Tuesday, August 26, 2008

MBS Deep Freeze

According to various sources, the GSEs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been buying somewhere between eighty and ninety percent of all mortgages recently. This has led to very rapid growth of their mortgage portfolios. Just a few weeks ago, this report appeared in Newsday:
Fannie Mae, the largest provider of funding for U.S. residential mortgages, on Wednesday said it grew its investment portfolio in June at the fastest annualized rate in nearly five years.

Fannie Mae's mortgage portfolio increased at a
22.8 percent annualized rate to $749.6 billion in June, from $736.9 billion in May, the Washington-based company said in a statement.

The government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) has been boosting growth in its investments since its regulator earlier this year began easing requirements on capital it must hold against the assets. Lawmakers consider such purchases by Fannie Mae and rival Freddie Mac as playing a key role in supporting the U.S. housing market that is going through a wrenching downturn.
What a difference a month makes. Buried deep inside a Bloomberg article today, we find this:

Freddie's portfolio expanded at a 9.8 percent annualized rate to $798.2 billion in July, the slowest since March. The holdings may shrink this month based on forward commitments, according to the company's monthly volume summary today. Fannie expanded to $758 billion, an annual rate of 14.4 percent, the smallest increase since April.

The declining demand from the federally chartered companies, the biggest buyers of home loan securities, is sending mortgage prices lower and causing home loan rates to increase.

``It's become pretty obvious that they're not going to be able to grow going forward,'' said Walt Schmidt, a mortgage-bond strategist at FTN Financial Capital Markets in Chicago. ``Without a capital raise, you're not going to see a major recovery in'' mortgage securities.

Growth went from north of 20%, to low double or high single digits, then possibly to NEGATIVE in just a few months. It is a tribute to the speed with which leveraged pyramid schemes fail once the confidence is gone. Since the massive growth of the GSE portfolios was unable to arrest the rapid fall in bloated housing prices, the removal of this prop and sidelining the buyer of last resort is likely to result in another down leg in prices and unit sales.

Although Treasury Secretary Paulson pushed the GSE bailout bill through Congress by saying he needed a bazooka so he wouldn't have to use it, the market appears to have called his bluff. The problem is that many commercial banks hold Fannie and Freddie preferred stock as part of their capital. Simply guaranteeing the debt does nothing for the preferred it would be wiped out in the re-organization - adding another hit to capital and more failed banks. Government purchases of preferred stock would be less bad for the banks but they would still be diluted and have less capital. Only purchasing common stock would leave the preferred (and bank capital) intact. But that would bail out the management and prevent a much, needed re-organization of the companies. More to the point, it would also be seen as a pure bailout and politically very damaging heading into a national election.

There has been very little reason for the credit inflation crowd to cheer lately and the rapid growth of the GSE portfolios was one of the few bright spots for them. This growth appears to be done as well. The Shadow Banks are now shattered banks as off balance sheet vehicles are unwound and hedge funds shut their doors. We should expect to see even more of the later in the near future. The WSJ reports that July was the worst month ever for the Morningstar 1000 hedge fund index at negative 3.07%.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Mayday

We turn to Europe in this commentary as important events are occurring there behind the scenes and Asia has gotten the lion's share of the attention recently. The mariner's distress call actually comes from French, where "m'aidez" simply means "help me." We thought that would be a particularly appropriate title as Europe's financial system is starting to show signs of severe distress. From the actions of the CBs over there, we can infer that the problems there may be significantly worse than here in the US. Current open market operations show that the ECB has 451 billion Euros (about $640 billion) outstanding. This dwarfs the Fed total of just over $300 billion - including all liquidity facilities. It's pretty clear that there are many European banks in deep, deep trouble.

Starving for Dollars
It is also becoming increasingly clear that the European financial system has a desperate shortage of dollars. Since much of the debt outstanding is denominated in dollars and many European banks have taken in dollar deposits as well, there is a need for them to transact in our currency that is not reciprocated. When the Fed and foreign CBs set up the currency swaps, there was some suggestion that the purpose was to give the Fed enough Euros to intervene in the currency markets. That really didn't make much sense as the Treasury and the Fed have conducted a sub rosa weak-dollar policy for years. The logical and obvious explanation is now coming to the fore - Europe is seriously short of dollars and if they were forced to go out into the market and buy dollars, our currency would strengthen too much for the planners at the Fed who have been attempting to devalue it.

The bid to cover ratios from recent auctions make the point quite forcefully. The last set of TAF auctions in the US produced ratios of 1.51 and 2.19 (for the initial 84-day facility). The comparable ECB auctions in Euros had a bid to cover of 1.58. But ECB dollar auctions were bid at 4.56 and 3.85. US banks' demand for dollars appears to be roughly equal to Eurozone banks' demand for Euros. But Eurozone demand for dollars is twice as great as either one. This trend is confirmed by the result of the Swiss dollar auctions. Those had bid to cover ratios of 2.90 and 4.90. Finally, note that the Fed is not auctioning off Euros or Swiss Francs to anxious American bankers.

In addition, the high-yield bond market in Europe is completely frozen. Not one junk issue of any size has come out of Europe this year or for quite a few months of 2007. Retail sales there are falling farther and faster than in the US and the housing bust there has barely begun. Granted that theoretically the ECB had more room to cut rates than the Fed but the strength of unions and the social program costs make a wage-price spiral much more likely in the Eurozone, which seems to be constraining the actions of the ECB.