Saturday, December 20th, 2014
Half-True
Westmoreland
"There is not one single federal housing program yet that has not needed a bailout to survive."

Lynn Westmoreland on Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 in a congressional hearing

Westmoreland: All federal housing programs need bailouts

U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland thinks taxpayers may be dragged into the bailout business again, thanks to the Federal Housing Administration.

The FHA provides mortgage insurance to encourage banks to write loans to people who have little cash for a down payment. Many of these loans went bad when the housing bubble burst, and FHA officials are trying to raise money to keep the insurance afloat.  

It’s not the first time, Westmoreland said during a Feb. 29 congressional hearing.

"There’s not been one single federal housing program yet that has not needed a bailout to survive," Westmoreland said.  

All federal housing programs? We contacted a Westmoreland spokeswoman to get the story.

Leslie Shedd, the spokeswoman, said Westmoreland was referring to three programs that were started to keep the housing market stable and encourage Americans to buy homes: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the FHA.

Here’s how the feds got involved in the housing market:

After the real estate market collapsed during the Great Depression, the feds took steps to encourage banks to make home loans and families to buy houses.

They created the FHA, which issues mortgage insurance to guarantee that banks will get their money back even if a homeowner doesn’t make payments. This encourages banks to approve mortgages for people who don’t have a lot of money or have mediocre credit.

They also created Fannie Mae, and later Freddie Mac, to help lenders raise money to make more loans. Fannie and Freddie do this by selling the mortgages lenders’ make in bulk as securities and guaranteeing they will make a return.

Other programs perform similar tasks. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, like the FHA, insures home loans, but only for houses in rural areas. The Office of Public and Indian Housing backs them for native lands, while the Department of Veterans Affairs guarantees them for veterans.

Ginnie Mae, like Fannie and Freddie, guarantees mortgage securities, but its securities are made up of government-backed loans by the FHA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Public and Indian Housing.

This is what our research found:

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

Fannie and Freddie were bailed out by taxpayers in 2008. But calling them "federal housing programs" is a thorny issue.

They weren’t controlled by the government until the bailout.

Congress chartered Fannie and Freddie as "government-sponsored enterprises," or GSEs. They are supposed to help the U.S. meet its housing policy goals, but they were designed as for-profit corporations with their own shareholders and boards of directors. The federal government explicitly said it did not back the GSEs’ securities.

"They are in no way categorized as federal housing programs," said Ted Gayer, co-director of the economic studies program at the Brookings Institution.

The feds estimate the bailout will cost between $220 billion and $311 billion through 2014, though some of that will be paid back.

Federal Housing Administration

The president’s proposed budget for 2013 says the U.S. Treasury might have to give the FHA $688 million in emergency funds, but whether help will come in the form of a taxpayer-funded bailout is uncertain.

The FHA hiked the cost of mortgage insurance earlier this month to raise money, and it is set to receive about $1 billion from a legal settlement over fraudulent foreclosure practices. Its officials say these measures will avoid a bailout, but critics say this won’t be enough.

Ginnie Mae

Ginnie Mae hasn’t been bailed out, and it’s not clear it’s in dire trouble.

A November 2011 General Accounting Office report found that higher-than-expected defaults could force Ginnie Mae to dip into its reserves. It also concluded that Ginnie should do better at predicting future costs and documenting its methods.  

But so far, Ginnie has taken in more money than it has spent, the GAO said.

All the rest

The remainder of the federal programs are smaller players in the mortgage markets.

As of the second quarter of 2011, the FHA backed nearly $1 trillion in single-family loans. Veterans Affairs backed less than a quarter of that, while the USDA backed some 7 percent, according to data from the federal agency that took over Fannie and Freddie.  

They have yet to run into the kinds of trouble that Fannie, Freddie and the FHA are experiencing.  

The USDA and PIH have not needed a bailout so far, but Edward Pinto, a former Fannie Mae executive and scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, warns the USDA might need one, in part because it makes riskier loans.  

The FHA requires down payments of 3.5 percent. The USDA allows loans with no money down.

As for Veterans Affairs, the word "bailout" does not apply. Whenever one of its loans defaults, taxpayers automatically pick up the tab. The program is not expected to pay for itself.

Conclusion

Westmoreland’s claim that "there is not one single federal housing program yet that has not needed a bailout to survive" has shortcomings.  

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been bailed out. And the FHA is in need of help, though it has not been bailed out at this point.

But Fannie and Freddie did not come under federal control until 2008. They are strange creatures on the U.S. financial landscape. They were created by the government but operated independently until the housing bust. At that time, they were bailed out by the feds.

The three other federal housing efforts have not been bailed out. And it’s not clear that they will need taxpayer assistance.

Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the FHA are much larger players in the housing market. This bolsters Westmoreland’s larger point that organizations designed to help the housing market need help, too.

Westmoreland earns a Half True.