxation (Howard 2014: 120).

This tax reform had been recommended by the 1982 President’s Commission on Housing, which also advocated that “all mortgage lenders and borrowers should have unrestricted access to the money and capital markets” (Colton 2002: 11). Thus, the Commission recommended the 1984 Secondary Mortgage Market Enhancement Act (SMMEA) which sought to put private label mortgage backed securities (PLMBS) on an even playing field with Agency MBS. Prior to this legislation PLMBS had been subject as securities to significant registration requirements and did not qualify as legal investments for many regulated entities. SMMEA exempted PLMBS from state antifraud and registration laws and made them legal investments for banks, thrifts, insurance companies, and pension funds (Howard 2014: 119-20).

Note that the latter created a significant distinction between Agency MBS and PLMBS. Agency MBS was deemed an appropriate investment for banks because the agencies were closely regulated government-sponsored entities with the goal of benefiting homeowners and the mortgage market. While PLMBS was also issued by regulated entities, that is banks, the goals of bank regulation place emphasis on the safety and soundness of the banking system and allow for bank failure. And there was no expectation that bank regulators should emphasize the interests of the mortgage market – or of MBS investors. Thus, SMMEA introduced the additional criterion that PLMBS had to receive an investment grade rating from a rating agency in order to be deemed an appropriate investment for a bank or other regulated institution. The end result was, however, that SMMEA was one of the early laws granting the credit rating agencies “de facto” supervisory authority over a segment of the financial industry.

As a result of this legislation, the market evolved so that the GSEs set standards for the mortgages they would purchase and securitize, and those loans that fell outside this category were held by banks or thrifts or placed in PLMBS. The loans eligible for purchase by the GSEs were known as “conforming” loans, while the ineligible loans were “non-conforming” and comprised of “jumbo” loans – or loans for an amount in excess of the GSEs’ statutory maximum – and “subprime” loans – which didn’t meet the GSEs’ lending criteria. (Later, and especially when the GSEs broadened their lending criteria, the number of categories increased and the terminology shifted.)

Because the GSEs made their money on volume, they competed to reduce costs to borrowers and to reduce origination costs by, for example, developing automated underwriting programs and encouraging competition between a large population of loan originators (Howard 2014: 90-91). To better match liabilities with assets, the GSEs started issuing callable debt, which by 1990 had become common (Howard 2014: 43). At the same time, because they bore the credit risk of every loan purchased for the life of the loan, they studied the market in order to set sustainable credit standards (Howard 2014: 91). By 1993 Fannie Mae, which had been at risk of failure in the early 1980s had brought its credit losses down to 4 basis points – despite lending on newer products like adjustable rate mortgages (Howard 2014: 46).

As securitization grew to be a more and more important source of mortgage finance, mortgage lending itself transitioned from the originate-to-hold to the originate-to-distribute model. This was accompanied by a shift to the origination of most mortgages by unregulated mortgage companies and brokers instead of by regulated thrifts as had been the case in the past (Immergluck 2009: 465). These unregulated mortgage companies were often subsidiaries of the bank holding companies. On the one hand, the new system was fiercely competitive which tended to keep costs down. On the other hand, many of the originators were thinly capitalized (Lea 1996: 168-69). On balance, however, mortgage securitization functioned well through the 1980s and 1990s.

Through most of the 1990s the GSEs made possible the standardization of mortgage underwriting and kept the cost of the 30 year mortgage consistently low at a spread of less than 1.5% to the 10 year US Treasury Bond (see Chart 6).[8] This was made possible by the entry of mutual funds, pension funds, and foreign entities into US housing investment (Lea 1996: 167).

Chart 6: Mortgage and Baa bond spreads

30Yr mtg 10 yr T spread

[1] On the asset side, it also allowed savings and loans to hold 20 % of their assets as consumer loans.

[2] See Isaac (1984: 198) citing Friedman and Galbraith.

[3] Additional restrictions that were lifted had required 30-year amortization for certain loans, had limited the maximum loan-to-value of mortgages, and had limited the aggregate unpaid balance on second lien real estate loans to 20% of bank capital plus surplus.

[4] It is highly likely that the Federal Reserve pushed for the addition of this latter clause, but I have not yet been able to document this claim.

[5] Mergers were also permitted across regulatory boundaries (e.g. of banks and thrifts or despite geographic restrictions), but only after determining that mergers within regulatory boundaries were not equally advantageous (Gorinson & Manishin 1983: 1326).

[6] The Fed had just lost a lawsuit challenging its effort to close the loophole by adopting regulations that relied on very broad rather than narrow interpretations of the relevant terms. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve v. Dimension Financial Corporation, 474 U.S. 361 (1986).

[7] CEBA also imposed a six-month moratorium on regulatory agency decisions that expanded the role of banks in securities, insurance, or real estate (FDIC 1997: 97). In theory Congress was to reach a decision on these issues and enact a new statutory framework to replace Glass-Steagall. No such law was passed, however, and as soon as the moratorium was over the regulatory repeal of the statutory framework (that will be discussed in detail in a section on the Greenspan era) continued.

[8] As Lea notes standardization might have worked against the interests of non-traditional borrowers who could no longer successfully appeal their case to the local lender (1996: 167).

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The dismantling of the economy’s legal infrastructure V-2: An aside on the financial economics of the 30 year mortgage

Consider the practical questions of how the risks of financing 30 year fixed rate mortgages can be managed. There are two principal sources of risk: credit risk and interest rate risk; and two possible sources of funding: savings deposits and capital markets financing.

Credit risk is the risk that borrowers fail to make their payments. Even the best managed portfolio will have some regular level of default as borrowers are affected by illness and idiosyncratic hazards. Loan origination practices play a crucial role in credit risk, because if the borrowers are not carefully vetted, their likelihood of default will be higher. In addition, because of the regularity of economic cycles and the resulting fluctuations in employment, credit risk also has both a strong cyclical factor and includes the risk of extreme recessions/depressions. Finally, credit risk is also significantly affected by the loan products being offered: loan products that attract a more risky type of borrower can have dramatic effects on credit risk.

Interest rate risk exists because the funding of mortgage lending is typically shorter term than the mortgage loans themselves. That is, interest rate risk exists because of maturity mismatch between assets and liabilities. At any given moment in time the interest rate being paid on a 30 year fixed rate loan is greater than the interest rate being paid on savings accounts or on the capital market instruments used for funding. Interest rate risk exists because the interest rate on the 30 year fixed rate loan stays fixed for 30 years,[1] whereas the interest rates paid on savings accounts and the instruments used for funding are shifting over time. If the revenue being paid into the bank or funding vehicle from the portfolio of 30 year loans falls below the interest rate expense the bank or funding vehicle must pay to fund that portfolio, then losses will force the bank or funding vehicle into bankruptcy. In short, interest rate risk is the risk that the mortgage lender ends up in a nonviable situation where the lender can no longer afford to pay the interest rate necessary to continue to fund the mortgage portfolio. As a result, when maturity mismatch increases, so does interest rate risk: a portfolio of 12 year loans is safer than a portfolio of 30 year loans with the same funding.

