The Fed, Financial Guarantors, and Housing

This post will be a little more disjointed than others. One housekeeping note before I start: I’m behind on my e-mail. I will catch up on it next week, DV.

Fed and Federal Government Policy

I don’t know; it seems like there are rumblings that the Fed will imminently take action, and that does not resonate with me. You can also read the stuff from Doug Kass at RealMoney, or consider the rebirth of the Plunge Protection Team. We are not so far from the next Fed meeting that waiting would make that much of a difference, particularly since the Fed tipped its hand when Bernanke spoke recently. There is a decent-sized cut coming, and the Treasury yield curve reflects it.

Now, I have my doubts as to the long-term efficacy of unusual measures from the Fed or the Treasury. You can’t get something by government fiat. Even a Fed Governor thinks we expect too much from the Fed, a sentiment with which I heartily agree, even though the Fed is partially responsible for creating that illusion. If the Fed took more of a “we do our best, but our powers are not that large in the long run” approach, market players might not give them so much credence.

Now, I’m not going so far as Anna Schwartz, who thinks the current Fed isn’t up to the task. That may or may not be true; what is hard to dispute is that Alan Greenspan dealt the existing FOMC a bad hand from a prior monetary policy that too easily responded to minor crises, rather than letting the economy take some pain. Moderate recessions are good for the economy; save the heroics for depression-like conditions.

Financial Guarantors

I may fail at it, but I try to be honest and self-critical here at my blog. For example, I did not suggest that Warren Buffett would buy Ambac, but I was misinterpreted as saying so. Now that Ajit Jain says that Berky might buy into one of the financial guarantors, I am not going to say that I predicted that, because I didn’t. It would be amusing if Buffett announced his new entry into the financial guaranty space to drive their prices down so he could buy a stake cheaper, but that is not his style. He values his reputation. That said, the NY regulator may not have thought enough steps ahead in pushing for Berky to set up a new guarantor. Good for new issues; perhaps not as good for old ones at legacy carriers.

Now, I admire Marty Whitman and Aldo Zucaro, but so far, their forays into the mortgage guaranty space have not worked out. I’m not counting them out, but it still may be early for that trade. Maybe we should wait for one of the companies to fail. The remaining companies should do well, once capacity drops out.

As for MBIA, they cut their dividend, which to me indicates a lower future level of profitability. Then they raise $1 Billion through surplus notes at their operating subsidiary, and pay 14% to do that. That has to be a record spread for a new-issue nominally AA-rated bond. Personally, I think I would pass on the notes, except for a flip. I would rather hold the common. Scenarios that would kill the common would most likely also kill the surplus notes. The common has more upside potential.

Residential Real Estate

I am fascinated by the willingness of some of the courts to insist on strict standards before they allow lenders to foreclose. Examples:

In general, I think there are legitimate flaws in the documentation that got ignored before the number of attempted foreclosures became so large. This is pointing out some stresses in the system. When this is done, securitization will not vanish; it will just be better managed.

Now as a final note, it is somewhat shameful that banks can’t follow FAS 114. The calculations aren’t hard; they just don’t want to recognize losses that they should recognize. That’s the real issue, so FASB and Congress should not give in here.