Taxpayers May Be Liable From Bear, Mortgage Rescue
By Craig Torres and James Tyson
March 26 (Bloomberg) -- Even as the Bush administration insists it won't risk public funds in a bailout, American taxpayers may already be liable for billions of dollars stemming from Federal Reserve and Treasury efforts to quell a financial crisis.
History suggests the Fed may not recover some of the almost $30 billion investment in illiquid mortgage securities it received from Bear Stearns Cos., said Joe Mason, a Drexel University professor who has written on banking crises. Treasury's push to have Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buy more mortgage bonds reduces the capital the government-chartered companies hold in reserve at a time when foreclosures and defaults are surging. Senators are promising to investigate.
Officials ``are playing with fire,'' said Allan Meltzer, a Fed historian and economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. ``With good luck, none of these liabilities will come due. We can't expect that good luck, and we haven't had it.''
Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson were forced to respond after capital markets seized up and Bear Stearns faced a run by creditors. In an emergency action that jeopardizes the dividend it pays the Treasury, the Fed authorized a $29 billion loan against illiquid mortgage- and asset-backed securities from Bear Stearns that will be held in a Delaware corporation. JPMorgan Chase & Co. contributed $1 billion.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, and Charles Grassley of Iowa, the committee's ranking Republican, gave Fed officials and JPMorgan executives a March 28 deadline to describe the assets involved in the transaction.
``Americans are being asked to back a brand-new kind of transaction, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars,'' Baucus said in a statement today. ``It's the Finance Committee's responsibility to pin down just how the government decided to front $30 billion in taxpayer dollars for the Bear Stearns deal, and to monitor the changing terms of the sale.''
The Delaware company will liquidate the assets over 10 years, with JPMorgan absorbing the first $1 billion in losses, with the Fed bearing any that remain. Any such losses would hurt the Fed's balance sheet, and ultimately the taxpayer, because they would reduce the stipend the Fed pays to the Treasury from earnings on its portfolio. The dividend was $29 billion in 2006.
Pushed to Front
``The fact that Treasury and Congress have been unwilling or unable to be proactive and provide a solution that involves putting taxpayer money at risk means that the Fed has had to take more measures itself, also putting taxpayer money at risk,'' said Laurence Meyer, a former Fed governor, and now vice chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers LLC in Washington.
The Treasury is counting on voluntary loan restructurings and $117 billion in tax rebates to support the economy through the worst housing recession in a quarter century.
Treasury spokeswoman Jennifer Zuccarelli referred to remarks Paulson made March 16 that he is ``looking very carefully'' at additional proposals, ``but all the ones I've seen call for much more government intervention.''
A day earlier, President George W. Bush said some of the ``sweeping government solutions'' proposed in Washington ``would make a complicated problem even worse.''
Republican presidential candidate John McCain said in a speech yesterday that ``when we commit taxpayer dollars as assistance, it should be accompanied by reforms'' to ensure ``transparency and accountability.''
The average recovery on failed bank assets is 40 cents on the dollar over a six-year period, according to Drexel's Mason, a former official at the Treasury's Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Nobody knows if that historical benchmark will hold for the Fed portfolio because the assets haven't been disclosed, they have already been marked down and the Fed has 10 years to recover value.
``Over 10 years, you might eventually get your money back,'' said Janet Tavakoli, president of Tavakoli Structured Finance Inc. in Chicago.
Still, ``that isn't costless to the Fed, it isn't the same as holding Treasuries,'' she said. On some low-documentation loans, ``you are going to be lucky to get 40 percent.''
Paulson reversed Treasury's stand of the previous three years in approving the decision to direct Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to expand their $1.5 trillion mortgage assets. Previously, Treasury and the Fed had called for cuts in the portfolios held by the government-chartered companies.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will buffer against more risk by raising ``significant'' capital, Fannie Mae Chief Executive Officer Daniel MuddRichard Syron said at a press conference with James Lockhart, director of the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight that regulates the two companies. and Freddie Mac Chief Executive Officer
The companies reported record fourth-quarter losses totaling $6 billion and warned days before announcing the additional purchases that credit losses will rise this year.
Lockhart dismissed the view that taxpayers could be liable for such losses. ``Certainly not,'' he said. The companies ``have the capital, they support their own'' mortgage-backed securities.
Yet the Treasury's authority to buy $2.25 billion in each of the companies' securities has created investor expectations that the firms hold an implicit federal guarantee against losses.
Lenders allow Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to borrow more cheaply than rival companies because they expect Treasury would provide a bailout before letting them default.
Because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac own or guarantee about 40 percent of the $11.5 trillion home loan market, the cost of a bailout would be ``in the hundreds of billions of dollars,'' said Andrew Laperriere, managing director at International Strategy & Investment Group in Washington. ``Taxpayers should be increasingly concerned about the contingent liability.''