It is important to understand that the greater the maturity mismatch between assets and liabilities, the harder it is to manage not only interest rate risk, but also credit risk. Over a 30 year period the likelihood that an extreme, unexpected recession will occur is much higher than over a 12 year period, and the very slow rate of repayment of 30 year loans means that repositioning the portfolio is much more difficult than it is for 12 year loans. In short, short term financing of a 5 year loan portfolio is easier to manage than short term financing of a 12 year loan portfolio, which in turn is easier to manage than short term financing of a 30 year loan portfolio. This fact explains the structure of mortgage lending prior to the Depression, where the safety of commercial banks was considered a paramount goal, and savings and loan associations were less regulated, but attentive to the risks of mortgage lending.

Once one understands the risks of 30 year fixed rate mortgages, the question becomes how it is possible for the private sector to finance them. Let’s go over the options.

First, consider the case of the very short term funding provided by savings and commercial banks. One solution is for the banks to only lend a fraction of their balance sheets to mortgages, say 10 or 20 percent. In this situation, the banking system as a whole can almost certainly manage its way around the risks. On the other hand, there will be very little availability of these mortgages compared to what we are accustomed to today. In order to reduce demand to this level, one would have to assume that 30 year fixed rate mortgages are actually very expensive – at which point other mortgage options are likely to become popular. Arguably this was more or less the situation before the 1930s: there was a purely private bank-funded solution to the mortgage problem, but mortgages were much less favorable to consumers than the 30 year fixed rate mortgage to which we are all accustomed.

So what are the alternatives for savings and commercial banks to fund 30 year fixed rate mortgages at low rates and with general availability. Without some form of government support, there is little reason to believe that it is possible for the private sector to manage the risks of this extreme maturity mismatch when mortgages account for a significant fraction of bank balance sheets. To address credit risk, there needs to be a government backstop for the lenders in the event of a severe recession. In the 1930s when the 30 year mortgage was first introduced, Federal Housing Administration insurance was created to provide this backstop.[2] In 2009-2011 there was a “backdoor bailout” by a vast broadening of Federal Housing Administration insurance and a program of Federal Reserve-financed refinancing of mortgages.[3] Interest rate risk can be addressed by either financial repression that stymies the market forces raising short term interest rates and forces consumers to incur negative real returns on their savings and thus to bear the costs of funding mortgages, or a government backstop that supports the bank mortgage lenders through the period where they are upsidedown on their net interest rate revenue.

Elements of a policy of financial repression were attempted in the 1960s and 1970s, but there was no genuine commitment to stymying market forces[4] (as there was in Nazi Germany, the classic case of financial repression) and as a result by the early 1980s the realization of interest rate risk had left vast swathes of the savings and loan industry bankrupt. Famously, the government instead of providing the necessary backstop promptly attempted through deregulation to allow the bankrupt savings and loans to earn their way to solvency – and succeeded only in making the problem worse. By the time the savings and loan industry was finally bailed out by the government in 1989, the cost of the bailout had increased dramatically.

An alternate solution to private sector funding of 30 year mortgages is to finance them using capital market instruments. In particular if funding is both longer-term than the mortgage portfolio and callable (that is, the borrower can choose to pay it before maturity), then interest rate risk cannot drive the funding vehicle into bankruptcy. The reason long-term funding must be callable in order to address interest rate risk is that the typical 30 year mortgage permits prepayment and is therefore refinanced when interest rates decline. In order for maturity matching to work, the funding instrument must also be pre-payable. Even if interest rate risk is addressed by maturity matching, credit risk remains and can cause the funding vehicle to go bankrupt, putting losses to the capital markets investors. Thus, because the 30 year lending horizon is inherently risky and because the embedded call option also has a price, capital markets investors are likely to demand relatively high rates for this product, which will in turn mean that for the vehicle to be financially viable 30 year mortgages will have to have relatively high rates. Certainly, in an environment where government subsidization of 30 year mortgages is the norm and is expected, it will be impossible for a purely private funding vehicle that eschews maturity mismatch to compete. (While this type of funding did exist for a short time in the US in the early ‘00s, the market for private label mortgage backed securities (PLMBS) collapsed entirely and had to be bailed out alongside the banks that participated in it.[5] It is no longer a meaningful player in the US mortgage market.)

A standard mechanism for reducing the cost of funding on capital markets is to have a capitalized corporation provide a guarantee to the debt security instead of having it issued by a bankruptcy-remote funding vehicle. A corporate guarantee on the debt ensures that the shareholders of the corporation will bear any losses before the investors do. Under these circumstances the mortgage backed security will bear an interest rate comparable to that of the debt issues of the corporate guarantor. This is a standard means of funding mortgages and is comparable to the system of “covered bond” finance in Europe.

Whether an entirely private corporation will be willing to take on the risks of providing such a guarantee to a securitization of 30 year fixed rate mortgages is I believe unknown. (If you know of an example, please let me know.) The PLMBS that were issued in the US in the early naughties did not have such a guarantee. By contrast, government guarantee of the securitization of 30 year fixed rate mortgages is definitely a viable model, as illustrated by Ginnie Mae, which still issues MBS today.

There is another hybrid model of capital market funding of 30 year mortgages: that of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were private, but “government-sponsored” corporations (“GSEs”) from 1970 to 2008. These GSEs provided a corporate guarantee of all of their securitizations which put their shareholders at risk, and their longevity is indicative of the fact this model is at least potentially viable. Even though the GSEs had shareholder funds at risk, they were highly regulated and received government support of their debt in the form, for example, of legal preferences for GSE debt over general corporate debt as an asset that may be held by banks and the Federal Reserve (and other regulated entities). Timothy Howard makes the case in The Mortgage Wars for the success of this model.

Under the GSE structure, government support allows the corporations to raise both short and long-term funds cheaply, regulatory requirements set the level of capitalization and monitors that the vehicle is meeting goals for the provision of low-cost mortgage finance, and the private capital at risk creates incentives for careful management of interest rate and credit risk. The corporate guarantee is the key element that makes the GSE structure work: it is in the interests of GSE to carefully supervise the quality of the mortgages it securitizes; in economics jargon incentives are aligned. Thus, the GSEs set the mortgage standards in the US mortgage market for decades – the word “subprime” originally meant that a mortgage was below GSE standards. They reviewed loans carefully and were able to weed out from a plethora of newly introduced loan characteristics those that were consistent with quality mortgages and those that were not. As a result, the securitization market that collapsed in 2007 was the private-label securitization market, not the GSE market.

