I had wondered why, given the swift and brutal contraction of the commercial paper market in August and September, that there weren’t more apparent signs of distress. Outstandings fell an eyepopping $368 billion.
Commercial paper is short-term borrowings, maximum 270 days, but typically much shorter. If a borrower can’t roll his commercial paper but still needs the dough, he has to either find other sources of funding pronto or sell other assets. And given that the contraction was almost entirely in the asset backed commercial paper market, meaning CP supported by mortgages, car loans, credit card receivables, one would have expected to see a change in borrowing terms in those markets.
Now the mystery has been unraveled. It turns out many mortgage-related ABCP issuers have gone to a lender of last resort, namely the Federal Home Loan Banks, which have extended $163 billion of loans to them. Like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, they are considered to be government sponsored enterprises. Even though the Federal Home Loan Banks are technically a cooperative of private banks, the Federal government is sufficiently involved in their oversight (for example, their board is appointed by the President and approved by the Senate) that they are regarded as enjoying government support and fund at favorable rates. Worryingly, and again like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they have had accounting issues, but legislation mandating tougher oversight stalled in the Senate.
So risk has been passed from institutions that could have been permitted to fail (or at least suffer) to one too big too fail. We’ll learn all too soon whether this was a move that we will regret.
Banks shut out of the market for short-term loans are finding salvation in a government lending program set up to revive housing during the Great Depression.
Countrywide Financial Corp., Washington Mutual Inc., Hudson City Bancorp Inc. and hundreds of other lenders borrowed a record $163 billion from the 12 Federal Home Loan Banks in August and September as interest rates on asset-backed commercial paper rose as high as 5.6 percent. The government-sponsored companies were able to make loans at about 4.9 percent, saving the private banks about $1 billion in annual interest.
To meet the sudden demand, the institutions sold $143 billion of short-term debt in August and September, according to the FHLBs’ Office of Finance. The sales pushed outstanding debt up 21 percent to a record $1.15 trillion, an amount that may become a burden to U.S. taxpayers because almost half comes due before 2009.
The government is “taking a lot of risks through the Federal Home Loan Banks that are unnecessary,” according to Peter Wallison, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based organization that analyzes public policy, and general counsel at the Treasury Department from 1981 until 1985.
The home loan banks, known as FHLBs, are increasing risks to taxpayers by assuming the role as a lender of last resort, said Wallison. That’s the job of the Federal Reserve, he said.
A loss of confidence in the companies could prompt investors to dump FHLB debt, potentially causing the collapse of one or more banks, according to Wallison and lawmakers including Representative Richard Baker of Louisiana. If others were unable to meet the liabilities, taxpayers would be on the hook, they said.
U.S. lawmakers need to ensure “the institutions don’t blow up in the taxpayer’s face,” Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, a Republican on the House Financial Services Committee that is responsible for oversight of the system, said in an interview.
The FHLBs are cooperatives created by President Herbert Hoover in 1932 to spur mortgage lending. The system’s 8,100 owners and customers range from New York-based Citigroup Inc., the largest U.S. bank, to the single-branch Custer Federal Savings & Loan in Broken Bow, Nebraska. Their government ties support top AAA ratings from Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investors Service.
They borrow in the bond market and lend the money to their members. Federal Home Loan Bank obligations, when combined with the $1.5 trillion debt and $4.7 trillion in bond guarantees of Washington-based Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in McLean, Virginia, are 46 percent more than the $5.04 trillion of Treasury debt held by the public.
Lenders turned to the FHLB as two main sources of funding, short-term IOUs backed by mortgages and mortgage-bond sales, began to dry up in August. That’s when losses on securities tied to subprime home loans began to spread throughout the credit markets and investors retreated to the relative safety of Treasuries and their equivalents.
Asset-backed commercial paper outstanding fell 25 percent to $883.7 billion as of last week from $1.18 trillion on Aug. 8, data compiled by the Fed show.
Sales of mortgage bonds, excluding those issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have tumbled by 66 percent to a monthly average of $39 billion from $115 billion in 2006, according to Friedman Billings Ramsey Group Inc., a securities firm in Arlington, Virginia.
The home loan banks “were the only game in town for a lot of borrowers,” said Jim Vogel, head of agency debt research at FTN Financial a securities firm in Memphis, Tennessee. They are “like an old watch your grandfather left you years ago, and you pull it out of the drawer and find it’s the only timepiece you have.”
In July, lenders could raise funds by issuing one-month asset-backed commercial paper that yielded 1.8 basis points less on average than the one-month London interbank offered rate. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.
In September, the asset-backed commercial paper, when it was available, cost as much as 51 basis points more than Libor. At the same time, the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York offered one-month funds at an average of 48 basis points below Libor, making their loans more attractive.
