October 7, 2009
By JENNY ANDERSON, New York Times
A year after Washington rescued the big names of American finance, it’s still hard to get a loan. But the problem isn’t just tight-fisted banks.
The continued disarray in debt-securitization markets, which in recent years were the source of roughly 60 percent of all credit in the United States, is making loans scarce and threatening to slow the economic recovery. Many of these markets are operating only because the government is propping them up.
But now the Federal Reserve has put these markets on notice that it plans to withdraw its support for them. Policy makers hope private investors will return to the markets, which imploded during the financial crisis.
The exit will require a delicate balancing act, government officials said.
“You do it incrementally, where and when you think you can, and not sooner,” said Lee Sachs, a counselor to the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner.
The debt-securitization markets finance corporate loans, home mortgages, student loans and more. In good times, they enabled banks to package their loans into securities and resell them to investors. That process, known as securitization, freed banks to lend even more money.
Many investors have lost trust in securitization after losing huge sums on packages of subprime mortgages that had high default rates. The government has since spent more than $1 trillion trying to restore the markets, with mixed success.
Until more of the securitization market revives, or some new form of financing takes its place, a wide range of loans needed to secure a lasting economic recovery will remain elusive, experts said.
“Given the imperative for securitization markets to fuel bank lending, we won’t have meaningful economic growth until securitization markets are re-established,” said Joseph R. Mason, a professor of banking at Louisiana State University. Mr. Sachs agrees: “It’s very important these markets come back to get credit to businesses and families who need it, and also as a sign of confidence.”
Enormous swaths of this so-called shadow banking system remain paralyzed. Depending on the type of loan, certain securitization markets have fallen 40 to 100 percent.
A once-thriving private market in securities backed by home mortgages has collapsed, from $744 billion in 2005, at the peak of the housing boom, to $8 billion during the first half of this year.
The market for securities backed by commercial real estate loans is in worse shape. No new securities of this type have been issued in two years.
“The securitization markets are dead,” said Robert J. Shiller, the Yale University economist and housing expert who predicted the subprime collapse. The government is supporting them, he said, but it’s unclear what will happen when it extricates itself. “We’re stuck,” he said.
Despite the running problems, federal officials hope to start weaning the securitization markets off government support next spring. The Federal Reserve has spent about $905 billion buying government-guaranteed mortgages in an effort to keep mortgage rates low. It will continue buying until it reaches its target of $1.25 trillion.
Complicating the Fed’s plan, banks — the other source of credit next to the securitization markets — continue to rein in lending, according to data from the Federal Reserve. And next year, banks face accounting rule changes and capital requirements that could further restrict their ability to make loans.
To be sure, certain corners of the securitization market are percolating again, thanks to the government’s Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, or TALF, which provides attractive financing for investors who buy the securities.
Bonds backed by consumer debt — credit card debt, auto loans and some student loans — are being issued at costs close to those before the financial crisis, an indication that the market is functioning again.
But the program applies only to borrowers with stellar credit. It does not cover credit card debt or auto loans for people with blemished credit histories.
“The market is coming back, but a lot of it is because of TALF,” said Hyun Song Shin, a Princeton economist who studies securitization. “The big question is, Will the private issuance market stand on its own two feet without TALF, or has there been a fundamental change in the market that it is somehow hobbled permanently?”
That question is hard to answer as long as the government is dominating certain securitization markets. So far, the Fed has been most aggressive in supporting the market for mortgage-backed securities, which plays a crucial role in housing finance. The Fed is virtually the only buyer for these instruments, purchasing about $905 billion worth of government-guaranteed mortgage-backed securities through mid-September. Industry analysts estimate that is about 80 to 85 percent of the market.
“This is public support,” said George Miller, executive director for the American Securitization Forum, which represents the industry. “At the end of the day, the mortgage risk is held by the taxpayer.”
Investors are particularly concerned about the commercial real estate market. A big worry is that $50 billion of securitized commercial property loans are due to be refinanced in the next year. If that can’t be done, a toxic mix of declining property prices and maturing loans could lead to fresh losses at many banks.
“If there’s no mechanism, those properties will default,” said Arnold Phillips, who oversees mortgages and structured securities for the $50 billion in fixed-income investments managed by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.
As long as the market remains closed, banks will be reluctant to make loans for commercial real estate, since they would have to hold on to them, rather than package them into securities.
Meanwhile, the programs the government has started have not changed securitization practices that many investors say were a cause of the financial crisis. Lawmakers remain concerned that when securitization comes back, it does so in a way that doesn’t put the financial system at risk.
“Our challenge is to have a robust securitization process that adds value to the economy and doesn’t undermine it,” said Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and chairman of the Banking Subcommittee on Securities, Insurance and Investment. He plans to hold a hearing on securitization next month to find out why consumers and businesses are still having so much trouble getting loans.