WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's massive 2011 budget proposal included a grab bag of financial services issues, including a call to restructure Federal Housing Administration premiums and to adjust a proposed tax on large companies based on how much risk they pose.
But it was also notable for what it did not cover, including an outline for the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or a better sense of its priorities on regulatory reform legislation.
Administration officials had promised last year to provide more details on their plans for the government-sponsored enterprises when the budget was released, but just one vague sentence was devoted to the subject.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan insisted Monday that the administration had not punted on the issue, and was close to releasing its strategy.
"We continue to be on time to release a statement in the very near future on the GSEs," Donovan told reporters on a conference call. "You shouldn't read anything into the fact that there isn't a fuller statement in the budget document itself. There will be a statement forthcoming very shortly."
But Republicans accused the administration of dropping the issue, noting that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and others had promised last year that this was a priority.
"We have been saying since day one of this crisis that a comprehensive reform should include addressing GSEs, and once again the administration has failed in this regard," said Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., the top GOP member on the House subcommittee with oversight of the GSEs. "There's nothing here as far as giving us a solution for addressing the GSE situation."
Similarly, the administration offered no new ideas on how to regain momentum for regulatory reform, which is stalled in the Senate. Instead, the budget reiterated the administration's reform plan from last summer.
Observers had been looking to the budget for some sense of where the administration would be willing to compromise. President Obama warned last week that he would reject a bill if it was too weak, but he did not elaborate on what that meant. "It doesn't really give much of an update on the administration's thinking, and that's what I was hoping to get out of this," said Brian Gardner, an analyst with KBW Inc.'s Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.
The administration did offer a few new details Monday on its proposed 15-basis-point tax on U.S. financial companies with more than $50 billion of assets that own a bank. The tax would be based on a company's worldwide consolidated liabilities, and charged for at least 10 years in order to recoup $90 billion in projected losses from the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Exempted from the fee would be FDIC-insured deposits (on which banks already pay a premium) and policy-related liabilities for insurance companies. The administration also said the tax would be at least partially risk-based.
"Adjustments would be provided to prevent avoidance and to appropriately treat less risky activities, such as lending against certain high-quality collateral," the budget said.
It is unclear how those adjustments would be made. The fee would require legislation, but the administration is hoping to start charging it on July 1. Political support for the plan is unclear, but may become more apparent this week as Geithner testifies before the House and Senate budget committees.
The budget dismissed bank complaints that the tax unfairly targeted them, even though many institutions have already repaid Tarp funds. (The administration has excluded the GSEs and auto companies from the tax.)
"Excessive risk undertaken by major financial firms was a significant cause of the recent financial crisis," according to the budget proposal. "This fee would also provide a deterrent against excessive leverage for the largest financial firms."
The budget briefly touched on the president's proposal to create a new $30 billion Tarp initiative for community banks to help stimulate small-business lending, but did not provide more details. President Obama is expected to discuss the issue today, however, when he participates in a town hall meeting in New Hampshire.
The budget also included a call to revamp how the Federal Housing Administration charges premiums, proposing to increase the annual premium on such loans to as much as 90 basis points, but allow the agency to lower its up-front premiums to 1%.
The FHA, whose market share has markedly increased during the financial crisis, has a statutory cap on its annual premiums of about 0.5%, but has been increasing its up-front premiums to account for the rise in riskier loans. FHA Commissioner David Stevens announced last month that he was reluctantly increasing the up-front premium by 50 basis points, to 2.25%. Stevens said, however, that he would lower such premiums if Congress gave his agency more leeway on annual premiums.
Under the budget proposal, the FHA will be able to charge annual premiums of 85 basis points for most loans, but could charge an additional 5 basis points for mortgages with the lowest down payments. If the agency were granted such authority, up-front premiums would drop to 1%, the budget said. Some observers said the change in fee structure would do little to help the FHA, which said in November that its capital reserve ratio had fallen to 0.53% — well below the congressionally mandated minimum of 2%.
"I'm not a big fan of raising the premium because it does nothing to decrease risk," said Ed Pinto, a mortgage industry consultant.
The budget also paid little attention to its foreclosure prevention program, noting that as of Nov. 30 more than $27 billion had been committed to implement the Home Affordable Modification Program. The administration hopes to complete up to 4 million trial modifications by 2012.