The FHLB’s outstanding discount notes rose to a record $311 billion in the first three quarters, the most since 2001, according to data compiled by Zurich-based Credit Suisse Group.
FHLB loans probably will continue to grow in the next few months, though at a slower rate than during August and September, said Margaret Kerins, an agency debt strategist at RBS Greenwich Capital in Greenwich, Connecticut.
“Each day we seem to have new financial institutions announcing losses and so this probably isn’t over,” she said.
The home loan banks can lend at below-market rates because their government charter enables them to borrow more cheaply than other financial institutions. The ties to the government suggest the U.S. will bail them out in times of trouble.
The system sold $3 billion of two-year notes on Oct. 26 at a yield of 4.26 percent, or 46 basis points more than Treasuries of similar maturity. Stamford, Connecticut-based General Electric Co., also rated AAA, has $1 billion of notes due a month later that yield 4.6 percent.
Some lawmakers said they are concerned the FHLBs are taking on too much debt after they were unable to account properly for their own risks.
Five of the banks, including the Atlanta and Pittsburgh branches, restated earnings from 2001 through 2004, while the Chicago and Topeka branches corrected mistakes from 2001 through 2003. All of them fixed accounting errors for financial contracts used to protect against swings in interest rates.
The mistakes at the home loan banks, as well as those at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, prompted Republican lawmakers to spend the past four years pushing for legislation to create a tougher regulator for the government-chartered enterprises. While the House passed legislation in May, the Senate Banking Committee has yet to do so.
The failure to create new laws “is predicting disaster,” Baker, a Republican on the financial services panel, said in an interview. The FHLBs “have the potential for adverse economic impact if not properly administered,” he said.
The banks require borrowers to put up mortgages, mortgage bonds and other assets as collateral. None has experienced “a credit loss on an advance to a member, ever,” Ronald Rosenfeld, chairman of the Federal Housing Finance Board, the Washington- based regulator of the FHLBs, said in an e-mail.
The New York bank looks at detailed data on each asset when deciding how much to extend against it and doesn’t accept delinquent loans or non-AAA rated bonds as collateral, Paul Heroux, its head of member services said in an interview.
“The home loan banks are extremely low-risk institutions,” Allan Mendelowitz, one of five directors of the Federal Housing Finance Board, said in an interview. “There is probably no contingent risk to the taxpayer.”
Investors said the same about mortgage securities, which had home loans as collateral and were given top AAA ratings by S&P and Moody’s. Then defaults soared for loans to people with poor credit and some securities fell as much as 80 cents on the dollar.
A collapse would create “tremendous pressure to have the taxpayer bear the cost of a bailout,” said Representative Ed Royce, a Republican from California on the House Financial Services Committee.
The FHLBs have $276 billion of bonds maturing in 2008 and $174 billion in 2009, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The system last week began to refinance about $144 billion of its so-called discount notes sold in August and September with maturities ranging from eight to 12 weeks, FTN’s Vogel said.
Borrowing from the system during that period was probably a record for a two-month span, Vogel said. The FHLBs disclose their borrowing at the end of each quarter.
Calabasas, California-based Countrywide, the largest U.S. mortgage lender, almost doubled borrowings from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta to $51 billion during the quarter, the company said in a statement last week.
Countrywide began to use the FHLBs in August as analysts at New York-based Merrill Lynch & Co. raised the possibility that the company could go bankrupt after it had trouble raising funds in the commercial paper market. Countrywide later sold a $2 billion stake to Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America Corp., the second-biggest in the U.S. after Citigroup.
“You don’t want to use the phrase `going out of business’ in the press, but they would be in a much, much worse liquidity position if they didn’t have the Federal Home Loan Bank system sitting out there,” said Paul Miller, an analyst at Friedman Billings Ramsey Group Inc., a securities firm in Arlington, Virginia.
Washington Mutual, the largest U.S. savings and loan, boosted its borrowing from the FHLBs by $31 billion, the company said this month.
The Seattle-based lender’s “funding flexibility” put it in “a much stronger position to withstand the market disruptions of the third quarter,” Chief Financial Officer Thomas Casey said on a Oct. 17 conference call with investors. Washington Mutual spokeswoman Libby Hutchinson declined to comment further.
Paramus, New Jersey-based Hudson City Bancorp, the third- largest thrift in the U.S., borrowed $800 million from the FHLBs in the third quarter, 25 percent more than a year earlier, said Chief Executive Officer Ronald Hermance.
“Even AAA rated credits were having a tough time issuing paper,” Hermance said. “It took everybody back to the Federal Home Loan Banks.”