Saturday, July 12, 2008

I was going to say this, but...

Brad Delong said it first:

The chance that American taxpayers will actually lose any money if Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson decide that Fannie and Freddie need government support is very low:

* The interest payments they have coming in are greater than the interest payments they have going out.
* Their government guarantee is itself a very valuable asset that they have made a lot of money off of in the past and will make more off of in the future.
* They are not even in liquidity trouble--unless they begin to have problems rolling over their discount notes...
* As long as it is generally understood that they are too big to fail, they should not even have liquidity problems--absent a depression that bankrupts many currently-solvent homeowners, that is.

I would like to mention three other things based on the 15 months or so that I worked at Freddie.

(1) One reason Freddie got in trouble about how it reported its earnings is that Senior Management did not believe that GAAP treatments of earnings reflected the economics of the company, and so it needed to fudge (the company's self-investigation, called the Baker-Botts report, made this quite clear). This does not excuse its behavior--publicly traded companies must comply with GAAP. The correct thing would have been for management to explain the problems with GAAP in the MD&A Statement.

But Senior Management was correct that GAAP earnings did not (and does not) give meaningful metrics of GSE corporate performance.

(2) Just my two cents, but I don't think the company's mortgage underwriting could be characterized as reflecting moral hazard. The company was quite conservative about loans that qualified for purchase, and perhaps would have been more conservative were it not for the Affordable Housing Goals (and BTW, there is no evidence that the Affordable Housing Goals in any way helped channel mortgage credit to underserved communities or families). In any event, the people running Freddie were not the Savings and Loan cowboys who would lend to anyone for anything.

(3) It is very hard to measure corporate cash flow at Fannie-Freddie, because funding and amortization are both happening constantly.

One other disclosure, I own something like 300 shares of Freddie stock that I received as compensation when I worked there. Feel free to discount anything I say about these matters as a result of this.


brad said...

Welcome to California!

Anonymous said...

If we stipulate that cash flow is vital to the continuing operations of a company, how can you have any confidence in Freddie/Fannie if, "it's hard to measure cash flow?"

Unknown said...

"They are not even in liquidity trouble--unless they begin to have problems rolling over their discount notes..."

Maybe I don't understand. Aren't Paulson and everyone else working on a Sunday exactly because this is what the problem will be tomorrow.

But that just shouldn't be the case, IMO. I don't own any GSE debt so I'm not buying tomorrow. But if I owned $400B worth of GSE debt, I might be just tp try to protect what I already have invested. These Chinese people seem to be making some really potentially bad investments.

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