Posts Tagged ‘bailouts’

Italy Asks IMF to Oversee its Debt Reduction Efforts

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has asked for international oversight of his efforts to slash the eurozone’s second-largest debt, even as his unraveling coalition threatens efforts to build a wall against Europe’s debt crisis.  Berlusconi’s government asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to assess its debt-reduction progress, and turned down an offer of financial assistance.

“It hasn’t been imposed, it was requested,” Berlusconi said.  The IMF will carry out quarterly “certifications” of the euro region’s third-largest economy, he said, noting that the current sell-off of Italian debt is “a temporary trend” even as the nation’s borrowing costs soared to record highs.  Berlusconi is under mounting pressure as Italy tries to avoid yielding to the sovereign-debt crisis.

Italy’s 10-year borrowing costs are getting dangerously close to the seven percent level that forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal to ask for bailouts.  The yield on the nation’s benchmark 10-year bond surged to a euro-era record of 6.404 percent, the highest since the creation of the single currency.  “If the current Greek tragedy is not to turn into an Italian tragedy, with far more serious and far-reaching consequences for the eurozone, Berlusconi must resign immediately,” Marc Ostwald, a fixed-income strategist at Monument Securities Ltd., said.  Berlusconi may be “remembered as the architect of Italy’s descent into an economic inferno.”

IMF managing director Christine Lagarde hopes that quarterly monitoring will start by the end of November to verify that the reforms Berlusconi promised are implemented.  “It’s verification and certification if you will, of implementation of a program that Italy has committed to,” she said. “It’s one of the best ways to have an independent view…to verify that promised measures are actually implemented.”  She agreed that Italy doesn’t need IMF funding.  “The problem that is at stake — and that was clearly identified both by the Italian authorities and its partners — is a lack of credibility of the measures that are announced,” according to Lagarde.  “The typical instrument that we would use is a precautionary credit line.  Italy does not need the funding that is associated with such instruments so the next best instrument is fiscal monitoring, which is what we have identified.”

Lagarde isn’t certain that the proposed reforms are credible. “The problem that is at stake and that was clearly identified both by the Italian authorities and by its partners is a lack of credibility of the measures that were announced,” Lagarde said.  Additionally, the IMF will provide funds to stimulate Italy’s economy, although under strict conditions.

Will Berlusconi’s regime survive this crisis?  “Historically, technocrat governments in Italy have been able to pass pro-growth structural reforms, including politically difficult labor market reforms,” said Barclays Capital analyst Fabio Fois.  Governments such as those led by Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Lamberto Dini – who had served as central bankers — in the early 1990s saved Italy from financial crises even worse than the present one.  “I think the political parties would have a big incentive to go through the painful policy adjustment now, before the next election due in 2013, so that whoever wins won’t have to do it later,” Fois said.

Berlusconi seemed almost nostalgic for the days when the lira was Italy’s currency. “You don’t get much in your supermarket trolley for €80 today, whereas you used to get a lot for 80,000 lire,” he said.

He insisted that Italy’s economy is generally prospering.  “The restaurants and vacation spots are always full, nobody thinks there is a crisis,” he said, noting that, considering its low household debt levels, Italy has Europe’s second-strongest economy, after Germany and was stronger than France or the U.K.  The country’s €1.9 trillion in public debt, the equivalent of nearly 120 percent of GDP, was a legacy problem, had not grown in the past 20 years, and had been consistently serviced, Berlusconi said.

Berlusconi admitted that his government “might have made a mistake” in assuming the public debt was sustainable without more aggressive fiscal and reform action.  When asked what he thought about frequent warnings from European Union partners that Italy demonstrate credibility with the promised reforms, Berlusconi said the criticism reflected prejudice about past Italian behavior.  “If we don’t enact the reforms Italy will be in trouble,” he said.  “But we will enact them.”

S&P Computer Error Briefly Downgrades France’s Credit Rating

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Whoops!  Someone has a red face.  France’s credit ratings have not been downgraded by Standard & Poor’s (S&P) and apparently resulted from an accidental transmission of a message that it had downgraded the nation’s credit. S&P’s error roiled global equity, bond, currency and commodity markets when it sent and then corrected the erroneous message.

“As a result of a technical error, a message was automatically disseminated today to some subscribers of S&P’s Global Credit Portal suggesting that France’s credit rating had been changed,” S&P said.  “This is not the case: the ratings on Republic of France remain ‘AAA/A-1+’ with a stable outlook, and this incident is not related to any ratings surveillance activity.  We are investigating the cause of the error.”

