Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The federal government expanded its financial-rescue effort by another $800 billion Tuesday to encourage more lending to home buyers and consumers, bringing the national bailout tab to $1.5 trillion and counting.

The surprise move is the latest indication that the U.S. economy is headed sharply downward and that the original $700 billion bailout plan was not nearly enough to break up the nation’s credit logjam.

The program introduced Tuesday by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. would commit $600 billion to assist the mortgage markets, and a second program would provide $200 billion of increased lending to consumers. Both would be operated by the Federal Reserve and do not need congressional approval.

The federal government introduced the programs as new reports revealed that home prices continued their precipitous decline in September and household spending plunged in the last quarter by the largest amount since 1980.

“The U.S. recession is set to get worse — a lot worse — in the next couple of quarters,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist for IHS Global Insight.

The Fed announced that it would purchase from investors up to $500 billion in mortgage-backed securities that were packaged and guaranteed by mortgage-financing giants Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae. The central bank will also buy up to $100 billion in debt issued by Fannie, Freddie and the Federal Home Loan Banks.

“This is what should have been done by Treasury when it got the [$700 billion] Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) approved in early October,” said Vincent Reinhart, a former senior economist at the Fed who is now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Instead, he said, Treasury got distracted by its program to infuse capital into banks.

“As markets deteriorated, the capital that Treasury put in the front door leaked out the backdoor,” Mr. Reinhart said.

None of the $600 billion used to purchase this debt or these mortgage-backed securities will come from TARP. “However, the amount of resources committed by the government has increased by $600 billion, and it does represent credit risk to the taxpayer. They’re just using the Fed’s balance sheet,” Mr. Reinhart said. Essentially, the Fed is creating money to finance its purchase of mortgage-backed securities and Fannie and Freddie debt.

The additional risk assumed by the taxpayer is somewhat limited by the fact that the government had already effectively guaranteed the mortgage securities backed by Fannie and Freddie.

What the Fed is now doing is what Congress intended, Mr. Reinhart said, adding, “Now we have asset purchases that will provide help to the mortgage market.” Noting that the Fed has “unlimited balance-sheet potential,” the former Fed economist said, “This could be just the beginning.”

“The Fed’s goal is to push down the yield on these mortgage-backed securities, which will lower interest rates on mortgages, making it easier for Americans to buy homes,” said Scott E. Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable, a trade association representing the 100 largest financial-services firms.

“These securities are not the toxic assets that were the focus of TARP. They are plain-vanilla, high-quality assets,” Mr. Talbott said.

At his news conference announcing the new programs, Mr. Paulson repeated his view that “the root cause of the economic problem in our nation was a major housing correction.”

“Nothing is more important to getting through this housing correction than the availability of affordable mortgage finance,” he said.

So far, none of the extraordinary programs implemented by the Fed and Treasury to inject liquidity into the credit markets over the past year has succeeded in achieving a sustained, substantive reduction in mortgage interest rates.

Long-term mortgage rates, which are mostly determined in the bond market, have remained stubbornly high despite the fact that the U.S. government has effectively guaranteed Fannie and Freddie debt and securities backed by them, analysts say. For example, the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate has declined only slightly from 6.38 percent in September 2007 to 6.2 percent last month, according to surveys conducted by Freddie Mac.

In contrast, short-term interest rates, over which the Fed has much greater control, have plunged since the financial crisis erupted during the summer of 2007. The Fed’s target overnight interest rate has declined from 5.25 percent to 1 percent.

Meanwhile, the decline of housing prices continued to set records. The S&P/Case-Shiller national home-price index was down a record 16.8 percent in the third quarter compared with a year ago. With housing prices falling in each of 20 metropolitan areas, the S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city composite index reflected a record 17.4 percent decline in September compared with a year ago.

The second government lending program announced Tuesday was the $200 billion Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility. This program will allow the Fed to purchase top-rated securities backed by credit-card debt, auto loans, student loans and small-business loans. The Treasury used $20 billion from TARP to provide the Fed with credit protection against losses from these asset purchases.

In 2007, $240 billion in asset-backed securities were issued in these areas. After a steep decline during the third quarter, the market essentially ground to a halt in October, Mr. Paulson said. “This lack of affordable consumer credit undermines consumer spending, and as a result weakens the economy,” he said.

Indeed, the Commerce Department reported Tuesday that consumer spending plunged at an annual rate of 3.7 percent during the third quarter. Spending on durable goods, such as autos, furniture, appliances and other items expected to last at least three years plummeted more than 15 percent. In October, retail sales, especially autos, fell off a cliff.

While Mr. Paulson said it would “take awhile to get this program up and running,” he added that it could be expanded over time. “Highly rated” commercial mortgage-backed securities and residential mortgage-backed securities could become eligible under the program, which will be executed by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, whose president, Timothy F. Geithner, was selected as Treasury secretary earlier this week by President-elect Barack Obama.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, supported the actions but said more needed to be done.

“I appreciate the continued efforts of Secretary Paulson and [Fed] Chairman [Ben] Bernanke to address different facets of the economic crisis, and today´s action hopefully will address issues constraining consumers´ access to credit,” Mr. Hoyer said. “However, I continue to believe the administration can do more to address home foreclosures, which are at the heart of this downturn in many ways, and that a larger economic-stimulus package must be enacted in the short term.”

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