The government yesterday announced their plans for supporting the continued functioning of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac(The "GSEs"). The specific details of the plan can be found here, but essentially it boils down to the government stepping in and backing GSE debt obligations with the full faith of the U.S. government, thus ensuring their full principal value. What does this mean, who gets affected, and why was this necessary? These are all questions I'll try to briefly answer.
The GSE's are massive organizations which were created with the intent of promoting homeownership and adding liquidity into the marketplace. The organizations were mostly involved in two lines of business. First, they operated as guarantors in the mortgage market. Banks could sell mortgage loans qualifying under certain criteria to the GSE's. They would then package them into securities, guarantee them, and take a portion of the interest payments as a fee in return for the guarantee. The second line of business involved issuing large amounts of debt (for cheap) and then using that money to purchase mortgage loans which gave a higher interest rate and had historically performed well.
But history is a bad measure, and the institutions were hit from multiple angles. They ended up under-pricing the risk of their mortgage guarantee business, and the mortgages they purchased with debt began to decline significantly in value. These combined to completely wipe out equity, at least if you were looking at their equity from a "fair value" basis. (The company for several quarters has insisted on using its own projections to value its assets/liabilities over the market's pricing, but they provided both figures.) That lead to the questioning of their viability, and the cost to issue debt for the institutions began to rise sharply. That began to add even more devastation to their second line of business, because they could no longer fund their mortgage assets with cheap debt. It would have only been a matter of time before the companies went into bankruptcy.
Now, the government has stepped in and essentially gauranteed full value for the debt issued by Fannie/Freddie, as well as their obligations for guaranteed mortgage securities. Those combine to total over 5 trillion. Those are backed by mortgage assets, and the first losses will accrue to common and preferred shareholders. Still, that is little comfort to me, as by fair value measures these institutions have been equity-negative, and I perceive things to continue to worsen for some time. Their will ultimately be big losses for government. That means taxpayers will be suffering for the benefit of the investors in mortgage assets.
That is a redistribution I would prefer without. And there is one more negative hazard to this deal as well, but these are completely over-shadowed by the systemic necessity of the deal. But first, that negative is that government has now taken over the judgment of future mortgage risk. It makes me shudder to think that we have offloaded the task of judging risk from hundreds of thousands of banks to one central institution (although we got into this mess because there was a complete lack of risk judging by banks, in the first place). Instead, everything will now dance to the tune of the GSE guidelines. The government has committed to wind down the GSE business over time and diminish its role in the mortgage market, but that will be a long time.
Unfortunately, the move was very, very necessary. If the GSE's were to announce bankruptcy, I believe you'd have a terrible hellish limbo (and please correct me in the comments if im wrong on this point). Unlike typical bankruptcies, nothing for the GSE's could function as usual. As I understand it, they could not pay off expiring debt, and they could not pay off guarantee obligations- simply, they couldn't do anything. That is because once in bankruptcy, their debt obligations would disregard time duration and instead put them on equal footing based on their class (senior, junior, etc). That means, a senior note expiring and scheduled to be paid back in 30 years would have the same value and rights as a senior note due tomorrow. That means the institution could not pay back anyone until it figured out what it could ultimately pay back. Well in the case of the GSE's, that could be ages. I mean, their assets are long duration mortgages to individuals which can't be redeemed, meaning you'd have to wait for them to slowly get paid back. And some of their guarantee liabilities extend for 10 years or more, and can change rapidly at any time depending on the mortgage market situation. Best case, you'd have to wait until the mortgage situation clears up and you find suitable buyers of its tremendous load of assets and guarantees. But considering the size of the liability, that is very unlikely for everyone except government.
And in the meantime, you have stagnation. The company would have to preserve all its capital and pay out nothing. That means that thousands of institutions around the world would be holding pieces of paper paying them no interest, with questionable ultimate value, and no idea of when any of that value may ultimately be able to be realized. Things would shutdown, people would be furious, and foreign lending to the US would cease. That could not happen, and sadly, that means the institutions could not be allowed to fail.
What can we learn from this saga? Well, the situation does not bode well for other mega-banks on shaky financial footing, especially those with long-duration credit default swaps. If one of these institutions were too fail, the same thing would happen here- everything would freeze up until ultimate liabilities can be determined, leaving a very large class of debt and CDS holders in stagnation for a long period of time. "Doomsday" would then ensue.