Howard (2014) makes the case that through the 1990s and into the early naughties Fannie Mae had exceptionally high quality risk management. This is, however, also the pitfall of this GSE model. As Howard’s account itself indicates risk management was such a difficult task that a change in management at the end of 2004 was sufficient to destabilize a very effective mortgage funding mechanism. (On the other hand, one does need to be careful about allowing sceptics of government support to prove their point by sabotaging the GSEs, as Howard argues OFHEO, Fannie Mae’s regulator did. I, unfortunately, have no capacity to weigh these claims on their merits.)

Overall, the conclusion one draws from this discussion is important: there is virtually no reason to believe in the feasibility of the 30 year fixed rate mortgage as a financial product in the absence of some form of government support.

My next post will study what happened when the government, instead of recognizing that if it wanted to support the 30 year loan as a financial product, it would have to underwrite many of its risks, chose to distort financial regulation in order to promote cheap finance for housing.

[1] Because the norm with 30 year fixed rate mortgages is to permit payoff without a prepayment penalty, when 30 year interest rates fall, the interest rate being earned on the portfolio tends to fall quickly as borrowers choose to refinance their loans. There is no counterbalancing effect when 30 year interest rates rise. This makes the interest rate risk problem even more severe, and is known as prepayment risk.

[2] Note that in the 1930s the focus of concern was credit risk, not interest rate risk, because the gold standard had precluded interest rate risk for the preceding generation or two and the immediate problem was deflation and low interest rates.

[3] Owners of shares in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac make the case that one should add the conversion and use of the GSEs as instrumentalities of the government to this list (Howard 2014: 250-53; http://www.housingwire.com/articles/print/29008-paying-fannie-and-freddie-investors-was-never-part-of-the-plan).

[4] The permissive attitude to the growth of Eurodollar accounts and money market mutual funds precluded a successful policy of financial repression.

[5] Howard (2014: 131) explains the flaws of PLMBS. Because there is no corporate guarantee, there is no incentive for credit standards to be enforced. Thus, when mortgage lenders generate new risky characteristics for loans and rating agencies make risk judgments without adequate or applicable historical data, there is nothing to stop these loans from being securitized and sold on to investors. In this environment relaxed underwriting can bring in new buyers who would not have qualified in the past.

On Modeling Money, Banks and Markets

Every good model is designed to emphasize certain empirical regularities that characterize the real world and by doing so to explain certain aspects of how the real world functions. Thus, the first question when discussing how to model money and banking is: What are the empirical regularities that a model of money and banking should capture?

Drawing on my knowledge not only of the history of money and banking, but also of the structure of modern money markets, I have strong views on the empirical regularities that a model of money and banking should capture. Depending on the purpose of the model, there can be good reasons for focusing on getting either the asset or the liability side of banking right, so I will set forth the relevant empirical regularities separately for the two sides of the bank balance sheet. (Obviously there are also benefits to putting both into the same model, but frequently with formal modelling it is useful to start with something simple.) In both cases, first I state the key features that model should have and then I follow up with a brief discussion of some of the objections that I expect to hear to the approach I am describing.

Banks as issuers of money

When modelling the liability side of banking, there are two key features:

(1) Bank liabilities circulate as money. This means that bank liabilities are generally accepted, or, in other words, that the bank is trusted by everybody in normal times; and

(2) Any constraints on bank borrowing should be clearly explained, and should not imply that the individual members of the public are imposing borrowing constraints on banks. Thus, Diamond and Dybvig appropriately explains a run as a coordination problem, which is not at heart an individual action. And there can clearly be a constraint imposed by an outside authority like a regulator or central bank. But the idea that the individual members of the public refuse to lend to the bank past a certain amount should be viewed as contradicting the basic fact that bank liabilities circulate as money because banks are trusted by the public.

Discussion

Sometimes the claim is made that non-bank liabilities can also circulate as money. While it is true that there are historical examples of private non-bank liabilities circulating as money, these are almost always very localized affairs and thus don’t actually represent examples of generally acceptable means of exchange. These examples are not only lacking in geographic breadth, they are also typically short-lived, of very limited scope, and rare. In short, historical examples of circulating private non-bank liabilities are essentially measure zero events in the history of money. While certain historical events may be worth modeling in order to understand the event in question, these episodes are of far too little importance to be incorporated into a model that is trying to understand the general principles of money and banking.

The basic implication of the approach that I am advocating is that banks are not just a little more trustworthy than other economic entities. When modelling banks (in normal times), banks sit at the extreme of a spectrum of trustworthiness. Thus, models that purport to treat the trustworthiness of banks as only incrementally distinguished from other agents should not be considered as logically consistent with the statement that banks are issuers of money.

Banks as lenders

When modelling the asset side of banking — and especially when modelling how bank lending compares to market-based lending — the essential empirical regularities are:

(1) Banks, with their easy access to liquidity via the issue of monetary liabilities, are the economy’s short-term lenders.

(2) If there is going to be market-based short-term lending that competes directly with banks, then the banks’ role in “wrapping” (or guaranteeing) the short-term debt to make it saleable should be modeled. The reason for this is that in practice bank lending is frequently indirect and takes the form of a backup promise to pay in case the original borrower defaults; the use of these bank guarantees is so common that money market assets are in practice not marketable without bank support. (For a lengthier discussion of this issue, see here.) Note that for simplicity, both market-based short term lending and the bank guarantees that support it can be omitted from most models. It is, however, a clear error to include market-based short term lending without modelling the bank guarantees that support it.

(3) The market-based lending that takes place without bank support is long-term lending, such as 5-30 year bonds. Banks don’t have a comparative advantage here, because their ability to issue monetary liabilities is as likely to get them into trouble as to help them when the loan is long term. (They can easily like the S&Ls or Diamond-Dybvig run into financing problems.)

Thus, a key issue that a model seeking to address both bank lending and market-based lending is: What is the term of the lending in the model? Many models have both bank lending and market-based lending for the same term of the loan. I would argue that all models with this characteristic are effectively assuming long-term lending. Thus, when they find that markets can in many circumstances lend just as well as banks, they reach this conclusion by looking at the type of lending in which banks do not have a comparative advantage. A better way to model bank lending together with market-based lending is to model banks as lending short-term, e.g. working capital, while market-based lending is long-term (with or without banks competing in long-term lending).

Discussion

Many economic theory papers that purport to study money and banking effectively assume that markets in debt can exist in the absence of banks. One might almost say that these papers take markets as the fundamental economic unit and are trying to place banks within that context.

