Keynesian Governments play with Interest Rates giving us Asset Bubbles and Crises

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 5th, 2011

Subprime Mortgage Lending – Qualifying the Unqualified

Housing has led the economy since World War II.  Home ownership.  The magical elixir.  So the government policy has been to put as many people into homes as possible.

They pushed mortgage lenders to approve mortgages.  And threatened them when they didn’t.  Especially to minorities in depressed inner cities.  Worse, activists were protesting.  Accusing them of redlining.  All this pressure forced the lenders to come up with ways to qualify the unqualified.  And the vehicle of choice was the subprime mortgage.

Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs).  Interest only mortgagesNo-documentation mortgages.  Etc.  These were putting people into houses like never before.  Even if they couldn’t afford a house.  They got in at low interest rates.  Kept low by easy monetary policy.  To get as many people approved for these dirt-cheap mortgages as possible.

Bad Government Policy caused a Housing Boom, a Housing Bubble and a Crisis

But that’s not all the government did.  Via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they guaranteed these subprime mortgages.  And bought them from the mortgage lenders.  Removing these highly risky mortgages from their balance sheets.  Removing all risk from the lender.  And passing it on to the taxpayer.  And as you would guess such a policy would do, the lenders approved more of these risky subprime mortgages.  And why not?  They made money.  And were insulated from all risk. 

Then Fannie and Freddie chopped and diced these risky subprime mortgages.  Created mortgage-backed securities (MBS).  And collateralized debt obligations (CDO).  And sold them on Wall Street.  They were high yield.  But super safe.  Because they were backed by historically the safest of all debt.  Mortgages.  Only these weren’t safe mortgages.  They were very risky subprime mortgages.  And why were they so risky?  Because when interest rates go up, so do their monthly payments.  Likely more than the home owner can pay.  And when those interest-only mortgages had to be refinanced, the new higher interest rates made the new mortgages more costly than the old.  More than a subprime borrower could afford.  Which meant one thing.  Default.

So all this bad government policy (to put as many people into homes as possible) caused a housing boom.  And a housing bubble.  The economy was overheating.  So the Federal Reserve tapped the monetary brakes.  By raising interest rates.  And all hell broke loose.

Government enabled Risky Subprime Mortgage Lending

The government’s housing policy gave us the subprime mortgage crisis.  And spread this contagion around the globe.  Thanks to Fannie and Freddie.  Enabling all that bad mortgage lending.  Giving us the Great Recession.  That appears more depression-like than recession.  Now the go-to government policy of boosting economic activity won’t work.  Because the housing market is in shambles.  And it will get worse before it gets better (see Uncle Sam is a reluctant landlord of foreclosed homes by Lorraine Woellert and Clea Benson, Bloomberg Businessweek, posted 9/5/2011 on MSNBC).

For sale or rent by distressed owner: 248,000 homes. That’s how many residential properties the U.S. government now has in its possession, the result of record numbers of people defaulting on government-backed mortgages. Washington is sitting on nearly a third of the nation’s 800,000 repossessed houses, making the U.S. taxpayer the largest owner of foreclosed properties. With even more homes moving toward default, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration are looking for a way to unload them without swamping the already depressed real estate market.

The U.S. taxpayer is the largest owner of foreclosed properties.  Because government enabled risky subprime mortgage lending.  They guaranteed or bought risky mortgages.  So risky that no mortgage lender would have approved them if they had to carry the risk on their own balance sheets.  Which makes the government incompetent.  Or devious.

The government caused this problem.  By putting as many people as possible into homes.  Whether they could afford it or not.  And now they have a big problem on their hands.  Or, rather, the taxpayers do.  For government’s problem is ultimately the taxpayers’ problem.  It is our money after all that they are playing with.

Since the 2008 financial collapse, the government has spent billions of dollars trying to extricate borrowers from high-cost loans, aid delinquent homeowners and stabilize neighborhoods. The results have been disappointing. The Obama Administration’s signature loan-modification program has helped about 657,000 homeowners — far short of its goal of 3 to 4 million. The program was a victim of its complexity and its inability to cope with overwhelming demand.

Yes, they’re good at creating BIG problems.  But not very good at fixing them.  To put it mildly.  And yet we keep turning to government for help.  Go figure.

Selling High-Risk Securities Masquerading as Safe High-Yield Investments 

And it’s not only the U.S that made a mess of their mortgage market.  Europe has her own subprime problems.  On top of their sovereign debt crisis.  As if they didn’t have enough to worry about already (see Europe banks slide to 29-month low on multiple headwinds by Simon Jessop, Reuters, posted 9/5/2011 on Yahoo! Finance).

