Geithner Outlines Accomplishments, Future of Financial Reform

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told
the Financial Stability Oversight Council that the financial system is getting
stronger and safer and that much of the excess risk-taking and careless
financial practices that caused so much damage has been forced out.  However, he said, “These gains will erode
over time if we are not able to put our full reforms into place.”

He outlined the basic framework has been
laid, with new global agreements to limit leverage, rules for managing the
failure of a large firm and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
up and running, and the majority of the new safeguards for derivatives markets proposed.  Geithner ticked off the major accomplishments
of reform.

First, banks now face much
tougher limits on risk which are critical to reducing the risk of large
financial failures and limiting the damage such failures can cause.  The focus in 2012 will be “on defining the
new liquidity standards and on making sure that capital risk-weights are
applied consistently.”

 The new rules are tougher on
the largest banks that pose the greatest risk and are being complemented by
other limits on risk-taking such as the Volcker Rules and limits on the size of
firms and concentration of the financial systems.  These will not apply only to banks but to
other large financial institutions that could pose a threat to financial system
stability and this year the Risk Council will make the first of these
designations.

Second, the derivatives market will,
for the first time, be required to meet a comprehensive set of transparency
requirements, margin rules and other safeguards.  These reforms are designed to move
standardized contracts to clearing houses and trading platforms and will be
complemented with more conservative safeguards for the more complex and
specialized products less amenable to central clearing and electronic
trading.  These reforms, the balance of
which will be outlined this year, will lower costs for those who use the
products, allow parties to hedge against risk, but limit the potential for
abuse, the Secretary said. 

Third, is a carefully designed set
of safeguards against risk outside the banking system and enhanced protections
for the basic infrastructure of the financial markets: 

  • Money market funds will have new
    requirements designed to limit “runs.”
  • Important funding markets like the
    tri-party repo market are now more conservatively structured.
  • International trade repositories are
    being developed for derivatives, including credit default swaps.
  • Designated financial market utilities
    will have oversight and requirements for stronger financial reserves;

Fourth; there will be a stronger set
of protections in place against “too big to fail” institutions.  The key elements are:

  • Capital and liquidity rules with
    tough limits on leverage to both reduce the probability of failure and prevent
    a domino effect;
  • New protections for derivatives,
    funding markets, and for the market infrastructure to limit contagion across
    the financial system;
  • Tougher limits on institutional size;
  • A bankruptcy-type framework to
    manage the failure of large financial firms.
    This “resolution authority” will prohibit bailouts for private
    investors, protect taxpayers, and force the financial system to bear the costs
    of future crisis.

Fifth, significantly stronger
protections for investors and consumers are being put in place including the
CFPB which is working to improve disclosures for mortgages and credit cards and
developing new standards for qualified mortgages.  New authorities are being used to strengthen protections
for investors and to give shareholders greater voice on issues like executive
compensation.

Geithner pointed to the failure of
account segregation rules to protect customers in the MF Global disaster as proof
of the need for more protections and said that the Council will work with the
SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Council on this problem.   

Moving forward, reforms must be
structured to endure as the market evolves and to work not just in isolation
but to interact appropriately with each other and the broader economy.  “We
want to be careful to get the balance right-building a more stable financial
system, with better protections for consumers and investors, that allows for
financial innovation in support of economic growth.” 

First, he said, we have to make sure
we have a level playing field at home; that financial firms engaged in similar
activity and financial instruments that have similar characteristics are
treated roughly the same because small differences can have powerful effects in
shifting risk to where the rules are softer. 
A level field globally is also important, particularly with reforms that
toughen rules on capital, margin, liquidity, and leverage, as well as in the
global derivatives markets.  “In these areas we are working to discourage
other nations from applying softer rules to their institutions and to try to
attract financial activity away from the U.S. market and U.S. institutions.” 

It is necessary to align the
developing derivatives regimes around the world; preventing attempts to soften
application of capital rules, limiting the discretion available to supervisors
in enforcing rules on risk-weights for capital and designing rules for
resolution of large global institutions.  Also, because some U.S. reforms are different
or tougher from rules in other markets, there needs to be a sensible way to
apply those rules to the foreign operations of U.S. firms and the U.S.
operation of foreign firms.