Downgrading France’s credit rating would negatively impact the rating of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), the bailout fund for struggling euro member countries that has funded rescue packages for Greece, Ireland and Portugal.  If the EFSF ends up paying higher interest on its bonds, it may not be able to provide as much funding for indebted nations.  “It was a mess,” said Lane Newman, the New York-based director of foreign exchange at ING Groep NV. “It calls into question the credibility of people who can have that sort of impact not really being careful.”

“It clearly raises issues about internal systems and controls,” said Christopher Whalen, managing director of Institutional Risk Analytics, a Torrance, CA-based bank- rating firm.  “The onus is on them to be careful and it’s troubling.  Whether you’re a broker dealer or a rating agency, everything you say has to be very carefully considered because of the weight that they carry.”

The incident is currently under investigation.  “This is a very serious incident,” said European Union (EU) Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier.  “This shows that we are in an extremely volatile situation, that markets are extremely tense, and therefore that players on these markets must be extremely rigorous and exercise a duty of responsibility.”  Barnier continues, “It is all the more important since these are not minor players on these markets, but actually one of the three major rating agencies and therefore an agency that has a particular responsibility. I do not wish to make a statement on the failure itself, which immediately was recognized by Standard & Poor’s.  The European authority for credit rating agencies, together with AMF, the French market authority, will have to look into this and draw conclusions from this incident.”

S&P’s error spooked investors already apprehensive over Europe’s debt crisis, feeding concerns that the continent’s debt problems had engulfed the region’s second-largest economy.  It contributed to the worst day for French government bonds since before the euro debuted in 1999.

The Globe and Mail’s David Berman wonders If the error was practice for the real thing. “Standard & Poor’s downgrade of France’s credit rating was apparently accidental – so consider the reaction to the panicky downgrade as a kind of dress rehearsal:  It lets you know how markets will react if and when an actual downgrade goes through.  The way things are going for Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis, an actual downgrade looks more than likely.  Just as Italy supplanted Greece as the eurozone’s biggest trouble spot, highlighted by the country’s surging bond yields, France has the makings of a troubled spot in-the-making.”

As MarketWatch’s Laura Mandaro sums it up, the computer did it.

Goodbye to Fannie and Freddie

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

The Obama administration and the Treasury Department have decided that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the public-private housing finance model in place for the past four decades – will come to an end, although they pledged to continue backing the agencies’ existing obligations. “The GSE (government-sponsored enterprise) model is dead,” an Obama administration official said.  The Treasury Department is currently working on three broad options for overhauling the mortgage lending system, but will let Congress make the final decision.  The government bailouts of Fannie and Freddie have cost taxpayers nearly $150 billion.

Obama administration officials have emphasized areas of agreement with Republicans, stressing that they favor a system that is less dependent on government support.  Approximately 90 percent of new mortgages are currently backed by Fannie, Freddie or other federal agencies.  The move pleased Republicans, who have long criticized the mortgage companies. “I’m encouraged to see the administration included a number of reform ideas that track closely with my own,” Representative Scott Garrett (R — NJ) said.  Garrett heads the House Financial Services subcommittee, which oversees Fannie and Freddie.  Representative Randy Neugebauer (R – TX), said he was pleasantly surprised by the focus on restoring the mortgage-backed securities market issued without the government’s guarantee.  Debate over the future of the mortgage giants is often contentious on Capitol Hill.  Republicans consistently criticized last year’s Dodd-Frank financial-overhaul bill for not addressing the fate of Fannie and Freddie.  Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that winding down Fannie and Freddie and creating an alternative won’t happen overnight.  “Realistically, this is going to take five to seven years,” he said.  “We are going to start the process of reform now, but we are going to do it responsibly and carefully so that we support the recovery and the process of repair of the housing market.”

The Treasury Department report suggests that Fannie and Freddie purchase loans with smaller outstanding balances, reducing their risk.  The report also recommends phasing in a requirement that Fannie and Freddie borrowers make larger downpayments — at least 10 percent.  Lastly, the government wants Fannie and Freddie to wind down their own mortgage investment portfolios.  In their heyday, Fannie and Freddie were public companies that encouraged home ownership thanks to a Congressional mandate.  The companies buy home loans from lenders, which use the money to offer new loans to consumers.

The bad news is that mortgage costs could increase a bit once Fannie and Freddie are phased out. “Over the long run, the cost of a mortgage will rise modestly for the average American homeowner,” Geithner said.  “We think it’s very important for the government to continue to play a role, a targeted role” to make certain that “Americans who need help to find a home, to rent a home, or own a home get that help.”

