For most of its history, the Federal Reserve has been a high temple of monetary matters, guiding the economy by setting interest rates but remaining aloof from the messy details of day-to-day business.
But the financial crisis has drastically changed the role of the Fed, forcing officials to get their fingernails a bit dirty, according to the New York Times.
Since March, when the Fed stepped in to fill the lending vacuum left by banks and Wall Street firms, officials have been dragged into murky battles over the creditworthiness of narrow-bore industries like recreational vehicles, rental cars, snowmobiles, recreational boats and farm equipment – far removed from the central bank’s expertise.
A growing number of economists worry that the Fed’s new role poses risks to taxpayers and to the Fed itself. If the Fed cannot extract itself quickly, they warn, the crucial task of allocating credit will become more political and less subject to rigorous economic analysis.
That could also undermine the Fed’s political independence and credibility as an institution that operates above the fray – concerns Fed officials acknowledge.
Executives and lobbyists now flock to the Fed, providing elaborate presentations on why their niche industry should be eligible for Fed financing or easier lending terms.
Hertz, the rental car company, enlisted Stuart E. Eizenstat, a top economic policy official under Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, to plead with both Fed and Treasury officials to relax the terms on refinancing rental car fleets.
Lawmakers from Indiana, home to dozens of RV manufacturers, have been pushing for similar help for the makers of campers, trailers and mobile homes.
And when recreational boat dealers and vacation time-share promoters complained that they had been shut out of the credit markets, Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican from Florida, weighed in on their behalf with the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, who promised he would take up the matter with the Fed.
“This is the most straightforward indicator of why we don’t want the government doing this, except in an emergency,” said Douglas J. Elliott, an economist at the Brookings Institution who supports the new lending program but worries about its long-term implications. “There is no clear line about who should be included and who shouldn’t be included. It’s an inherently political decision,” he added.
Big money is at stake. At issue is a joint venture of the Fed and the Treasury aimed at making more credit available. The program, known as the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, or TALF, has bought about $27 billion in securities backed by credit card debt, car loans and student loans. In buying the securities, the Fed is providing the money that ultimately reaches businesses or consumers trying to borrow.
Despite a slow start, the program could soon expand broadly. This week, the Fed will add commercial real estate mortgages – a vast market – to the list of loans it will buy. Eventually, officials say, the TALF program could provide as much as $1 trillion in financing.
Fed officials say they, too, are uncomfortable with their new role and hope to end it as soon as credit markets return to normal. When R.V. manufacturers recently sought a meeting, senior Fed staff members refused to see them in person and instead heard their pleas in a conference call.
The central bank is increasingly having to make politically sensitive choices. For example, it is weighing whether loans to people who buy speedboats and snowmobiles are as worthy of help as those to people who buy cars. And it is being besieged by arguments from RV manufacturers and strip-mall developers that they play a crucial role in the economy and also deserve help.
Many of the decisions could have political repercussions. On Feb. 9, President Obama traveled to Elkhart, Ind., a Republican stronghold that Democrats hope to convert to their column. Elkhart is also home to much of the RV industry, which has been battered by the recession.
“When we talk about layoffs at companies like Monaco Coach and Keystone RV and Pilgrim International, we’re not just talking numbers,” Obama said, referring to three prominent RV companies. “We’re talking about people who’ve lost their livelihood and don’t know what will take its place.”
At the time, Fed and Treasury officials suggested that they would finance only car loans, credit card loans, student loans and Small Business Administration-guaranteed loans.
But the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) and Indiana lawmakers – among them, Rep. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat, and Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican – were already lobbying the Fed to include loans for recreational vehicles on its list of eligible collateral that the Fed would accept.
They were not alone. Rental car companies were pushing the Fed to finance their fleets. Hertz, which is owned by two private equity firms – the Carlyle Group and Clayton, Dubilier & Rice – hired Eizenstat to make its case.
In trying to persuade the Fed to relax its loan terms, Eizenstat led delegations of Hertz officials to both the Treasury and the Fed. They reached out to Ron Bloom, the co-chairman of the Treasury Department’s auto task force, as well as to top aides to Mr. Geithner. They also made detailed financial presentations to Fed officials in Washington and New York.
While the Fed so far has denied Hertz’s requests to relax loan terms, some of the lobbying appears to have worked. In March, the Fed announced that it would purchase loans used to buy light trucks and recreational vehicles. It also said that it would finance equipment leasing deals, rental car fleets and “floor plan” loans, which car and RV dealers use to finance showroom vehicles.
On May 17, the Fed refined its rules even more, saying that “recreational vehicles” included not just RVs but also boats, motorcycles and snowmobiles.
Fed officials said they had always intended to include those vehicles because they had long been financed through asset-backed securities of the type the loan facility was created to preserve. And the series of expansions, they said, did not reflect a capitulation to industry pleas. Rather, they simply announced additional details as policy decisions were reached.
