Fed takes boldest action since the Depression to rescue US mortgage industry

The US Federal Reserve has taken the boldest action since the 1930s, accepting $200bn of housing debt as collateral to prevent an implosion of the mortgage finance industry and head off a full-blown economic crisis.

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Emergency action was co-ordinated by Ben Bernanke [right], Donald Kohn [top], and Mark Carney after problems emerged

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The Bank of England, the key European central banks, and the Bank of Canada all joined in a co-ordinated move with a mix of policies to halt the dowward spiral in the credit markets, expanding on the “shock and awe” tactics used late last year.

Ben Bernanke, Donald Kohn, and Mark Carney: Fed takes action to rescue US mortgage industry
Emergency action was co-ordinated by Ben Bernanke [right], Donald Kohn [top], and Mark Carney after problems emerged

The Fed’s dramatic step came after an emergency conference call by governors on Monday night. It followed the melt-down of the US chartered agencies — Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and other lenders — which together guarantee 60pc of the entire US home loan market. Fannie Mae’s share price fell 19pc in panic trading on Monday after Barron’s magazine said it may need a rescue package.

“The agency crisis was a Tsunami event,” said Tim Bond, global strategist at Barclays Capital.

“The market was starting to question the solvency of bodies that stand at the top of the credit pile. These agencies together wrap or insure $6 trillion of mortgages. They cannot be allowed to fail because it would cause a financial disaster. The fact that this sector has blown up has caught everybody’s attention in Washington,” he said.

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The Fed action set off a powerful relief rally, lifting the Dow Jones index over 340 points in early trading. Both US and European equities have been hovering on key support lines in recent days, threatening to break down through 18-month lows in a second, brutal leg to the bear market.

Stress indicators across almost all parts of the global credit system fell from extreme levels on the Fed news. The CDX and iTraxx Europe indexes that serve as a default barometer for corporate bonds retreated from record highs, although it is too early to judge whether the latest action will start to thaw the credit freeze. The stock market rally after the last central bank intervention in December fizzled out after just one day.

“This is not going to be enough,” said Hans Redeker, currency chief at BNP Paribas.
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“The Fed is doing absolutely the right thing by soaking up mortgage debt that nobody else wants. This will have an impact on spreads, but we’re seeing the deflation of a major bubble. The Fed is still going to have to cut interest rates by 75 basis points next week,” he said.

It is a ground-breaking move for the Fed to accept mortgage collateral, even if the debt is theoretically ‘AAA-grade’ debt. The Fed is constrained by Article 13 of the Federal Reserve Act from buying mortgage bonds outright, but it can achieve a similar effect by letting banks roll over collateral indefinitely. The European Central Bank is already doing this, shielding Dutch, Spanish, German, and some British banks from the full impact of the credit crunch.

The Fed is to create a new facility that allows banks to swap their mortgage bonds for US Treasuries. It is a well-targeted “sterilized” move to avoid adding fuel to inflationary fire. It follows the Fed’s separate pledge last Friday to add up to $200bn in liquidity.

The Bank of England also announced that it was widening the range of elligible collateral as it offers £10bn of three-month loans, saying pressures in the money markets “have recently increased again.” The ECB and the Swiss have boosted swap agreements with the Fed to provide $30bn and $6bn respectively in dollar liquidity to their own lenders.

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Bernard Connolly, global strategist at Banque AIG, said the Fed action may help calm the markets for now, but it cannot solve the root problem of eroded of bank capital.

“There is the risk of a very damaging credit contraction. We face the most serious global crisis since the Great Depression. But this time at least the North American central banks are doing their best to stop it spreading to the real economy,” he said.

The emergency actions appear to have been co-ordinated by the Fed’s top two figures, Ben Bernanke and Donald Kohn, working closely with the Bank of Canada’s Mark Carney. “We should be thankful that we have people in charge who appreciate the gravity of the situation,” said Mr Connolly.

The travails at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — once rock-solid institutions — had combined in a deadly cocktail with a fresh wave of panic over the solvency of the investment banks with heavy exposure to sub-prime debt.

Bear Stearns was forced to deny reports that it was running out of capital and may seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The spreads measuring default risk on its debt rocketed from 246 to 792 on Monday.

Mr Bond said the mortgage agencies may ultimately need to be nationalized. Fannie Mae has already seen its stock price drop 70pc since October at a cost of $50bn in market value, even though it has an implicit federal guarantee. “There is going to have to be a very big bail-out,” he said.

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, International Business Editor
Last Updated: 12:48am GMT 14/03/2008

Source: Telegraph

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