Nor will the process of replacing Fannie and Freddie be easy.  Writing in the Wall Street Journal, David Reilly points out that “A return of private capital requires the revival of securitization markets for mortgages not backed by the government since bank balance sheets aren’t big enough to fill the gap”.  But 30-year loans in their current form aren’t attractive to investors without a government guarantee. The Treasury implicitly acknowledges the conflict, noting that the less government backing there is for housing finance, the less feasible the 30-year mortgage becomes.  It also admits the reward for losing that benefit, and largely removing government from mortgage markets, would be a reduced incentive to invest in housing so that ‘more capital will flow into other areas of the economy, potentially leading to more long-run economic growth and reducing the inflationary pressure on housing assets.’  That should be the clear goal of any housing-finance revamp.”

Fannie, Freddie Bailouts Could Cost the Taxpayers $154 Billion

Monday, November 8th, 2010

Taxpayer bill for Fannie, Freddie bailout could reach $154 billion. The ultimate cost of bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could cost as much as $154 billion unless the economy improves, according to a government report.  The mortgage giants rescue – which has kept the housing market on life supports – already has cost $135 billion to cover losses on home loans in default.  The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, says the most likely scenario is that house prices will have to fall slightly during a slow economic recovery, then rise a bit.  If that occurs, the Fannie and Freddie bailout will cost taxpayers an additional $19 billion.  A more upbeat prediction sees the housing market recovering sooner, which would require just $6 billion more for a total bill of $141 billion.

Washington, D.C., research firm Federal Financial Analytics believes the FHFA projection provides a sound indication of what the bailout will cost, but “nowhere near a definitive picture of it.”  Fannie and Freddie issued a joint statement that said “It’s simply impossible to forecast reliably now how much foreclosuregate will cost.”  Fannie and Freddie’s plight stands in sharp contrast to the success of the Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP), which is now expected to cost just 10 percent of the $700 billion originally forecast.

Federal regulators seized Fannie and Freddie in September of 2008 in the wake of the financial crisis.  Since then, the government has kept the agencies solvent, with President Obama pledging unlimited support.  “From the beginning, the Obama administration has made it clear that the current structure of the government’s role in housing finance, while necessary in the short-term to provide critical support to a still-fragile housing market, is simply not acceptable for the long term,” said Jeffrey Goldstein, Treasury Department undersecretary for domestic finance.

Congress Will Examine the Fed’s Actions During the Financial Crisis

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

A bipartisan Senate votes to investigate the Fed’s actions before and during the financial crisis.  In a rare moment of bipartisanship, the Senate voted 96 – 0 to attach a modified version of an amendment proposed by Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-VT) to the financial regulatory bill to investigate transparency in emergency lending practices by the Federal Reserve during the financial crisis.  “This amendment begins the process of lifting the veil of secrecy of perhaps the most powerful federal agency,” Sanders said.  The vote also is a nod to public frustration with the government’s Wall Street bailout.

President Barack Obama has asked Congress to enact reform legislation that will make capital markets less susceptible to crises.  The Senate’s vote will clarify the Fed’s emergency lending practices during the crisis when it put hundreds of billions of dollars into the financial markets to stabilize the economy.  The proposal marks the first time the Fed has been investigated this thoroughly by Congress.

The Senate wants to scrutinize the Fed’s role in the time leading up to and during the financial crisis to determine if there were any regulatory gaffes.  Passage of the amendment allows a one-time audit of the Fed’s emergency lending since December 2007.  Additionally, the Fed will have to publicly disclose detailed data about which financial institutions it has lent money to by December 1.  Although the Fed initially was uneasy about the audit, its comfort level has now improved.  According to Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, “I’m comfortable with the modified Sanders amendment.”

Successful TARP Extended Through Most of 2010

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Geithner extends TARP program through most of next year.  An independent audit released by the bipartisan Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) has found the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to be effective, so much so that the Department of the Treasury has extended it to October 3, 2010.  Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner plans to use the remaining funds to assist families facing foreclosure and give loans to small businesses.

The COP was unable to fully gauge TARP’s impact because of other forces such as the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, tax cuts and actions by the Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Company.  “Even so, there is broad consensus that the TARP was an important part of a broader government strategy that stabilized the U.S. financial system by renewing the flow of credit and averting a more acute crisis,” according to the report.  “Although the government’s response to the crisis was at first haphazard and uncertain, it eventually proved decisive enough to stop the panic and restore market confidence.”

That said, after 14 months of TARP, the panel admits that problems remain.  Banks are still skittish about making loans, toxic mortgage-related assets are still sullying banks’ balance sheets and smaller banks are susceptible to difficulties in the commercial real estate sector.  And, with 13 million additional home foreclosures expected over the next five years, “TARP’s foreclosure mitigation programs have not yet achieved the scope, scale and permanence necessary to address the crisis.”

Repayments from banks that received TARP dollars are expected to total $116 billion, including $45 billion that is being returned by Bank of America.  The government is likely to receive as much as $175 billion in repayments from companies it rescued by the end of 2010.