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The $5 trillion bailout

Economic growth, Financial Events, Leverage

The US government has finally decided to nationalise the two home loan giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Readers will remember I forecast this would be necessary a year ago, in a letter to the Financial Times. I argued then that ‘a buyer of last resort, such as the Federal government, would probably now need to emerge, if the situation is to be stabilised’.

Fannie and Freddie guarantee 47% of all US mortgages, worth over $5 trillion – equal to the combined GDP of the UK and France. According to the excellent Gretchen Morgensen in today’s New York Times, today’s move ‘grew out of deep concern among foreign investors that the companies’ debt might not be repaid’, with China owed at least $340bn.

As the blog noted in July, this vast debt was supported by just $70bn of capital. And Morgensen reveals today that even this number is probably overstated. As I discuss below, high leverage makes earnings (and management) look wonderful whilst things are going well. But it also, as we now see with Fannie/Freddie, makes bankruptcy much more likely in the down cycle.