Or at least we’re about to be, if my hunch is right. IndyMac became the second largest bank failure in American history today. Taxpayers are on the hook for $4 to $8 billion, and the FDIC may have to raise more money to pay off insured deposits.
But that’s small potatoes. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which have become pretty much the only source of liquidity in the home mortgage market since the subprime spit really hit the fan this spring, have tanked in recent days. Their shares are about a third of what they were last month and off about 85% from one year ago.
Guess who may be called upon to save these staggering financial giants?
Former St. Louis Federal Reserve President William Poole said yesterday that the institutions are bankrupt. Freddie Mac owed $5.2 billion more than its assets were worth in the first quarter, and the fair value of Fannie Mae’s assets fell 66 percent to $12.2 billion, and may be negative next quarter.
“Congress ought to recognize that these firms are insolvent, that it is allowing these firms to continue to exist as bastions of privilege, financed by the taxpayer,” Poole said. He added that the government will probably be forced to take over the companies.
Why does this matter? Because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac hold or guarantee about half the outstanding mortgages in the United States. That’s about $5 trillion worth of paper .
Hear this: If the federal government takes over these companies, it essentially doubles the national debt overnight. Which would make all Americans homeowners, in a sense.
Well, it may not come to that. Late this afternoon, it was reported that Ben Bernanke would extend the same access to the Fed’s emergency discount window that he offered non-banks back in March, when it became clear that Bear Stearns faced imminent collapse. Essentially, the Fed is offering to take risky, low-quality mortgage-backed paper for higher-quality Treasury bonds in order to improve the balance sheets of the troubled institutions.
Sounds great, but what does that really do? It’s a short-term solution, and when the Fed swaps the paper back to a bank in 90 days, it’s still junk security based on mortgaged real estate that’s dropped up to 25% of its value over the last two years.
Putting on my foil hat: Maybe that’s the goal. Maybe the bankers at the Fed want to wind up with half the mortgages in the U.S., sort of like being the guy with hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place in the final stages of Monopoly who takes all of your real estate when you can’t raise the cash to pay him what you owe.
Seriously, the bottom line is that we’re just beginning to feel the real impact of the high stakes roulette the banksters have played with our homes. To ease the liquidity crisis in the credit markets, the Fed is lending money to non-banks for the first time since the Great Depression.
That’s a key sentence. If the central bank of the United States is taking emergency action it hasn’t taken since the Great Depression, what does that say about the state of our economy?