The Next Six Bailouts?

Fannie Mae? Citigroup? California? Who will get more govt. help?

December 31, 2009, 12:49 PM

Jan. 4, 2010 — -- Was the government's $3.8 billion infusion of cash into GMAC last week a sign of what's to come in this new year?

Some experts expect to see billions more in bailouts in 2010 -- this despite the fact that all nine original recipients of the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) have repaid the tens of billions in loans they received in 2008 and 2009.

"I think that some of the weak links are going to need more money," said Joel L. Naroff, president and founder of Naroff Economic Advisors. "It's always impossible to say there won't be another major calamity, especially given that we're still facing massive foreclosures."

So who are the weak links? Naroff and others have a few ideas.

Late last month, the Treasury Department strengthened those suspicions when it announced that it would remove a $400 billion cap on Fannie and Freddie aid.

Thanks to high unemployment, the two companies will continue to see their portfolios weighed down by mortgage defaults, Naroff said.

"Ten percent unemployment means more foreclosures and more problems in paying back mortgages, and we're talking about kinds of mortgages that Fannie and Freddie thought were good mortgages," he said.

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As it did before, the government, he said, will step in to help stop the bleeding either by direct infusions of cash or other rescue measures.

"They're not going to let Fannie and Freddie go," he said.

More Mortgage Woes

In a blog post on the financial Web site, Montgomery writes that many of the loans that would have once been handled by Fannie and Freddie are now being insured by FHA, which has seen the number of mortgages it insures surge since the financial crisis hit.

"The FHA is now backing loans that would have made a crooked subprime mortgage broker blush in the heyday of the housing bubble," he wrote. "If somehow the FHA manages to get through 2010 without a bailout, it will wind up being bailed out in the first half of 2011 instead."

An audit last fall found that FHA's reserve fund was below federally-mandated limits, but the agency at the time pledged that it would not require taxpayer assistance and unveiled new measures designed to manage the agency's risks.

"To be clear, the fund's reserves are sufficient to cover our future losses, so the FHA will not require taxpayer assistance or new Congressional action," FHA Commissioner David H. Stevens said in a written statement last September. "That said, given the size and scope of the FHA and its importance to today's market, these risk management and credit policy changes are important steps in strengthening the FHA fund by ensuring that lenders have proper and sufficient protections."

Barry Ritholtz, the author of 2009's "Bailout Nation," says yes.

"AIG continues to be a problem child," Ritholtz said.

That's because it's taking a long time to wind down the company's portfolio of some $3 trillion in derivatives -- financial instruments used to make bets on the performance of assets such as mortgages.

"They're trying not to run things as a fire sale," he said, but that "creates this hurry-up-and-wait sort of approach."

In a statement to, AIG noted that it recently reduced its debt to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York by $25 billion by selling it to life insurance subsidiaries.

"AIG is committed to repaying taxpayers," the company said.

Citi and State

He said that the government pressure to relax the "mark to market" rule allowed Citigroup and other financial institutions to avoid writing down many of their poorly-performing assets. Citi, which Ritholtz said was among the most aggressive in embracing derivatives and investments into subprime mortgages, ultimately could pay the price for the flexibility allowed by the "mark to market" rule change, he said.

"They're carrying all this bad debt on their books," he said. "There's a strong possibility they'll run into problems."

Citigroup told that the bank would not comment on speculation from any one analyst, though it did emphasize comments made by its CEO, Vikram Pandit, last month.

"As I have stated many times over the past year, we planned to exit TARP only when we were convinced that it was prudent to do so,'' Pandit said in a Dec. 14 statement. "By any measure of financial strength, Citi is among the strongest banks in the industry, and we are in a position to support the economic recovery."

But that wasn't enough to stop some states from falling headfirst into budget shortfalls. Among the worst may be California's. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to ask the federal government for billions in relief to close a $21 billion budget gap, the Wall Street Journal reported.

There have been proposals to use money paid back by banks into the Troubled Asset Relief Program to provide new aid to states.

Such initiatives would be "spending neutral" because they supposedly wouldn't add to the deficit, said Aaron Smith, a senior economist at Moody's

But Smith said it's entirely possible that aid to the states would eventually outstrip TARP allocations and noted that some estimate state help could add anywhere between $50 billion and $150 billion to the deficit.

"State and local government aid is one area where the cost could escalate fairly quickly," he said.

"It tends to be more expensive" than other kinds of stimulus efforts, such as tax incentives, because "direct aid is doled out up front as opposed to tax incentives, which tend to get spread out over the year."

Pension Problems

The corporation, which is funded by insurance premiums paid by pension funds, regularly operates at a deficit, including a record deficit of $33.5 billion in May.

Last November, acting PBGC director Vincent K. Snowbarger conceded that the corporation needed help.

"We won't fail to meet our obligations to retirees, but ultimately we will need a long-term solution to stabilize the pension insurance program," he said in a statement.

Montgomery argued that the PBGC's problems will only get worse as the stock market fails to deliver the kinds of returns pension funds had been counting on, meaning they'll be more likely to rely on PBGC insurance.

"They're going to have trouble making payments and having enough money to meet their obligations" by either 2010 or 2011, Montgomery told "The federal government is going to have bail them out."

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