At least from my perspective, this presumption is precisely what heterodox theory seeks to challenge. My read of the history is that, while markets certainly existed before banks became important, neoclassical markets where there is something akin to a single price for a good could only be imagined in a world where banks were providing liquidity so that the typical trader was not liquidity constrained.

That is, “markets” in the sense of common usage have of course always been around, but this is a completely different concept from what an economist means when speaking of markets where every homogeneous good has a single price. Historically it is true that every community has, for example, weekly markets where people get together to trade. Prices in those markets are, however, typically based on individual bargaining and are very variable depending on who you are. People who have traveled broadly may have visited this kind of market, where a local friend is likely to tell you “Just let me know what you want to buy and then go away. I’ll handle the negotiations.” The neoclassical economic model is not designed to capture this kind of market.

The kind of markets that are made possible by banks are neoclassical-like markets. Based on sources like Adam Smith it appears that this type of market only started to grow up in Britain in the late 18th century. Suddenly people had access to enough liquidity that differential liquidity constraints stopped being the determining factor in prices, as is the case in traditional markets. And as Larry Neal explains in The Rise of Financial Capitalism (1990: 35) it was around the same time that published price lists expanded dramatically and began to take on “an increasingly official character.”

Thus, I would argue that markets as they are typically modeled in economic theory papers exist only because banks provide the liquidity that makes the efficient prices they produce feasible. For this reason, a realistic model of banks and markets will reflect the role played by bank-based liquidity in the formation of market prices. This view, as was discussed in this post, is consistent with the realities of markets today, where short-term lending is heavily dependent on banks – and of course it’s hard to imagine how capital markets could function, in the absence of these bank-dependent money markets.

To summarize, in order to capture both bank lending and market-based lending an economic model needs to have at least a three period horizon with banks offering one period debt and markets offering two period debt. Ideally the model would be able to illustrate why markets are better for long term debt and banks are better for short-term debt.

Many thanks to David Andolfatto as this blog post was generated by email correspondence with him.

Taxonomy of liquidity II: Price stable liquidity

In Taxonomy of liquidity I I found that the distinction between market-based lending and bank lending could be clearly drawn only if the term “market-based lending” was used to refer strictly to traditional capital markets, that is, to the stock and bond markets, because money markets, repo markets, derivatives markets, etc. are all very dependent on explicit and implicit commercial bank guarantees. Here I want to address a different issue: the distinction between price stable liquidity and price disclosing liquidity.

Price disclosing liquidity is fairly intuitive. It is associated with the market liquidity that is available on stock markets or long term bond markets. Even though we consider Treasury bonds or Apple stock to be extremely liquid assets, we also understand that the prices of these assets are not stable, as any intraday chart of their prices will show. Stock and bond markets are designed to give asset holders a reliable venue in which to sell, while at the same time allowing prices to move to reflect what may be very short-term shifts in supply and demand.

Money market liquidity is different from this description of capital market liquidity. Money markets are markets where people who have cash that they will need in the near future try to earn a little interest. For this reason, money market investors are notoriously averse to sustaining capital losses (Stigum and Crescenzi 2007 p. 479). Furthermore, money market instruments are by definition short-term. Thus, unlike capital market issues, every issuer on the money market is more or less continuously raising funds. For this reason, when money market investors are worried that they may incur a loss, they don’t even need to sell their holdings to cause problems for the issuer; all they need to do is to refuse to invest in the new issues and the money market will be disrupted. In addition, because money market investors expect to need the money in the near future and are thus risk-averse, many of them avoid money market instruments that have any aura of credit risk.

An example of how money market investors react to losses is the behavior of prime money market fund investors in September 2008 after one prime money market fund, the Reserve Fund, announced that it would incur a small loss. The panic was so severe that the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, and Department of Treasury all established programs to support money market funds and the commercial paper in which they invested.

Thus, it is the nature of money markets that they are expected to provide price stable liquidity (cf. Holmstrom 2015). This form of liquidity is completely different from the liquidity provided by the stock market where losses are expected on a regular basis.

One of the reasons that banks play such an important role in money markets is that bank liabilities are promises to make payment at par. Banks offer price stable liquidity. Not only are banks generally managed so that they can offer price stable liquidity, but the banking system itself – and in particular the structural support provided by the central bank – is designed to protect the system of price stable liquidity. Indeed, it is because price stable liquidity is integral to the business of banking that credit rating agencies generally demand that money market instruments receive liquidity and credit support from a bank in order to qualify for the highest credit rating.

In my previous post I explained that a discount market is an unusual kind of market, because each seller is required to endorse the bill when it is sold and thereby to guarantee payment on the bill in case of default. The importance of price stable liquidity on the money market explains this requirement, and explains the essential difference between the London Discount Market and the London Stock Exchange in the 19th century. When every seller has to guarantee the value of the bill, the incentive structure of the discount market is such that only high quality debt trades, and with every trade the credit quality of the debt increases. This is clearly a means of supporting the price stability of the instruments that trade on the discount market. On the stock exchange, there was no such requirement, because it would have obviated the purpose of the sale.

Why is price stable liquidity so important on the money market? When short term instruments can’t be relied on to hold their value, the public starts to look for better places to put their money, and there are enough reasonable somewhat risky alternatives, including other currencies, that the monetary system will break down if it doesn’t offer enough stability. For a money market to survive over the long term it needs to be in the top of its class in terms of stability.

In short, there’s another aspect of liquidity to add to our taxonomy. Capital markets offer price disclosing liquidity, whereas banks and discount markets offer price stable liquidity. More generally, money markets need to offer price stable liquidity or they will be subject to panics and may be at risk of collapse.

A Taxonomy of Liquidity I

My recent review of Andolfatto (2018) reminds me that underlying the debate between mainstream and heterodox approaches to money is a fundamental dispute over a factual question: Do financial markets and/or non-bank financial institutions provide the same services as banks?

Mainstream approaches typically claim that “clearly” financial markets and non-banks do provide the same services and that the differences are just a matter of degree. In my view, these claims are factually wrong. In this essay I am going to work through a taxonomy of liquidity that is designed to distinguish between the fundamentally different types of liquidity provided by the different types of financial contracts. In my view it is a category error to treat these different types of liquidity as if they were equivalent and interchangeable.

Preliminary question: What do banks do?

I’m going to take it as given that we can agree that banks create money by issuing monetary liabilities. Given this, what I think a lot of modern scholars miss is that those monetary liabilities can be either on balance sheet or off balance sheet. There is a tendency to focus, as Andolfatto (2018) does, on banks’ on balance sheet lending, where the banks issue money in order to fund loans. In fact, however, banks’ contingent, off balance sheet liabilities have for the past few centuries played a crucial role in the monetary system – and they still do today.

