Dodd Pushes For Mortgage Action
After Meeting With Regulators, Praises Fed For Adding Money To System, Criticizes White House For Mixed Message
By DAVID LIGHTMAN
Washington Bureau Chief
August 22, 2007
Markets responded somewhat positively, the Federal Reserve Board chairman seemed to earn Chris Dodd's confidence and even the treasury secretary suggested that he was aware of the nation's mortgage crisis.
All in all, Dodd, the Senate Banking Committee chairman, probably achieved as much as he could Tuesday in his 40-minute closed-door session with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.
The Connecticut Democrat was clearly more satisfied with Bernanke, saying that he was "impressed with the Fed's action over the last number of days. I'm impressed with the fact that the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board is not reluctant to use the tools available to him."
And while he welcomed Paulson's comments on CNBC about an hour before the meeting began - in which Paulson said the administration understands the problem of people getting thrown out of their homes because of sky-high mortgage payments - he still said he was "disappointed" with administration responses so far.
No one expected any quick decisions or startling announcements at the closely-watched session, and there were none. Analysts were pleased that the three were talking.
"Dodd's been very good at creating an atmosphere where everyone can talk," said Paul Leonard, vice president for government affairs, housing policy council at the Financial Services Roundtable.
The very fact that everyone is meeting "sends a positive signal to the markets," he said.
Markets, though, were unsure what to think.
Early in the day, they reacted negatively to both Paulson's statement that there appeared to be no quick remedy to credit problems. Traders were then soothed by Dodd's view of Bernanke's possible next step, but by early afternoon, news about a speech by Richmond Federal Reserve Bank President Jeffrey M. Lacker soured the mood somewhat and wiped out the early gains. Lacker, a hardliner on guarding against inflation, seemed to indicate a lower federal funds rate may not be in the offing.
By the end of the day, the Dow Jones industrial average closed down 30.49 points, about one-quarter of 1 percent.
Dodd was asked repeatedly after his meeting if he got any assurances from Bernanke that the Fed was prepared to act quickly.
"I asked the chairman of the Fed whether or not he was willing to use all the tools available to him," Dodd said. "He said he was ..."
Typically, Bernanke did not specify the nature or timing of any action, though Dodd said he was not pleased with market responses to Fed actions so far.
The Fed Friday cut the discount rate - which does not directly affect consumer borrowing rates - by half a percentage point, and has added more than $100 billion to the banking system in recent days. Analysts expect a cut in the federal funds rate, perhaps even before the board formally meets again Sept. 18.
Even a hint of more action soon was enough for the markets, even though Hartford-based economic consultant James Griffin didn't see much that was new in the Bernanke news.
"The Fed will always use all the tools at its disposal," he said.
And Alice M. Rivlin, former Fed vice chair, warned against reading too much into any interpretation of Bernanke.
"What the Fed does at this point is extremely secretive," she said. "And even Bernanke probably doesn't know just what he'll do."
While Dodd seemed pleased with Bernanke, he was less charitable toward Paulson.
Before the meeting, Paulson appeared on CNBC and repeated what's become an administration mantra: "Markets straighten themselves out over time. This is going to take a while to play out."
Dodd has been hearing this view for some time, and remained annoyed. "I'm disappointed that the administration seems reluctant here to really take advantage of the power that exists to let the federal regulators deal with the issue of liquidity with (Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae)," he said.
Dodd has been urging regulators to allow the two government-sponsored agencies to raise their portfolio caps, a move he believes will help boost the mortgage market by making more investment money available for mortgages. He thinks the White House could force some movement, but the administration has been reluctant to act, saying it wants the agencies, battered in recent years by problems with their internal controls, to show more stability.
Paulson did give Dodd one reason to be encouraged. He told CNBC, and apparently reiterated to Dodd, how "the president wants us to be focused on actions that can be taken, things that we can do to help mortgage holders who are in danger of losing their homes."
On a day when a report said the rate of foreclosure filings in July was nearly twice as high as the same month last year, Dodd called Paulson's comment "a very positive statement."
But he criticized other administration rhetoric: "I'm concerned that you're getting sort of a dual message here. ... One, that's this is going to take a longer time to fix. But everything is hunky-dory. There's a need for some action here, and I think the markets are reflecting that and recognizing this is not going to be solved overnight."
Dodd was not eager for Congress to act, saying "the ball is really in their court," meaning the administration and the Fed. But if necessary, he said, lawmakers could begin to respond aggressively.
Copyright © 2007, The Hartford Courant