 The U.S. also needs to move
forward with reforms to the mortgage market including a path to winding down
the government sponsored enterprises (GSEs.) 
The Administration has already outlined a broad strategy, Geithner said,
and expects to lay out more detail in the spring.  The immediate concern is to repair the damage
to homeowners, the housing market, and neighborhoods.  The President spoke this week about the range
of tools he plans to use.  Our ultimate goals
are to wind down the GSEs, bring private capital back into the market, reduce
the government’s direct role, and better target support toward first-time
homebuyers and low- and moderate-income Americans.

Geithner said the new system must
foster affordable rentals options, have stronger, clearer consumer protections,
and create a level playing field for all institutions participating in the
system.  For this to happen without
hurting the broader economy and adding further damage to those areas that have
been hardest hit, banks and private investors must come back into the market on
a larger scale and they want more clarity on the rules that will apply. 

Credit availability is still a problem
and there is a broad array of programs in place to improve access to credit and
capital for small businesses.  As
conditions improve, it is important that we remain focused on making sure that
small businesses, a crucial engine of job growth, have continued access to
equity capital and credit.

Many Americans trying to buy a home
or refinance their mortgage are also finding it hard to access credit, even for
FHA- or GSE-backed mortgages.  The Administration has been working closely
with the FHA and FHFA to encourage them to take additional measures to remove
unnecessary barriers and they are making progress.  They will probably outline additional reforms
in the coming weeks.

Bank supervisors, in the normal
conduct of bank exams and supervision, as well as in the design of new rules to
limit risk taking and abuse, must be careful not to overdo it with actions that
cause undue damage to the availability of credit or liquidity to markets.

Geithner said the U.S. financial
system is getting stronger
, and is now significantly stronger than it was
before the crisis.  Among the achievements:

  • Banks have increased common equity
    by more than $350 billion since 2009.
  • Banks and other financial
    institutions with more than $5 trillion in assets at the end of 2007 have been
    shut down, acquired, or restructured.
  • The asset-backed commercial paper
    market has shrunk by 70 percent since its peak in 2007, and the tri-party repo
    market and prime money market funds have shrunk by 40 percent and 33 percent
    respectively since their 2008 peaks.
  • The financial assistance we provided
    to banks through TARP, for example, will result in taxpayer gains of
    approximately $20 billion.

The Secretary said the strength of
the banks is helping to support broader economic growth, including the more
than 3 million private sector jobs created over 22 straight months, and the 30
percent increase in private investment in equipment and software.  
Broadly, the cost of credit has fallen significantly since late 2008 and early
2009.  Banks are lending more, with commercial and industrial loans to
businesses up by an annual rate of more than 10 percent over the past six
months.  

He concluded by saying that no
financial system is invulnerable to crisis, and there is a lot of unfinished
business on the path of reform.  The reforms are tough where they need to
be tough.  “But they will leave our financial system safer, better able to
help businesses raise capital, and better able to help families finance safely
the purchase of a house or a car, to borrow to invest in a college education,
or to save for retirement.  And they will protect the taxpayer from having
to pay the price of future crisis.”

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Harvard’s State of Housing Report Says Home Construction Now Adding to GDP

Steadier job growth and improving
consumer confidence are now boosting home sales and home prices may finally
find a bottom this year according to the latest State of the Nation’s Housing report released this morning.  The report, produced by the Joint Center for
Housing Studies of Harvard University, says further that stronger home sales
should pave the way for a pick-up in single-family construction over the rest
of 2012.

Conditions, however, will keep this
recovery “subdued.”  The backlog of
nearly 2 million loans in foreclosure means that distressed sales will remain
elevated and will keep a downward pressure on prices and another 11.1 million
homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, dampening both sales of new homes
and investment in existing units.  While
vacancies have been declining the report notes, they still remain well above
normal, holding down demand for new construction in many markets.

What the for-sale market needs most, the
authors say is a sustained increase in employment.  This might in turn bring household formation
back to normal levels.  The depressed
pace of homebuilding has been a major factor in hiring and pulled down growth
in the gross domestic product (GDP) from 2006 to 2010.  Since the beginning of 2011, however, both home
construction and home improvement spending have made a positive contribution to
GDP in four out of five quarters.

Another bright spot is the rental market;
the number of renters surged by 5.1 million over the decade of the 2000s, the
largest decade-long increase in the postwar era.  This reflects not only growth in those
populations which are historically prone to rent – the young, minority, and low
income households, but foreclosures have driven others into the rental market.