European bank shares slid to a 29-month low on Monday, leading the broader market down on fresh sub-prime mortgage woes, fears of recession and yet more evidence of political disunity that could hamper efforts to solve the region’s debt crisis…

“The chances of a near-term recovery remain slim as euro zone debt concerns, structural reform and a lawsuit for allegedly mis-selling mortgage debt all weigh heavy on the sector,” Manoj Ladwa, senior trader at ETX Capital said.

Subprime mortgage woes.  And a debt crisis.  All caused by activist Keynesian governments.  Playing with interest rates.  To stimulate the economy with an artificial demand.  Which always ends the same way.  Asset bubbles.  And crises.  In Europe.  The U.S.  And everywhere where activist governments think they can outsmart the free market.

Royal Bank of Scotland…

… is among the worst-placed of European lenders facing a multi-billion-dollar U.S. regulatory lawsuit accusing them of misrepresenting the checks they made on mortgages before securitising them.

So Europe, too, has been dabbling in mortgage-backed securities (MBS).  And collateralized debt obligations (CDO).  Doesn’t look like things ended any better for the Europeans.  They sold high-risk securities masquerading as safe high-yield investments.  Because of those ‘safe’ mortgages underlying these investments.  That were anything but safe.

“The banks’ cost of funding goes up in tandem with the country’s cost of funding, and eventually they get denied access to the credit market.”

That relationship was once again thrown into focus on Monday as both Italian and Spanish 10-year yields rose to near 1-month highs. Peripheral euro zone sovereign CDS yields also rose, with French yields at a record high.

The financial crisis is not only hurting investors, it’s hurting countries.  By raising borrowing costs.  Which is a BIG problem for countries that like to spend beyond their means.  Because they have to borrow to pay today’s bills.  As well as borrow to pay yesterday’s bills. 

As bonds come due they have to borrow money to redeem them.  And all this new borrowing is at higher and higher interest rates.  So high that governments even have to borrow to pay the interest on the money they’ve borrowed.  And the interest on their debt becomes an ever growing line item on their budgets.  Which makes it harder to pay retirement benefits.  Health care benefits.  Education benefits (i.e., free college tuition).  Etc.  Eventually requiring budget cuts.  And austerity.  Which the people often respond to with riots.

Adding to growing concern over a return to recession in the developed world, data showed euro zone services sector growth eased for the fifth consecutive month in August.

Recent data showed a world economy growing at “near stall speed,” analysts at Societe Generale (Paris: FR0000130809 – news) said in a note, although they did not believe the world would return to recession as it needed a trigger, “which we believe will remain absent.”

“Taming burgeoning public debts on both sides of the Atlantic (Stuttgart: A0J3C9 – news) will take time and we forecast a prolonged period of low growth for both the US and Europe,” they add.

All this government spending is paid for (in part) with high taxes.  As the borrowing costs grow governments turn to raising tax rates.  Which puts the brakes on economic activity.  Which, in turn, reduces the amount of tax dollars collected by the government.  Making a bad problem worse.

You Never Want a Serious Crisis to go to Waste

This is Keynesian economics.  Keep interest rates low.  Depreciate your currency.  And keep on spending.  Their rationale is that governments can do anything they want.  For it’s their fiat money.  They can always print more.  And the resulting inflation will make yesterday’s debt easier to pay tomorrow.  We call it screwing our creditors.  I mean, monetizing the debt.

But debt has consequences.  The European sovereign debt crisis is a crisis because they can’t borrow any more money to continue their excessive government spending.  Standard and Poor’s just downgraded U.S. bonds because of excessive debt.  The tax and spend Keynesians say poppycock.  Keep spending.  And raise taxes.

But the responsible people say, “Wait a minute.”  For they see these crises as debt crises.  And they think ‘what if’ there wasn’t excessive debt.  Would there be a crisis then?  And the answer is, of course, no.  So they understand that too much debt is a bad thing.  And if it’s a bad thing, adding more of it will only make it more of a bad thing.  And unless you think a crisis is a good thing, you don’t want more of one.

But if you think a crisis is a good thing.  That “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”  Then you probably want more of a bad thing.  And you’re probably a Big Government Keynesian liberal Democrat.  Using that crisis to advance an agenda you couldn’t through the normal legislative process.

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