The Treasury’s New Mortgage REIT

by REIT Wrecks on September 21, 2008

I just had some fun reading the text of the proposed treasury bill. It’s basically a $700 billion Mortgage REIT that has yet to be named let’s just call it expensive. Not only that, the draft of the enormous bill, which requires an increase in the federal debt ceiling in order to accommodate its incredible cost, runs a mere three pages. Some of the more ridiculous REIT wrecks posts are longer than that perhaps I have a future in government. I’ve actually seen trade confirmations with more black ink than this bill. But when it comes to government spending, brevity is the soul of the ultimate form of OPM: tax dollars. Oscar Wilde would love it, I’m absolutely sure.

The still nameless bill gives the Secretary of the Treasury the new master of the universe very broad authority to buy, sell, trade, loan, finance, refinance and repurchase, all at the same time if he wants, any type of mortgage asset that was originated prior to September 17th, 2008. The broad mandate to “finance” and “trade” means that the bill could wind up funding the purchase of even more than $700 billion in assets. So, for the next two years, the treasury secretary will be running one of the biggest, most influential proprietary trading desks in the world, since foreign banks are also expected to participate.

If this also sounds to you like the government will be running a giant Mortgage REIT reminiscent of the glory days of loss-belching CDO factories, you’d be about right. The one notable exception is that the government, in its infinite wisdom, will be giving up all the juicy management fees to the likes of Black Rock and other private-sector money runners.

Black Rock will undoubtedly be one of the asset managers tapped to manage this huge, government-guaranteed REIT, since they are already looking after what’s left of the toxic Bear Stearns portfolio. Perhaps that part of the bill makes Anthracite (AHR) worth yet another close look. I do love intriguing conflicts of interest, especially when they are in my interest. I wonder if the Cohens will get of piece of THIS action! I guarantee you there are champagne corks popping right now in Philadelpia.

The “mortgage-related assets” are expected to be purchased through a type of “reverse auction”, in which the the institution that is willing to sell its assets for the lowest amount would be the “winner”. If this seems oxy-moronic and hard to understand, it is, because it puts the government in a big quandary: Does Uncle Hank pay more than fair-market value for assets nobody else wants invaluable trash, thus putting even more taxpayer dollars at risk? Or does he drive a hard bargain, buying this stuff for a few Abraham Lincoln’s (“The Fire Sale to Fortress!”) on the dollar? That latter strategy would further harm the very financial institutions he is trying to assist, since they would have to take additional hits to their already under water balance sheets, which would lead to even more loss-driven scuba diving. Not only that, mark to market accounting would require other non-sellers to mark their portfolios to these distressed trades has anybody seen my re-breather?

Will this three page bill get passed, even if nobody knows how it’s supposed to work? You betcha. Bernanke and Paulson apparently turned their bazooka on congressional leaders last Thursday night, appropriately scaring them half to death with various meltdown scenarios. “When I heard his description of what might happen to our economy if we failed to act, I gulped,” said Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, referring to Bernanke’s appraisal of the capital markets and the economy hey Chuck, can you say “Banking Failure”?? Why nobody was gulping before Thursday night is beyond me Blinded by the Beltway? but I guess no congressional leader had an account at Lehman Brothers, either.

Why is this bill so incredibly spectacular? Don’t bother me with $700 billion, that has nothing to do with it. It’s because of the red-hot bit buried at the end, which is undoubtedly because the bill is so short there isn’t even any room for fine print. In some of the versions that were posted online, this particular section is even omitted. Score: Obfuscation 1, Transparency 0.

Specifically, it is the definition of “Mortgage-Related Assets” that is so amazing. The current version of the bill defines Mortgage-Related Assets as “residential or commercial mortgages and any securities, obligations, or other instruments that are based on or related to such mortgages, [emphasis added] that in each case was originated or issued on or before September 17, 2008″.

This may seem innocuous in its simplicity, but it’s definitely not. This definition means the government can purchase and trade ANYTHING with a mortgage tied to it. There are absolutely no exceptions. Accordingly, it would enable the government to purchase everything from bad Credit Default Swaps to failed CDOs and CLOs, and almost everything else in between, as long as it touched a mortgage somewhere along the line in the credit bubble sausage factory.

So it looks to me like the bill not only authorizes the creation of a huge government-run Mortgage REIT, but since the bill also enables the government to issue securities to purchase the REIT’s assets, it also authorizes the goverment to issue IOUs resembling one of the most toxic securities of all time: the infamous “CDO Squareds”, or CDOs tied to other CDOs and CDSs. Am I crazy, Uncle Hank is definitely a shap-eyed fox in the hen house or have we now just come full circle?

Click here for an updated Mortgage REIT list, including current yields.

REIT dividends
Disclosure: Estimated taxes were due on the 15th. You had better pay up!

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