Want to Buy a Toxic Asset? The Treasury Department Is Selling Them

The Treasury Department is planning to sell $142 billion worth of toxic assets that it acquired during the financial crisis.  According to Treasury, it wants to sell approximately $10 million worth of assets every month, depending on market conditions and hopes to end the program next year.  Treasury acquired the securities — primarily 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac –between October, 2008 and December, 2009 to stabilize the home loan market.

The Treasury has decided to sell the securities now because the market has “notably improved.”  According to Treasury officials, the sale could net $15 billion to $20 billion in profits for taxpayers.  The sale will have a negligible impact on the U.S. debt limit but could delay the ceiling’s arrival by a few days.  In early March, Treasury estimated the U.S. would hit the $14.294 trillion ceiling between April 15 and May 31.  The Treasury in 2008 retained State Street Global Advisors, a leading institutional asset manager, to acquire, manage and dispose of the mortgage-backed securities portfolio.

“We will exit this investment at a gradual and orderly pace to maximize the recovery of taxpayer dollars and help protect the process of repair of the housing finance market, Mary Miller, assistant secretary for financial markets, said.  “We’re continuing to wind down the emergency programs that were put in place in 2008 and 2009 to help restore market stability, and the sale of these securities is consistent with that effort.”

Congress gave Treasury the authority to buy securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  The value of these mortgage-backed securities declined significantly after the housing bubble burst, prompting fears that write-downs could drag down individual banks and further plunge the financial system into panic.  The Treasury said that three years after the worst point of the crisis, the market for asset-backed derivatives is now much more robust.

The government bought $221 billion of these bonds, as part of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008.  Treasury announced that it would buy the bonds on the day the government took over Fannie and Freddie.  “The primary objectives of this portfolio will be to promote market stability, ensure mortgage availability, and protect the taxpayer,” Treasury said at the time.  The portfolio is now just $142 billion.  The Congressional Oversight Panel, which supervised the Troubled Asset Relief Program, said that as of February of 2011, Treasury had received $84 billion in principal repayments and $16.7 billion in interest on the securities it holds.

“It was a bit of a surprise, though will likely be easy to digest,said Tom Tucci, head of government bond trading at Capital Markets in New York.  “We spent a year and a half at levels that were unsustainable because they weren’t based on economic fundamentals, they were based on fear.  “Now some of the fundamentals are starting to come back into place.”

Republicans are asking for deeper cuts in government spending before they will agree to raise the debt limit.  Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has cautioned that failure to raise the borrowing limit would cause an unparalleled default by the government on the national debt.  Without question, this would drive up the government’s cost of borrowing money.

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