When a bank earns fee income by selling the issuer of an asset a credit line that will be used to repay the asset’s owner in the event of a default, the bank is monetizing that asset. Effectively by taking on the tail risk of the asset, the bank turns the asset into the equivalent of a bank liability, even though the bank’s liability is contingent. These contingent bank liabilities are extremely common and may go under the name of acceptance, letter of credit, standby facility, bank credit line, etc.

Because the focus of the mainstream literature on banking is on balance sheet banking, mainstream scholars typically distinguish banks, where debt is held on balance sheet, from markets, where debt is traded. But this framing elides the fact that very often debt is tradable only because of an off balance sheet bank guarantee. As a result, in using this framing mainstream scholars often draw a distinction between banks and markets that is fundamentally misguided.

More recently banks have taken on another role in markets. Morgan Guaranty Trust, which later became JPMorgan Chase, played a crucial role in the development of the modern repo market by market making in repo on the balance sheet of the depository institution so that repo regularly accounted for 10% or more of the depository institution’s assets and of the depository institution’s liabilities from the late 1990s on. Of course, JPMorgan also became a tri-party clearing bank for the repo market. Now that JPMorgan has pulled out of the repo market, the Federal Reserve itself stands ready to lend on the market through its Reverse Repo Program.

Similarly, banks like JPMorgan Chase have been dealers in the derivatives markets since their earliest development, and even today JPMorgan’s depository institution accounts for more than 20% of the US derivatives market (see Table 3 of the OCC’s latest derivatives report). So nowadays we have depository institutions that are not only supporting financial markets via the guarantees they provided to the assets traded on them – as depository institutions have always done – but that also are the key market makers in markets that are viewed as essential to so-called “market-based” lending.

In short, drawing a bright-line distinction between financial markets and banks is a mistake.

Even so, the traditional equity and bond markets continue to operate with relatively minor connections to depository institutions (at least as far as I am aware). These financial markets can properly be viewed as “market-based” lending that is distinct from banks. Thus, while it may be correct to draw a clear distinction between traditional capital markets and banks, it’s also essential to recognize that markets in most other assets, including commercial paper, securitizations, repo, derivatives, etc., rely heavily on the explicit and implicit support of depository institutions for their basic functioning.

This understanding of the nature of financial markets motivates the following taxonomy of liquidity. Taxonomy 1

In addition, to distinguishing between the market, hybrid and bank liquidity that can be provided to an asset, this taxonomy makes another point: different types of liquidity provide very different services to the asset owner.

Market liquidity is the first entry, as it is the archetype that provides the most common mental reference point when one discusses liquidity. Market liquidity refers to the ability to sell an asset without suffering much loss in terms of price. Implicit in the concept is that there is a “true” sale for accounting purposes and that the seller of the asset successfully transfers all of the risk of the asset to the new owner. Thus the balance sheet of the seller of the asset increases by the value of the asset which is received in cash and decreases by the removal from the balance sheet of the risk of the asset (both credit and liquidity).

Nowadays one sometimes hears repos referred to as a kind of market liquidity. This diagram is designed to point out the limitations of repo-based liquidity. As the chart indicates in the row titled “Overnight reverse repo”, repo allows the asset owner to have access to cash without transferring any of the risk of the asset away. This is a very important distinction between market liquidity and repo-based liquidity. Arguably the latter should be called funding and the term liquidity should not be associated with repos at all. Certainly the two concepts are very, very different.

There are two other entries under Hybrid liquidity. The discount market is a historical phenomenon that was very important in 19th century Britain. Bills could trade easily on the discount market as long as they had been “accepted” (i.e. guaranteed) by a bank. A discount market sale was not, however, like a capital market sale: in order to sell a bill the owner had to endorse it, and the endorsement obligated the owner to pay up in the event that the bill went into default. Thus a discount market sale is an effective transfer of the liquidity risk of the bill, without transferring the credit risk of the bill.

A credit default swap is designed to protect the buyer against the credit risk of the asset. Effectively an asset owner can pay the equivalent of an insurance premium in exchange for a promise of payment if the asset goes into default. Note that in this case, the asset owner continues to hold the asset unencumbered on her balance sheet and thus receives no cash upfront from the seller of credit default swap protection. This explains the zero in the “Principal value of asset” column. (Note also that I have depicted credit default swaps here as if they are an effective way to transfer the credit risk of an asset. In fact, these markets are very complicated and there is some concern recently regarding how successful credit default swaps are at transferring the credit risk of an asset.)

There are two entries under “Bank-based liquidity”. The first is a “bank credit/liquidity facility”: this represents the case where for a fee a bank guarantees payment on an asset. As in the case of a credit default swap, this functions effectively as insurance for the holder of the asset, there is no transfer of the asset to the bank, and of course the asset owner receives no payment for the value of the asset from the bank. (On the other hand, the fact that the asset is accompanied by a bank guarantee typically makes it easy for the asset owner to transfer the asset to a third-party in exchange for goods or cash, for example on money markets like commercial paper or discount markets.)

Another important form of bank-based liquidity is the central bank discount window. All loans at the discount window are recourse loans, and as a result in exchange for the central bank’s cash the owner of the asset is able to lay off the liquidity risk, but not the credit risk of the asset.

The point of going through this Taxonomy of Liquidity in somewhat excruciating detail is to make it clear that it is a mistake to talk about “credit” or “liquidity” as if they are simple one-dimensional concepts. Similarly, it is very difficult to draw a bright line distinction between financial markets and banks. Anyone who wants to model money needs to be aware of these issues.

 

Why claims that the 2008 bailout was a “success” should make you angry

In 2008 we needed a bailout – or at least significant government/central bank intervention – but the bailout we got was unfair and almost certainly hampered the recovery. Furthermore, claims that “the bailout made money in the end” need to address the actual structure of the bailout.

So let’s talk about how the 2008-10 bailout of mortgage-related securities and instruments was structured. I focus on the mortgage-related bailout, because even when you’re talking about much more complicated instruments like CDOs, a lot of the trouble came from the outrageous practices that had been going on for the last few years in the US mortgage market. Here I’m not going to get into how the various instruments were related to mortgages, I’m just going to break down how the US used government funds to bail out the issuers and investors in private housing market-related instruments. There were three steps.

STEP 1: The Fed provided temporary assistance by supporting asset prices from March 2008 through February 2010 by accepting just about everything as collateral at the TSLF and PDCF and thus preventing fire sales of assets. The Fed also wrote supervisory letters granting bank holding companies (BHCs) the right to exceed normal limits on aid from the FDIC-insured bank to the investment bank, so that a lot of support of these asset markets took place on the balance sheets of the BHCs.

