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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Developers Eye Garages and Parking Lots

In Manhattan, parking lots and garages are making way for all sorts of development, especially luxury condominiums.



Housing Assistance 2012: Another Herculean Task for the FHA

Beginning the 37th month of his presidency, the Obama Administration today announced a laundry list of new programs to help struggling homeowners, crack down on abusive lending practices, make mortgage documents easier to read, convert REO to rental, and other assorted initiatives.  Some require Congressional approval; others are a work in progress, and a couple can begin quickly.
 
At the heart of the announcement is a broad new refinance program with the venerable FHA stepping in (once again) to help save the mortgage market by offering current but underwater non-FHA borrowers another lifeline.
 
Concurrently, the Administration appears to be on the verge of a broad-based “REO-to-Rental” initiative by announcing a pilot project to be led by FHFA, HUD, and Treasury.  I think the Administration is smart to move this initiative forward as they certainly have the political cover through last year’s RFI process.  They asked for comments and suggestions and reportedly received thousands of responses.  They can now say we are implementing what America said they wanted.   Of course, we do not yet know exactly how it will work.
 
Lawmakers and mortgage industry professionals have previously questioned whether or not FHA can handle yet another herculean task.  Recall in 2007 when the mortgage market sputtered and into 2008 when new higher loan limits were unveiled, FHA saw its share of the mortgage market jump exponentially in a matter of months. What was a $350 billion book of business in 2005 has today mushroomed to $1 trillion with more than 7.4 million homes with FHA insurance.
 
Since presumably these would be riskier borrowers (higher LTVs and underwater) it remains to be seen:

  1. If Congress will give FHA the authority to increase its current LTV caps.
  2. How OMB will “score” the proposal thus dictating the mortgage insurance pricing?
  3. Will proposed new bank fees and presumably higher premium revenue off-set the expected “cost” to FHA?

FHA is reportedly considering placing these loans in an insurance fund separate from its current Single Family books of business, but could ultimately require the FHA to invoke its “permanent indefinite” budget authority to keep it afloat (as opposed to the self-sustaining Mutual Mortgage Insurance fund).
 
That said, the Administration indicated the cost of these programs will “not add a dime to the deficit” and will be off-set by a fee on the “Largest Financial Institutions.”  (Note: Congress might have an opinion here.)
 
Since FHA has not in recent memory refinanced borrowers with LTVs in the 120-140 range (presumably one of the groups targeted by the Administration), I think it will be difficult to estimate the performance of these loans over time and thus their impact on FHA’s actuarial foundation regardless of which fund they place them in.  While the FHA “short re-finance” program announced in 2010 allowed a 115% CLTV, it has had very little participation thus making it difficult to gauge performance relative to what could be even higher LTV participants.
 
It should be noted that the Administration is targeting borrowers who have made 12 consecutive payments so one could argue that despite the fact they are underwater they have been able to afford their mortgage payments – presumably in some cases for several years.  So does that mitigate some of the potential risk meaning that they will certainly be able to afford reduced monthly payments?  But again, given FHA’s limited experience with borrowers outside their established guidelines and requirements predicting their performance with any degree of certainty is difficult at best.
 
And assuming those previously non-FHA borrowers default on their new FHA loan, who do you think will now be at-risk with an underwater property?  Again, the Administration stated these programs “will not add a dime to the deficit” – I hope they are right.
 
FHA’s actuarial soundness has been rocked by the on-going erosion of house prices nationwide which has led to three consecutive years of declines in their capital reserve ratio.  The best medicine for FHA is house price appreciation and the positive ripple effect of increased value to their housing portfolio.  But they have been waiting three years for that to happen.
 
Welcomed news as part of this new refinance program is they would be removed from an FHA lender’s compare ratio within Neighborhood Watch (FHA’s public database of lender’s default rates compared to its peers in a given geographic region).  That said, I suspect FHA will establish a separate category of compare ratios for this book of business, as it did for Negative Equity Refinances and the Hope For Homeowner (H4H) program.
 
So while this action will remove a potential barrier to participation, lenders should be cautioned that performance will still matter and they should stand ready for increased scrutiny especially by the HUD OIG.
 
I give the Administration credit for launching another round of housing assistance as too many homeowners continue to struggle.  Putting politics aside on the surface it appears to be the right and proper thing to do, however it remains to be seen the level of participation (and degree of Congressional acceptance) and ultimately what cost, if any, to the taxpayers – most of which have grown weary of the nagging housing crisis.
 
