The Financial Stability Plan — Progress So Far: Over the past six weeks, the Treasury Department has implemented a series of initiatives as part of its Financial Stability Plan that — alongside the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — lay the foundations for economic recovery:
* Efforts to Improve Affordability for Responsible Homeowners: Treasury has implemented programs to allow families to save on their mortgage payments by refinancing, assist responsible homeowners in avoiding foreclosure through a loan modification plan, and, alongside the Federal Reserve, help bring mortgage interest rates down to near historic lows. This past month, the 30% increase in mortgage refinancing demonstrated that working families are benefiting from the savings due to these lower rates.
* Consumer and Business Lending Initiative to Unlock Frozen Credit Markets: Treasury and the Federal Reserve are expanding the TALF in conjunction with the Federal Reserve to jumpstart the secondary markets that support consumer and business lending. Last week, Treasury announced its plans to purchase up to $15 billion in securities backed by Small Business Administration loans.
* Capital Assistance Program: Treasury has also launched a new capital program, including a forward-looking capital assessment undertaken by bank supervisors to ensure that banks have the capital they need in the event of a worse-than-expected recession. If banks are confident that they will have sufficient capital to weather a severe economic storm, they are more likely to lend now — making it less likely that a more serious downturn will occur.
The Challenge of Legacy Assets: Despite these efforts, the financial system is still working against economic recovery. One major reason is the problem of “legacy assets” — both real estate loans held directly on the books of banks (“legacy loans”) and securities backed by loan portfolios (“legacy securities”). These assets create uncertainty around the balance sheets of these financial institutions, compromising their ability to raise capital and their willingness to increase lending.
* Origins of the Problem: The challenge posed by these legacy assets began with an initial shock due to the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007, which generated losses for investors and banks. Losses were compounded by the lax underwriting standards that had been used by some lenders and by the proliferation of complex securitization products, some of whose risks were not fully understood. The resulting need by investors and banks to reduce risk triggered a wide-scale deleveraging in these markets and led to fire sales. As prices declined, many traditional investors exited these markets, causing declines in market liquidity.
* Creation of a Negative Economic Cycle: As a result, a negative cycle has developed where declining asset prices have triggered further deleveraging, which has in turn led to further price declines. The excessive discounts embedded in some legacy asset prices are now straining the capital of U.S. financial institutions, limiting their ability to lend and increasing the cost of credit throughout the financial system. The lack of clarity about the value of these legacy assets has also made it difficult for