STEP 2: Many of the mortgages underlying the troubled assets were refinanced with the support of government guarantees against credit risk. The process of refinancing a mortgage requires the existing mortgage to be paid off in full. Thus, these refis had the effect of transferring poorly originated mortgages out of private portfolios and into government insured portfolios. This would not be a problem if the government insured mortgages were carefully originated, but that would not have solved the private sector’s problem, so that’s not what happened. Step 2 required both immense purchases by the government of mortgage backed securities and a simultaneously massive expansion in insurance offered for riskier loans.

1.  Massive purchases of GSE MBS.
The goals were to make sure the GSEs could continue to be active in the mortgage market, to drive down the 30 year mortgage rate to facilitate refinancing as well as purchases, and to raise the price of housing.

a. On Sept 7 2008 when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were put into conservatorship, Treasury also announced plan to purchase MBS securities. Apparently this program only ever reached about $200 billion in size (Sigtarp Report July 2010 136). Soon it was superseded by:

b. The Federal Reserve’s QE1: In November 2008 the Federal Reserve announced a massive program of supporting mortgage markets by buying mortgage backed securities issued by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae. This purchase program ended up buying $1.25 trillion in MBS and continued until February 2010.

  • By the end of 2008 the 30 year fixed mortgage rate had fallen by a full percentage point. and would only decline further in later years.

//fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/graph-landing.php?g=ldKE&width=670&height=475

  • Private sector MBS issues had declined to almost nothing by mid 2008 and even GSE MBS issues had dropped over the course of 2008. In 2009 GSE MBS came roaring back so that by mid-2009 monthly MBS issues were almost as high as they had ever been. The fact that in several months Fed purchases in the form of QE1 exceeded GSE MBS issues undoubtedly played a role in this dramatic recovery of the MBS market.

2008 Housing mkt
from “Charting the Financial Crisis” by Brookings & Yale SOM

2.   FHA insurance grew to account for almost 1/3 of the mortgage market.
From mid-2009 to mid-2010 alone FHA and GNMA insured loans increased by $500 billion (Sigtarp Report July 2010 p. 119).

FHA insured loans became a growing and then significant portion of the mortgage market after the major subprime lenders collapsed in early 2007, and FHA became the only choice for borrowers who couldn’t put down much of a down payment. Prior to the crisis FHA loans accounted for as little as 3% of the market. By June 2009 FHA loans accounted for 30% of the market and would continue to do so for several years. (See Golobay 2009 and Berry 2011a.)

By mid-2011 all the major banks held billions in FHA insured loans that were 90 days or more past due: BoA $20 billion, WFC $14 billion, JPM $10 billion, Citi $5 billion. Eventually every major bank would end up settling lawsuits over misrepresentations in FHA insurance applications. In the meanwhile they were using FHA insurance as a cover to avoid taking writedowns on the loans. (See Berry 2011b.)

Here is the FHA’s 2015 report on how the loans it guarantees have been performing. Note that the FHA insured $73 billion single family mortgages in FY 2006, $84 billion in FY 2007, $205 billion in FY 2008 and $365 billion in FY 2009 (see Table 1 here.)

FHA loan performance
(Note that the decision to separate fiscal year 2009 into first half (October 2008 to March 2009) and second half (April 2009 to September 2009) appears to be a genuine effort to show how different the two cohorts are, and as far as I can tell should not be interpreted as questionable data manipulation.)<\small>

3. Expansion of loans eligible for securitization by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by increasing the conforming loan limit to $729,750 in high cost states (which lasted until 10-1-2011).

  • The Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program concluded that the government had adopted an explicit policy of supporting housing market prices (SIGTARP report Jan 2010 p. 126). These programs stopped the decline in house prices nationally (the yellow line in the chart below) for the year 2009 and slowed the drop in house prices thereafter. As a result, nationally the bottom in housing prices wasn’t reached until January 2012. This meant that the massive 2009 government guaranteed refinancing of mortgages was deliberately executed at higher than market prices.

CR Case Shiller Index

Before going on to Step 3, let’s pause for a moment to get a good picture of what is going on here. By late 2008, it had become abundantly clear that Private Label Securitization was a shitshow. Tanta, who had 20-odd years of mortgage industry experience and spent the months before her death blogging at Calculated Risk, put it well in a July 2007 blogpost :

“we as an industry have known how to prevent a lot of fraud for a long time; we just didn’t do it. It costs too much, and too many bonuses were at stake to carve out the percent of loan production it would take to get a handle on fraud. The only thing that got anybody’s attention, finally, was a flood of repurchase demands on radioactive EPD [early payment default, i.e. 3 missed payments in first 6 months of loan] loans and other violations of reps and warranties. If [you] want[] to accomplish something, I’d suggest [you] … start slapping some issuers around on their pre-purchase or pre-securitization quality control and due diligence.”

So what was going on in 2007 and 2008 is that the market was recognizing that the “Non-Agency MBS” in the chart below was going to perform very badly, because it was so full of loans that should never have been made.

collapse of PLMBS
In many cases the originators who were theoretically on the hook for the reps and warranties they had made when they sold the loans to Wall Street had been driven into bankruptcy by – you guessed it – claims based on their reps and warranties. The bag they had in theory been holding had most definitely been passed on to someone else, but it wasn’t clear yet to whom. The obvious candidate was the issuers who had packaged these loans – with utterly inadequate due diligence – into securities for investors to buy. The catch was that the issuers were all the big banks: Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, etc.

And we had financial regulators who were like deer in the headlights, transfixed by terror, when they heard that one of the big retail banks might be in danger. These regulators threw themselves headlong into the project of rescuing the big banks from their failure to perform the due diligence necessary to issue mortgage-backed securities according to the terms in their securities documentation. While I suspect that Ben Bernanke never quite wrapped his head around these issues (he had plenty of other things to worry about), it seems fairly clear that Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner worked consciously to “save the financial system” by hiving loans that should never have been made off onto the Government. Geithner, in particular, would almost certainly claim that this was the right thing to do in the interests of financial stability.[1]

Thus, the mortgage sector bailout was designed so that the mortgages underlying the private label mortgage backed securities (PLMBS), the bulk of which had been made at the peak of the bubble, would be refinanced out of the PLMBS securities as quickly as possible. The private sector had no interest in financing such an endeavor itself, so the only way to do it was through the government sponsored entities.

By engineering a drop in the 30 year mortgage rate (the announcement of QE1 was apparently enough to do this), an incentive was created for mortgagors to refinance their loans. The same Fed program ensured that Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae would have no problem getting the funds to buy the refinanced mortgages. There was only one catch, a nontrivial segment of the PLMBS mortgages were not of a quality that could be sold to Fannie and Freddie – and the same would be true of any refis of those mortgages. That’s where the FHA comes in: by guaranteeing 30% of all mortgages in the crucial years 2009-2010, the FHA provided a way for some of the more dubious mortgages in the PLMBS to be refinanced and be paid in full. FHA loans are typically securitized by Ginnie Mae and may also be held on a bank’s balance sheet. The PLMBS loans that were paid in full – due solely to the presence of government guarantees in the mortgage market – almost certainly played a huge role in protecting the returns on the PLMBS, in reducing the losses to investors, and in reducing the liability of the issuers for their due diligence failures.

