ARC's 1st Law: As a "progressive" online discussion grows longer, the probability of a nefarious reference to Karl Rove approaches one

Friday, March 07, 2008

WSJ Troubled by Bernanke As Well

It's good to see that we're not the only ones laughing at Bernanke and his idiotic proposal the other day to have lenders simply reduce their principal on mortgage loans. From yesterday's Wall Street Journal:

Bernanke's 'Principal'
March 6, 2008; Page A14

We've seen some puzzlers over the years, but we'll admit we never expected to see a Federal Reserve Chairman talking down the capital cushion of the nation's banking system.

But there it was on Tuesday, the equivalent of a CEO shorting his own stock, as Ben Bernanke encouraged the nation's bankers to write down the principal on millions of mortgage loans. Voluntary loan modifications aren't doing enough to stop foreclosures, declared the chief steward of the U.S. financial system. "In this environment," he said, "principal reductions that restore some equity for the homeowner may be a relatively more effective means of avoiding delinquency and foreclosure."

Mull over that one for a moment. Mr. Bernanke and the Fed are charged with protecting the soundness of the banking system. The bulwark of such protection is shareholder equity -- capital -- which is generated in part by income-producing assets known as loans. Yet the Fed chief has now advised that, as a matter of public policy, banks should take a chunk of that capital and transfer it to mortgage debtors. How this additional charge -- and new political risk -- against bank earnings will ease the mistrust at the heart of the current credit crisis is a mystery.

This came only a few days after Mr. Bernanke had publicly advised Congress that more banks will fail. And it came on the same day that the Fed's Vice Chairman, Donald Kohn, told Capitol Hill that bank earnings are under increasing pressure. Amid such earnings strain and uncertainty about how far real-estate prices will fall, now seems an especially bad time for a Fed chief to instruct banks to create further losses.

It's not as if bankers don't understand their mortgage predicament, or have no sympathy for borrowers. But how, and whether, to renegotiate their loan contracts is a matter for them to decide. They might choose to lower the interest rate on some mortgages, reduce the principal amount on others, or foreclose and repossess homes on the hopeless cases. If the Fed, in its regulatory role, thinks a bank should be more aggressive in taking asset write-downs, it can order that on a bank by bank basis. Elevating principal write-downs to a general banking principle is regulatory overreach.

Only the day before Mr. Bernanke dropped his bomb, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson disclosed that "since July more than one million struggling homeowners received a workout -- either a loan modification or a repayment plan that helped them avoid foreclosure." In January alone, there were 167,000 such modifications, with the number of borrowers receiving help rising faster than the number of foreclosures.

Mr. Bernanke's broadside might well hamper these voluntary workouts by signaling to other borrowers that they needn't do anything at all. They can merely sit tight and wait for their banker to tell them they don't owe nearly as much as they thought. Or they'll conclude they can wait for Congress to provide its own mortgage bailout, this time on the backs of taxpayers who decided not to speculate on real estate during the housing bubble, or not to purchase a more expensive home than they could afford.

It's no coincidence that one of the chief advocates of a government mortgage bailout, House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank, hailed Mr. Bernanke's remarks as an endorsement. Meanwhile, Mr. Paulson had to wonder why Mr. Bernanke was undermining the Treasury Secretary's sensible public opposition, expressed on Monday, to a taxpayer rescue. Do the gentlemen not like each other?

The worst irony here is that the mortgage crisis is in large part the fault of the Fed's own reckless monetary policy. Low real interest rates for too long created a subsidy for debt that spurred the housing and credit bubbles that have now burst. Prices got higher than they should have been, and the first step in any recovery is letting those now-falling prices find a new bottom. Government interference in that price discovery will only prolong the crisis, increasing the chances that the losses are eventually dumped onto taxpayers.

The government is already well down this road with its expansion of the Federal Housing Administration's authority, and its unleashing of an unreformed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Given his ostensible independence, the Fed Chairman is supposed to be a crucial restraint on all of this moral hazard and political panic. If the Fed can't do that, we might as well let Congress run the banking system.

Bernanke is really terrible, as this Op-Ed points out. While Greenspan caused much of these problems, Bernanke's approach to the situation is the worst of both worlds

As I pointed out back in January, a 1-time large rate reduction should've been made, with the understanding that that was it.... it appears that the Fed may continue to cut rates in drips & drabs, prolonging the slide.

Perhaps Bernanke is part of the Obama cult and is looking to destroy the economy before election day?

Your Co-Conspirator,
ARC: St Wendeler

Comments (1)
Monterey John said...

Well... yes, he is an idiot.

What was said about principal reductions should have been said in private to the bankers. I suspect the bankers' response would have been "Duh!" Instead the response, because of the public hoopla is "Doh!"

What a moron.

However, as you may have been able to tell from my previous post, I am not a fan of continued rate cuts.