Almost inevitably, industry groups are grumbling that the Fed’s terms favor some, like consumer car loans and credit card debt.
Mathew Dunn, a lobbyist for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, said collateral requirements for loans to recreational boat dealers are higher than those for securities backed by car loans.
That may soon change. In late May, the Small Business Administration said that it would open one of its main lending programs to RV dealers. Because the Fed has already agreed to finance SBA loans, it may not be long before it is financing boats, snowmobiles, motorcycles and campers.
(Editor’s Note: Joe Donnelly represents Indiana’s 2nd Congressional district. The following is a Letter to the Editor he wrote to the South Bend Tribune. The letter was published on Sunday, April 26).
I am writing in response to Brent Bardo’s letter to the Voice of the People on March 16. I appreciate Bardo’s interest and support of the manufactured housing industry. I share his belief that this is a vitally important industry to our district and I share his concern that more needs to be done to help during this economic crisis.
During my tenure as representative of the 2nd Congressional District, I have had the privilege to represent the recreational vehicle and manufactured housing capital of the world. As our nation has fallen upon tough economic times, the RV and manufactured housing industries have been hit especially hard.
Manufactured homes house almost 20 million Americans, which translates to many jobs for hardworking Hoosiers back home.
An issue that plagues most businesses – particularly small businesses – is the lack of available credit in the system. Both RV and manufactured housing manufacturers have suffered from the lack of credit to purchase inventory for their floorplans. This has had a ripple effect on manufacturers and suppliers. At the same time, the lack of consumer financing has hindered the ability of families to purchase these products.
One of the ways that I have tried to alleviate some of the pain in both industries is by ensuring that RV and manufactured housing loans are eligible for Term Asset-Backed Lending Facility – TALF – loans. This is a new program designed to revitalize secondary loan markets and intended to jump-start primary lending markets. Originally, this program only included student, credit card, small business and auto loans as eligible forms of collateral. After working with several of my colleagues and the Federal Reserve, the scope of the program was changed to include RVs as part of the definition of an automobile and opened this form of financing up to all floorplan loans. Manufactured housing and RV manufacturer floorplan loans will be able to be securitized and purchased with TALF funds, which will hopefully loosen up credit.
Another way that I have advocated for the manufactured housing industry is the area of consumer lending. Typically, loans that are offered to families hoping to purchase a manufactured home on leased land have been significantly higher than other home loans. One way to obtain a lower loan rate is to purchase loan insurance. The Federal Housing Administration Title I loan program guarantees loans for manufactured homes that are placed on leased land, which enables lenders to provide a more affordable loan to consumers. Unfortunately, these loan guarantee limits have not been raised since 1992 and not kept pace with rising housing costs. That is why I introduced legislation to raise home-only loan limits from the current $48,600 to $69,678, enabling more families to purchase a home that fits their needs. I was pleased that this was signed into law last July.
It has been my privilege as a member of Congress to work on ways to help these important industries to thrive and get them back on track to regain their competitive edge.
RV dealers and their volunteer leaders agree: the number one issue facing the RV industry is financing.
The Obama administration must turn its attention on the severe impact of the credit crisis on RV dealers and the urgent need for floorplan credit, according to Mike Molino, president of the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA).
Without retail credit and floorplan loans, Molino noted in an appeal sent out today (April 2) to RVDA membership, even well-capitalized dealers can be out of business. ”Preserving floorplan lending is essential to keeping dealers in business and purchasing new RVs,” he said. “The RV industry will not recover until the retail credit and floorplan problem is fixed.”
RVDA is urging the president and Congress to support the following policy recommendations. These recommendations also have the support of the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA).
- Expand access to Small Business Administration (SBA) lending capacity for dealers. The Administration has the statutory authority to expand the SBA size standard that today excludes many dealers. Also, the Administration has the statutory authority to allow SBA’s guarantee program to be used for floorplan loans that currently are ineligible under the program. An emergency directive implementing these two changes would increase access to credit for small business dealers all across the country.
- Restore liquidity for RV retail and floorplan lenders. Work with the Federal Reserve Board to make sure that the Term Asset-backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) injects essential liquidity by revitalizing securitization of RV retail and floorplan loans. If TALF is too cumbersome to meet this objective in the short term, then create another mechanism to restore lending in these areas.
”Time is of the essence,” Molino stated. “President Obama’s pick for the SBA’s new administrator, Karen Mills, told Senators at her confirmation hearing this week that she ‘would be very interested’ to look at the SBA floorplan loan policy ‘quickly and see what the possibilities are to help.’ It’s time to urge the administration and Congress to transfer those words into action. Please contact your U.S. senators and urge them to support changes in SBA loan policies that can help RV dealers.”
RVDA will post regular updates and more information at www.rvda.org.