The key point to remember here is that there was nothing “market” about this whole process. The Fed was both providing the funds and driving down the interest rates, while a government backstop for the credit risk on the loans was provided by the GSEs. Multiple experts described the housing finance market as having been “nationalized” or put “on government life support” in this period.

Because of the degree to which the government took over the mortgage market in these crucial years, it becomes a little silly to focus on the fact that no money was lost (in aggregate) due to the government’s support of PLMBS and related assets. (As far as I can tell the costs included in bailout figures never include the losses that the GSEs incurred on the loans guaranteed from 2008Q4 to 2010Q4.) Overall it can hardly be a surprise that the government made money on the officially recognized bailout loans given that the government also took steps in to make sure that many of the underlying assets were paid off in full.

At this point you may be saying: Well okay, but given that the Fed and Treasury were successful in returning the banks to health and the GSEs are all doing okay now too, was there really any harm done by a few years of de facto nationalization of the housing market?

This is where Step 3 comes in. The whole scheme only works because of Step 3, and Step 3 is what has most of those who understand what happened absolutely smoking mad about the bailouts. The key to the PLMBS performing well was that the mortgages in them had to be paid off in full. In order for the existing mortgage to be paid in full, the refi that pays it off will have to be for the same amount as the existing mortgage or a little more.

STEP 3: No principal reduction for mortgage holders. It was essential to make sure that people who hold mortgages don’t have access to a program that allows principal to be reduced. Effectively, since the banks can’t be the bagholders because of the terror of financial instability and the government can’t just be handed the bag because that has very bad visuals, the public had to be made the bagholders. The only way to do this was to make sure the public was not cut any breaks.

1. Prevent cramdown legislation from being passed
Cramdown is how bankruptcy law treats collateral that has fallen in value below the value of the loan. If the debtor declares bankruptcy, the lender only has a security interest up to the value of the collateral and remainder of the loan is not treated as collateralized debt. An exception was written into the 1977 Bankruptcy Code excluding mortgages on primary residences from cramdown. (The claim at the time was that this would be better for borrowers. LOLWT[2].) In short, the bankruptcy code takes the position that finding a good solution to someone’s inability to pay debt requires recognizing the economic reality of the situation in virtually every case except for mortgages on primary residences.

Forcing lenders to come to the table on the basis of economic reality is something that every collateralized borrower can do – except for the little guy whose only collateralized loan is on his/her primary residence. Fixing the cramdown inequity was one of President Obama’s promises before he was elected. But lo and behold Treasury staffers in his administration “stressed the effects of cramdown on the nation’s biggest banks, which were still fragile. The banks’ books could take a beating if too many consumers [were] lured into bankruptcy by cramdown ” (Kiel & Pierce 2011). Treasury’s position on this should be read: we need to bail out the banks, so we can’t allow the economic reality of the situation to affect the cut that the banks get.

2. Failure to establish an effective principal reduction program until 2012
In July 2010 SIGTARP called Treasury out for its failure to establish an effective principal reduction program as part of its mortgage modification program (Sigtarp Report July 2010 174ff.) However, not until May 2011 had the Treasury been sufficiently shamed over the lack of principal reductions to begin reporting on the Principal Reduction Alternative (PRA) data. By May 2011 less than 5000 permanent modifications had been started that included principal reduction. This was less than 1% of the permanent modifications started under the HAMP program (MHA Report May 2011).

This delay was important, because if borrowers had been offered modifications with principal reduction in the crucial years from 2009-10, it undoubtedly would have affected decisions to refinance loans that had been made at the peak of the bubble. By May 2012 permanent modifications with PRA that had been started had jumped to 83,362 which was over 8% of all permanent modifications started (MHA Report May 2012).  More recent reports indicate that ultimately 17% of all permanent modifications started included principal reduction. (MHA Report 2017Q4 p. 4)

3. Failure of FHA short refinance program. In August 2010 the FHA established a short refinance program which imposed strict rules on lenders including 10% 1st lien principal writedowns.  A year later the program had helped only 246 borrowers, in part because Fannie and Freddie refused to participate, and the program was slated to be closed (Prior 2011).

So what’s my conclusion? Everybody who wants to tout the success of the bailout needs to tackle the reality of the bailout’s structure. There was a housing bubble. Somebody was going to have to absorb the losses that are created when lending takes place against overpriced assets.

Because in the name of financial stability the Fed and Treasury decided that banks weren’t going to bear any of the losses on the origination and securitization of bad mortgages, they had to find a way to put the tab to the government and to the public.

It was put to the government by putting the mortgage market on government life support from late 2008 to 2010, so that people would refinance out of the bad mortgages in PLMBS securitizations into FHA loans and into GSE MBS.

It was put to the public by making sure that their mortgages were not written down in value, even though the value of the house being used as collateral had collapsed. This means that the housing price bubble of 2006-07 is still with us today. It is being paid off by homeowners who are still paying these mortgages, who can’t spend that money on consumption, and who are scheduled to keep paying off bubble-level housing prices right up until 2050.

HH svgs
From Deutsche Bank via Tracy Alloway: https://twitter.com/tracyalloway/status/1040391962090590209

So when you see a chart like the one just above, which shows US consumers saving far more than predicted, you should recall that paying down mortgage principal counts as savings and a lightbulb should go off in your head. You should be thinking when you see this chart: “Aha. Look at all the US consumers who are still paying for the housing bubble. The 2008 crisis should have been handled differently.”

P.S. While we’re talking about anger and crisis housing policy let me offer two notes on HAMP modifications.

  1. Look at this chart from “Charting the Financial Crisis” by Brookings & Yale SOM (part of a project advised by Tim Geithner)

HAMP by count

They very carefully report the number of borrowers helped, but not the principal value of the mortgages before the modification and the principal value of the mortgage after the modification. Most HAMP modifications included significant increases in the principal borrowed, as not only interest accrued during trial modifications but also a variety of fees that borrows rarely understood or reviewed, were capitalized into the loans.