Note: We will continue to follow this initiative with keen interest as it makes its way through Congress and will offer periodic updates as developments warrant.

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SEC Names Ex-Credit Suisse Employees in Subprime Fraud Scheme

Four
former investment bankers and traders from the Credit Suisse Group were charged
by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Wednesday violating multiple
sections of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 while trading in subprime
mortgage bonds
.  The indictments allege
the four engaged in a complex scheme to fraudulently overstate the prices of $3
billion of the bonds during the height of the subprime credit crisis. 

The
four are Kareem Serageldin, the group’s former global head of structured credit
trading; David Higgs, former head of hedge trading; and two traders, Faisal Siddiqui and Salmaan
Siddiqui.  According to the complaint
filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Serageldin
oversaw a significant portion of Credit Suisse’s structured products and
mortgage-related businesses. The traders reported to Higgs and Serageldin.

The SEC charges that the four
deliberately ignored specific market information showing that prices of the
subject bonds were declining sharply, pricing them instead in a way that
allowed Credit Suisse to achieve fictional profits, and, through the traders,
changing bond prices in order to hit daily and monthly profit target and cover
losses.  The scheme was driven in part by
the prospect of lavish year-end bonuses and promotions.  The scheme hit its peak at the end of 2007.

“The
stunning scale of the illegal mismarking in this case was surpassed only by the
greed of the senior bankers behind the scheme,” said Robert Khuzami, Director
of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement and a Co-Chair of the newly formed Residential
Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group
, “At precisely the moment investors
and market participants were urgently seeking accurate information about
financial institutions’ exposure to the subprime market, the senior bankers
falsely and selfishly inflated the value of more than $3 billion in
asset-backed securities in order to protect their bonuses and, in one case,
protect a highly coveted promotion.”  

SEC
explained that it was not charging Credit Suisse in the scheme because the
wrongdoing was isolated; Credit Suisse reported the violations to the SEC,
voluntarily terminated the four, implemented internal controls to prevent
additional misconduct, and cooperated with SEC in the investigation.  The SEC said that the four named in the
complaint also cooperated in the investigation and that assistance was provided
by the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York
and the United Kingdom Financial Services Authority.

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Why a New Refinance Program Faces Long Odds

Reuters
Rep. Scott Garrett (R., N.J.) opposes using a levy on large banks to offset the costs of proposed refinancing program.

President Barack Obama last week outlined a forthcoming plan to allow more homeowners who are current on their mortgages to refinance at today’s low rates. A levy on large banks would be used to offset the costs of the program.

But any such scheme that relies on a bank tax “would be dead on arrival,” said Rep. Scott Garrett (R., N.J.), chairman of the subcommittee on Capital Markets and Government-Sponsored Enterprises, in an interview last week. “No one is going to suggest that the way to help the mortgage market is to propose a tax indirectly on the system,” he said.

While the White House hasn’t spelled out any details for the program, including the mechanism for mass refinancing or the costs of such an initiative, the administration’s plan is expected to call on Congress to relax limits on allowing borrowers to refinance through the Federal Housing Administration, according to people familiar with the matter.

The FHA already faces a dire financial condition. It doesn’t make loans directly but instead insures lenders against losses on loans that meet certain standards. It charges insurance premiums to offset the cost of defaults. But its loan-guarantee business has swelled dramatically as the private market imploded over the past four years, and mounting defaults are expected to burn big holes in the agency’s reserves.

Using the FHA to refinance more borrowers “would be imprudent considering the way the balance sheet looks right now,” said Mr. Garrett. “It’s not a viable idea.”

Mr. Garrett said that while using a bank tax to offset potential losses to the FHA was a nonstarter, he said he didn’t oppose mass refinancing in principle. “If magically there were some additional funds to pay for the program that don’t have a negative impact on the economy, sure, but I’m not sure what they are,” he said.

The upshot: the refinance program is likely to reignite a long running political debate over how far the government should go to assist homeowners during a housing crisis that is entering its sixth year. But unless there’s a bipartisan appetite to allow unspent funds from, say, the Troubled Asset Relief Program to fund such refinance efforts, homeowners shouldn’t hold their breath on this latest call to action.

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