The first sign of deep trouble in US banking this year came from a sunbaked office complex in a San Diego suburb. There, a small firm called Silvergate Capital Corp. assured investors it was weathering a run on deposits. Its lifeline: about $4.3 billion from a Federal Home Loan Bank.
Heads turned across the financial industry.
Silvergate didn’t have a network of branches serving consumers, and it barely offered mortgages. It specialized in moving dollars for cryptocurrency ventures.
Soon it became apparent that a roster of troubled regional banks was leaning on FHLBs — a relic of the Great Depression originally aimed at ensuring financial firms have cash to lend to homebuyers. Yet the banks had little to do with everyday mortgage lending.
Silicon Valley Bank, catering to venture capitalists and tech startups, said it held $15 billion from an FHLB at the end of 2022. Signature Bank, with clients including crypto platforms, had $11 billion. And by April, First Republic Bank, offering mortgages to millionaires on unusually sweet terms, ended up with more than $28 billion. All four banks collapsed.
For many, that was a crystallizing moment for the 90-year-old Federal Home Loan Bank system, which has ballooned to more than $1.5 trillion while playing a growing role as a backstop for banks taking all kinds of risks — and a diminishing role in funding new mortgages. That’s raising questions about the purpose of FHLBs and why the private institutions enjoy so much government support.
This look at the system is based on interviews with more than 30 current and former FHLB officials, overseers, borrowers and other market participants, most of them speaking on the condition they not be named to candidly discuss confidential experiences. Many described an environment where loans are made quickly with little due diligence, generating billions of dollars a year in profits for FHLBs and the banks they serve — plus millions of dollars in bonuses and other compensation for their own executives.
It’s hard to imagine the Federal Reserve rewarding bosses for arranging industry bailouts, but that is in effect what now happens at FHLBs.
The FHLB of San Francisco, for example, more than doubled its assets last year as Silicon Valley Bank, First Republic and others embarked on their borrowing binges. Its chief executive officer, Teresa Bazemore, was awarded $2.4 million — much of it in bonuses — during 2022, her first full year atop the institution. SVB and First Republic now rank as the second- and third-largest bank failures in US history.
Bazemore’s pay was tied to goals and other metrics the San Francisco FHLB’s board set in consultation with a third-party expert and showed to regulators, said Elliot Sloane, a spokesperson for the San Francisco FHLB. “The level of advances to a member is based on a careful, thoughtful and conservative underwriting approach that takes all the relevant risk factors into account. That is our congressionally directed function,” Sloane said.
Many of the largest banks also have become accustomed to drawing financing from FHLBs, even as they pull back from lending to US homebuyers.
Wells Fargo & Co., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc. — among the system’s biggest users since 2010 — collectively tapped at least $62 billion during last year’s relatively sedate markets. Citigroup’s $19 billion amounted to 3% of the total cash pool, while the firm originated only 0.3% of the nation’s mortgages in 2022, according to bank regulatory filings and federal mortgage records. Wells Fargo borrowed $32 billion before announcing in January that it’s slashing mortgage operations.
The lion’s share of US home loans are instead issued by nonbanks, such as Rocket Mortgage, which sell them to free up cash to make new loans.
Those businesses generally aren’t eligible to tap the FHLB system.
More than 80% of the top 100 FHLB users borrowed more from the system than they loaned out as mortgages. Fourteen banks reported no originations.
One quirk of the system is that the government’s assistance doesn’t appear as a line in the US budget — sparing FHLBs the kinds of bitter congressional debates over expenditures that have gripped Washington in recent months.
Instead, government support starts with special treatment, giving FHLBs an edge in raising money cheaply. They gather most of their funding by selling bonds exempt from state and local income taxes. Buyers are also more comfortable with the debt because of the widespread assumption that if an FHLB ever runs into trouble, the government would jump in with taxpayer money to prevent default. Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s have said their credit ratings for the FHLB system would be several notches lower if not for the government’s presumed backing.
“The implied guarantee is also not something that’s conveyed by the government,” Ryan Donovan, CEO of the Council of Federal Home Loan Banks, said in an interview. “It’s something the market perceives, that we’re a safe place, that our debt that we issue is solid.”
Economists vigorously debate the value of the government’s support. Defenders of the system, such as former White House adviser Jim Parrott and economist Mark Zandi, estimate it was worth around $5 billion last year, while detractors peg the boost closer to $9 billion. Some of that is passed on to banks as a discounted source of financing. It also translates into higher profits for the FHLBs, which last year produced $3.2 billion in net income.
They held on to more than half that, lifting their stockpile of retained earnings to $24.6 billion.
A portion — about $1.4 billion — was paid banks and other “members” as dividends.
In the end, the $1.5 trillion FHLB system contributed a mere $355 million to a program supporting housing affordability last year.
“It’s embarrassing,” said Cornelius Hurley, an independent director on the board of Boston’s FHLB for about 14 years through 2021. “This is a public entity. We should be demanding more from them.”
