Treasury and GSEs: A Failure to Communicate

Last Thursday, Treasury issued an Update on Status of Support for Housing Programs. One of the key points was to increase the cap on Treasury’s funding commitment “to accommodate any cumulative reduction in net worth over the next three years”.

Here were the reasons given:

Treasury will also amend the terms of its agreements with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to support their ongoing stability. The steps outlined today are necessary for preserving the continued strength and stability of the mortgage market.
emphasis added


The amendments to these agreements announced today should leave no uncertainty about the Treasury’s commitment to support these firms as they continue to play a vital role in the housing market during this current crisis.

Why not just be explicit and explain the reasons for the change?

I speculated on Saturday that this might have something to do with more modifications. Others thought this was possible, from MarketWatch:

The government may put a mortgage-modification effort, called the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, into overdrive in coming years, pushing for reductions in the principal outstanding on home loans overseen by Fannie and Freddie, Bose George, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, wrote in a note to investors Monday.

Others thought this was wrong, from housing economist Tom Lawler today:

[A] few folks postulated that the Treasury’s move to explicitly up the government’s potential support for Fannie and Freddie might be related to plans by the Treasury to expand the HAMP to include a principal reduction plan, which would accelerate losses on HAMP modifications. I have no clue what’s going on in the minds of Treasury officials, I very much doubt that any such change in the cards soon.

Note: of course HAMP already allows principal reductions, but servicers receive no additional subsidy for principal reduction.

Credit Suisse argued that this increases the prospect of “large-scale voluntary buyouts” of delinquent mortgages guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie. Other analysts have argued this could be related to the adoption of FAS 166/167 in January.

And still another analyst suggested Fannie and Freddie would become the world’s biggest SIVs, and he viewed this as an attempt to hold down mortgage rates after the conclusion of the Fed’s program to purchase MBS.

Dean Baker wrote at the HuffPost: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: Just a Four-Letter Word?

Since Fannie and Freddie went into conservatorship in September of 2008, it has been explicit policy that the government would back up their debt. Originally, $200 billion was committed for this purpose. That amount was subsequently doubled to $400 billion … [T]he Obama administration should make its case to the public and explain how losses could conceivably run above $400 billion (credit markets don’t need reassurance against inconceivable events).

And that is really the bottom line: Why did Treasury release this on Christmas Eve with essentially no explanation. This has just lead to speculation and confusion. Why not be explicit? Why should we have to guess?

“What we’ve got here is … failure to communicate.” (from Cool Hand Luke)