  1. In general the HAMP program is performing execrably as might have been expected given its design. (See here for details.) After 60 months the program increases the payments that were carefully set to the maximum the borrower can afford when the loan was made. The program may continue to increase payments each year for 2 to 3 years, that is, at 72 and 84 months. In short, the program was designed to give borrowers as little as possible: borrowers get five years respite in payments without reducing the present value of the modified loan on bank balance sheets. To avoid hitting bank balance sheets payments have to go up for the remaining 35 years of the loan. On pages 7 and 9 of the 2017Q4 MHA Report, the data on performance is very carefully presented only up to 60 months. One has to read the appendices – specifically Appendix 6 – to learn that for each vintage with 84 months of data at least 50% (and up to 65%) of loans have become delinquent.

[1] I have a draft paper in which I draw the analogy between Geithner and a couple of early 19th c. Bank of England directors who had been similarly traumatized by their early experiences dealing with financial crises and also advocated throwing money at them no matter what. The difference is that these two directors were lambasted by their contemporaries including Ricardo, and their claims have gone down in history as “answers that have become almost classical by their nonsense” (Bagehot 1873, p. 86).

[2] LOLWT = Laugh out loud with tears.

Brokers, dealers and the regulation of markets: Applying finreg to the giant tech platforms

Frank Pasquale (h/t Steve Waldman) offers an interesting approach to dealing with the giant tech firms’ privileged access to data: he contrasts a Jeffersonian — “just break ’em up” approach — with a Hamiltonian — regulate them as natural monopolies approach. Although Pasquale favors the Hamiltonian approach, he opens his essay by discussing Hayekian prices. Hayekian prices simultaneously aggregate distributed knowledge about the object sold and summarize it, reflecting the essential information that the individuals trading in the market need to know. While gigantic firms are alternate way of aggregating data, there is little reason to believe that they could possibly produce the benefits of Hayekian prices, the whole point of which is to publicize for each good a specific and extremely important summary statistic, the competitive price.

Pasquale’s framing brings to mind an interest parallel with the history of financial markets. Financial markets have for centuries been centralized in stock/bond and commodities exchanges, because it was widely understood that price discovery works best when everyone trades at a single location. The single location by drawing almost all market activity offers both “liquidity” and the best prices. The dealers on these markets have always been recognized as having a privileged position because of their superior access to information about what’s going on in the market.

One way to understand Google, Amazon, and Facebook is that they are acting as dealers in a broader economic marketplace. That with their superior knowledge about supply and demand they have an ability to extract gains that is perfectly analogous to dealers in financial markets.

Given this framing, it’s worth revisiting one of the most effective ways of regulating financial markets: a simple, but strict, application of a branch of common law, the law of agency was applied to the regulation of the London Stock Exchange from the mid-1800s through the 1986 “Big Bang.” It was remarkably effective at both controlling conflicts of interest and producing stable prices, but post World War II was overshadowed and eclipsed by the conflict-of-interest-dominated U.S. markets. In the “Big Bang” British markets embraced the conflicted financial markets model — posing a regulatory challenge which was recognized at the time (see Christopher McMahon 1985), but was never really addressed.

The basic principles of traditional common law market regulation are as follows. When a consumer seeks to trade in a market, the consumer is presumed to be uninformed and to need the help of an agent. Thus, access to the market is through agents, called brokers. Because a broker is a consumer’s agent, the broker cannot trade directly with the consumer. Trading directly with the consumer would mean that the broker’s interests are directly adverse to those of the consumer, and this conflict of interest is viewed by the law as interfering with the broker’s ability to act an agent. (Such conflicts can be waived by the consumer, but in early 20th century British financial markets were generally not waived.)

A broker’s job is to help the consumer find the best terms offered by a dealer. Because dealers buy and sell, they are prohibited from acting as the agents of the consumers — and in general prohibited from interacting with them directly at all. Brokers force dealers to offer their clients good deals by demanding two-sided quotes and only after learning both the bid and the ask, revealing whether their client’s order is a buy or a sell. Brokers also typically get bids from different dealers to make sure that the the prices on offer are competitive.

Brokers and dealers are strictly prohibited from belonging to the same firm or otherwise working in concert. The validity of the price setting mechanism is based on the bright line drawn between the different functions of brokers and of dealers.

Note that this system was never used in the U.S., where the law of agency with respect to financial markets was interpreted very differently, and where financial markets were beset by conflicts of interest from their earliest origins. Thus, it was in the U.S. that the fixed fees paid to brokers were first criticized as anti-competitive and eventually eliminated. In Britain the elimination of fixed fees reduced the costs faced by large traders, but not those faced by small traders (Sissoko 2017). By adversely affecting the quality of the price setting mechanism, the actual costs to traders of eliminating the structured broker-dealer interaction was hidden. We now have markets beset by “flash-crashes,” “whales,” cancelled orders, 2-tier data services, etc. In short, our market structure instead of being designed to control information asymmetry, is extremely permissive of the exploitation of information asymmetry.

So what lessons can we draw from the structured broker-dealer interaction model of regulating financial markets? Maybe we should think about regulating Google, Amazon, and Facebook so that they have to choose between either being the agents in legal terms of those whose data they collect, or of being sellers of products (or agents of these sellers) and having no access to buyer’s data.

In short, access to customer data should be tied to agency obligations with respect to that data. Firms with access to such data can provide services to consumers that help them negotiate a good deal with the sellers of products that they are interested in, but their revenue should come solely from the fees that they charge to consumers on their purchases. They should not be able to either act as sellers themselves or to make any side deals with sellers.

This is the best way of protecting a Hayekian price formation process by making sure that the information that causes prices to move is the flow of buy or sell orders that is generated by a dealer making two-sided markets and choosing a certain price point. And concurrently by allowing individuals to make their decisions in light of the prices they face. Such competitive pricing has the benefit of ensuring that prices are informative and useful for coordinating economic decision making.

When prices are not set by dealers who are forced to make two-sided markets and who are given no information about the nature of the trader, but instead prices are set by hyper-informed market participants, prices stop having the meaning attributed to them by standard economic models. In fact, given asymmetric information trade itself can easily degenerate away from the win-win ideal of economic models into a means of extracting value from the uninformed, as has been demonstrated time and again both in theory and in practice.

Pasquale’s claim that regulators need to permit “good” trade on asymmetric information (that which “actually helps solve real-world problems”) and prevent “bad” trade on asymmetric information (that which constitutes “the mere accumulation of bargaining power and leverage”) seems fantastic. How is any regulator to have the omniscience to draw these distinctions? Or does the “mere” in the latter case indicate the good case is to be presumed by default?

Overall, it’s hard to imagine a means of regulating informational behemoths like Google, Amazon and Facebook that favors Hayekian prices without also destroying entirely their current business models. Even if the Hamiltonian path of regulating the beasts is chosen, the economics of information would direct regulators to attach agency obligations to the collection of consumer data, and with those obligations to prevent the monetization of that data except by means of fees charged to the consumer for helping them find the best prices for their purchases.