Still the rental market has not fully
benefited from the large echo-boom generation because the recession has forced
a lot of young people to put off leaving home which usually means a move into
rental housing.  Once the economy
improves the echo-boomers should give the market a significant lift.

The rising demand for rentals has
sparked rent increases in many parts of the country; 38 of the 64 markets
tracked by MPF research had rent increases that outstripped inflation and all
but one of the remainder (Las Vegas) had at least a nominal increase in
2011.  Even in some cities hard hit by
foreclosures and the economy in general (Detroit, Cleveland) rents are rising.

The increase in rents has, in turn,
helped to stabilize the multifamily property market where prices are were
reported up by 10 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 from one year earlier
and multifamily construction starts more than doubled from its trough to a
225,000 unit annual rate, providing a welcome boost to construction.

Homeownership continues to slide,
dipping to 66.1 percent in 2011 from 66.8 percent a year earlier and 69 percent
at its peak in 2004, but it is still higher than in the period from 1980 into
the early 1990s.  Rates for older
households continue to climb as the population ages, but the homeownership rate
for younger households will probably continue to decline over the next few
years.

The number of new homes added to the
housing stock in the 2002-2011 period was lower than in any other ten year span
since the early 1970s so it is hard to argue that overbuilding is dragging down
the market.  The excess housing supply is
largely a reflection of the slowdown in housing growth which resulted from the
decline in the rate at which younger people are forming households as noted above
and also because of a sharp drop in immigration.  But over the longer run, the growth and aging
of the current population should support the addition of about 1.0 million new
households per year for the next ten years. 
Immigration remains an unknown in this calculation, but even assuming
net inflows are half what was predicted by the U.S. Census in 2008, household
growth should average 1.18 million per year in 2010-2020.

The recession took a toll on household
income but did little to lessen the burden of housing costs.  Between 2007 and 2010 the number of
households paying more than half of their income for housing rose by 2.3
million to 20.2 million.  While renters
accounted for the vast majority of the increase, the number of severely
cost-burdened owners also rose more than 350,000 as many households took on
expensive mortgages they were later unable to refinance.  In addition, this recent increase is on top
of an increase in cost burdened households of 4.1 million in 2001-2007.

These cost burdened families face a big challenge.  Among families with children in the bottom
expenditure quartile of income and with the most severe housing cost burden,
only about three-fifths of the amount is spent on food, half as much on
clothes, and two-fifth on healthcare as is spent by families living in
affordable housing.

The Joint Center said there are few
prospects for a meaningful reduction in this cost burden
.  Funding for the federal Housing Choice Voucher
Program has increased only modestly since the recession and the only
significant growth in subsidized rental housing is through the Low Income
Housing Tax Credit which continues to add about 100,000 affordable units each
year.  If the current calls for reducing
domestic spending are realized “the nation would move even further away from
its longstanding goal of ensuring decent, affordable housing for all
Americans.”

On the road ahead, with moderate gains
in multifamily and single family construction and improving sales of existing
homes, housing should be a stronger contributor to economic growth than it has been
in years
.  The rental market is back on
track, but the owner occupied market still faces the same pressures it has for
years; distressed properties which hold down prices and owners who are unable
to sell because they are underwater. 

Actions such as changes in the Home
Affordable Modification Program, the servicing settlement, and more rapid
disposition of properties where homeownership cannot be maintained are helping
the market.  However, the greatest
potential for recovery of the for-sale market is its historic
affordability.  The dive in home prices
and record low mortgages rates make homebuying more attractive than it has been
in years but the limited availability of financing that meets the needs of many
borrowers, strict underwriting guidelines, and rising fees are inhibiting
sales. “With key mortgage lending regulations still undefined, it remains to be
seen to what extent and under what terms lenders will make credit available to
lower income and lower-wealth borrowers.”

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Even Detroit Looks Good for Rentals

Brokerage Marcus & Millichap is bullish on Detroit’s apartment market, which is benefiting from job growth as the battered automotive market slowly heals.

Single-Family Rentals Keep Pulling In Investors

The push is on to turn single-family rental homes into an asset class that can be bought and sold on Wall Street.

A Market Builds for Single-Family Rentals

GI Partners, a private-equity fund that generated big profits by scooping up empty data centers after the technology-stock bust in 2000, is now making a big bet on foreclosed homes.