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The World's Biggest-Ever Bailout

The US nationalization of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac came as no surprise...

ON SUNDAY, SEPT. 7th, US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, flanked by James Lockhart, the new conservator from the Federal Housing Finance Agency, announced a plan to take over the operation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and to guarantee their debt, says the Casey Report.

   They cited what we all knew – that these two "government-sponsored enterprises" (GSEs) did not have enough capital to continue operating. Their business is to borrow to lend for housing mortgages, and to guarantee half the country's housing mortgages, about $5.4 trillion.

   Now the equity and preferred stock is all but wiped out as dividends are suspended and management and the board are fired. Bigger picture, this is the biggest bailout ever.

   If 10% of the $5 trillion of guarantees must be made good by the US government, the payments would be $500 billion. That is the size of the annual US defense budget. The outstanding debt of the US held by the public is the size of the guaranteed mortgages. It is huge.

   Here at Casey Research, we've seen this coming for more than a year:

   "For one thing," we wrote in March 2007, "at the point that falling prices leave homeowners with mortgages exceeding the value of their homes, default rates will soar. This, in turn, will put lenders that hold large amounts of mortgage debt at risk, and possibly jeopardize the solvency of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, since they guarantee much of this debt.

   "If these mortgage giants faced collapse – and they are already in well-documented trouble – a government bailout involving hundreds of billions of dollars would be a likely next step. The impending calamity – mass housing foreclosures, failing banks, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in ashes, millions of personal bankruptcies – is so dire...most people can't even conceive of it. And indeed it may not hit us this year, or next, but the market always corrects itself, and this time will be no exception, sooner or later.

   "We have said before, and we repeat again: Rig for stormy weather."

   The Treasury will now add funding to Fannie and Freddie when their assets are less than their liabilities. The Treasury gets warrants to own 79.9% of the equity. Fannie and Freddie are allowed to expand mortgage lending through the end of 2009 but are required to wind down their $850 billion of debt at 10% per year until they are essentially out of business at only $250 billion debt.

   The effect on the Credit Default Swap (CDS) market could be big: there are about $1.47 trillion of CDS on Fannie/Freddie-backed mortgages. The creation of the conservatorship is probably a credit event, triggering the payment of the insurance on the debt. But as we know, the insurers are already weak, and forcing them to pay could eliminate them as ongoing business, thus creating a cascading loss of the value of insurance on other debt they guarantee.

   The "New Secure Loan Agreement" that is designed to bail out the debtors of Fannie and Freddie will also be used to bail out the Federal Home Loan Banks. Some $274 billion additional housing market funding was passed through the FHLB last year, and it is safe to assume there are problems there too.

   The US government has decided to spend an enormous amount of money to prevent the two mortgage giants from defaulting. What will be the real effects?

  • The rescue won't resuscitate the housing market. As much as prices have declined, they still haven't come down enough to make houses affordable. (They only seemed affordable for a while because of the artificially low interest rates the Federal Reserve engineered during the housing boom through its inflationary policies.) Don't expect the rescued Fannie and Freddie to revive the housing market; the government's rescue package requires them to shrink their operations.
  • The rescue won't end the credit crisis that is pulling the economy into recession. Fannie and Freddie are perhaps the biggest, but certainly not the only, institutions that overcommitted to risky mortgages. Banks, insurance companies, and pension funds are holding billions in the same kind of dangerous stuff. And they still must get through another two years of interest "resets" on subprime mortgages created during the housing boom. As those resets occur, there will be more defaults on mortgages that borrowers can no longer afford – or no longer want because the loan balance exceeds the value of the house.
  • The rescue helps keep bad decision makers in place. Managers of banks and other financial institutions that invested heavily in Fannie and Freddie paper get let off the hook. They get another chance to make more bad decisions about how to deploy trillions of dollars of capital.
  • And the politicians who passed the laws that encouraged Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to take all those wild risks? They're up for reelection.

   The complete collapse of what was 80% of the funding of new mortgages this spring is now here. The whole structure of creating mortgage-backed securities and passing them on is gone.

   There will be no creating new phony tranches of sliced and diced SIV debt, and no CDO and no CDS and no AAA-rated toxic waste. We don't know what happens to $62 trillion of notional CDS derivatives now sloshing around the world's money markets, but somebody is holding a disaster. This financial crisis is far from over.

   By itself, the government might be able to manage some of these problems, but the problems are not isolated: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) guarantees deposits at banks of $4.3 trillion, but has only a $50 billion reserve to handle bank failures.

   Interest rates are close to 50-year lows, thanks to the Fed cutting the short-term rate some 3.5% below the rate of inflation. The flight into Treasuries, which are safer than other debt, has pushed down longer-term rates, too. But the ultimate implication of this bailout is that more deficits will weaken the Dollar and therefore higher interest rates will be required in the long term, especially for non-government-guaranteed debt, to cover inflation and increased risk.

   There will be many more financial institutions in trouble: perhaps 150 banks will fail, including probably one or two big banks like Lehman, Citi, or Merrill. FDIC is next, in our opinion, once a big commercial bank goes under.

   The Dollar is up in the short term on what we expect is a short-covering rally, but that is not consistent with long-term implications, so we don't expect it to stay up.

   Homeowners gain, as Fannie and Freddie are allowed to continue to expand in 2009. But after that, they will be looking for a newly reconstituted system beyond what is in the conservatorships that are being asked to unwind. The long term is unclear.

   The US Treasury is now in the mortgage business. The financial future of the world is crumbling, and this is the biggest step in that change.

Doug Casey is a world-renowned investor and author, whose book Crisis Investing was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for 29 consecutive weeks, a record at the time.

He has been a featured guest on hundreds of radio and TV shows, including David Letterman, Merv Griffin, Charlie Rose, Phil Donahue, Regis Philbin, NBC News, and CNN; and has been the topic of numerous features in periodicals such as Time, Forbes, People and the Washington Post.

His firm, Casey Research, LLC., publishes a variety of newsletters and web sites with a combined weekly audience in excess of 200,000, largely high net worth investors with an interest in resource development and international real estate.

See full archive of Doug Casey articles

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