Defenders acknowledge that the system is a quirk of history but say its ability to provide funding quickly is crucial, especially when crises erupt. FHLBs can start stabilizing lenders before they resort to tapping the Fed’s discount window, and before policymakers can meet to discuss other extraordinary measures.
Banks that do tap the discount window have to worry about stoking the very same public panic they are trying to quell.
“The members certainly could go to the Fed,” said Michael Ericson, CEO of the Chicago FHLB. “The challenge is there is a reputation risk associated with that. In talking with member institutions, they feel that the stigma is real.”
FHLBs didn’t always provide cash so freely. The system was almost comically risk-averse when President Herbert Hoover signed the law for its creation in 1932. In the first two years, hopeful borrowers filled out 41,000 applications for mortgages funded with FHLB money. Three were approved.
Back then, thrifts and insurers were the biggest lenders to homebuyers. The firms were supposed to go to local FHLBs and pledge collateral — such as home loans — to borrow cash and make additional mortgages.
But by the late 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration was creating an even simpler system: A new entity, Fannie Mae, would buy mortgages. About three decades later, Congress chartered Freddie Mac to help thrifts manage interest-rate risks. The pair gave rise to the mortgage-securities market, which funds most home loans today.
But in the 1980s, the savings and loan crisis erupted, prompting a government bailout. With so many thrifts failing, the FHLBs were losing too many members to sustain themselves. So in 1989, George H.W. Bush’s administration reached a deal to expand the FHLB system to serve thousands of banks — on the condition that 10% of profits would go toward supporting housing affordability.
FHLBs fought that requirement at the time, people involved in that process said. They now tout it as a core piece of their mission. Sticking to the Mandate
FHLBs have to set aside 10% of their profit for affordable housing grant programs. They rarely do more.
The number of lenders using FHLBs more than doubled to more than 8,000 by 2005 — while the system’s balance sheet swelled about sixfold to $1 trillion.
But after the 2008 financial crisis, the nation’s largest banks began pulling back en masse from mortgage lending.
Wells Fargo, JPMorgan and Citigroup collectively originated 4% of residential mortgages in the country in 2022, down from 13% in 2010. Rocket Mortgage increased its market share over the same period.
Still, FHLBs continued to swell as banks sought financing, especially in emergencies. The system’s total loans to members surged 28% to $1.04 trillion in this year’s first three months, beating a record set in the third quarter of 2008.
“What the home loan banks have become is a source of general liquidity to big banks,” said Bruce Morrison, former chair of the Federal Housing Finance Board. “They’ve made a great contribution for the last 50 years, but the market has changed. They’re doing a job that the Fed should be doing.”
Most Americans aren’t familiar with the arcane system.
A software engineer from a think tank recently went on National Public Radio’s “The Indicator” to take a quiz about this year’s turmoil in US banking. Asked to identify the industry’s “lender of second-to-last resort” from a list, she paused on the correct answer: the FHLB system.
“Sounds made-up,” she said.
When deposit runs at regional banks began making headlines around the world in March, few eyes were on the FHLBs as they furiously raised money to meet the incoming demand to aid banks, issuing $304 billion of debt in one week alone.
“People underestimate how much value they bring,” said Ted Tozer, the former president of Ginnie Mae. “The record number of advances this year when there was contagion shows a lot of it happens under the covers. The FHLBs are the shock absorbers.”
FHLBs can react so quickly because it’s hard for them to lose. They have a so-called super lien on the money they lend, putting them at the front of the line to get repaid if a bank collapses. The FHLBs note that any secured lender would take priority in the event of a bank failure.
But insiders say the super lien contributes to features of FHLB loans that can make them especially egregious. It’s not uncommon for banks to bend accounting rules to get bigger advances. There’s also little incentive to do thorough due diligence.
“You can look at who they are lending to and see it’s not because they’re doing a good job screening for bank quality,” said Kathryn Judge, a Columbia Law School professor who focuses on financial regulation. “It’s a byproduct of the fact there’s a mechanism in place to protect their interests.”
Two people who worked in different FHLBs for more than a decade said they never saw a loan turned down, no matter how poor the financial health of an institution. What matters, they said, is getting collateral — US Treasuries, home loans, mortgage-backed securities and other real estate assets.
*Though banks often have to pledge more collateral than they borrow, they have found ways to maximize the value of that collateral. Normally, firms label assets they intend to hold short term as “available for sale.” If the value of those assets fall in the market, the bank marks them down on its books and takes an immediate hit to its earnings. *
But firms may avoid markdowns by moving assets to a longer-term accounting bucket dubbed “held-to-maturity.” That allows them to preserve the value of collateral they present when borrowing from an FHLB.
Charles Schwab Corp.’s banking arm shifted $189 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities to that category last year. The firm borrowed $12.4 billion from the FHLB system through the end of 2022, and had the capacity to borrow $68.6 billion, according to an annual report. In the first quarter of 2023, its FHLB loans more than tripled.