Tag: government sponsored enterprise

Getting Our Money Back from Fannie and Freddie

Yesterday in the New York Times, Josh Rosner, co-author of Reckless Endangerment, asked one of the questions that almost everyone in Washington is avoiding: how do the taxpayers get back their money, currently about $180 billion (including dividends), from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Obviously Democrats do not want to be reminded that their social engineering of the mortgage market has been a disaster, but why have Republicans been quiet?

I suspect many Republicans, at least those not closely aligned with the real estate industry, are torn between wanting to immediately get rid of Fannie and Freddie and getting the taxpayers’ money back.  A common attitude in Washington also appears to be that the money put into Fannie/Freddie is gone, sunk, and will never be returned. I’m not so willing to just give up, on either getting rid of them or getting our money back.

First, let’s accept that any wind-down would likely take a few years, say six or so. So I would suggest we immediately take Fannie and Freddie into receivership. Impose any future losses on creditors, but also continue to run the companies. And continue to buy and package mortgages during the receivership. This would minimize disruptions to the housing and mortgage market.

Instead of simply running the companies, business as usual, levy a surcharge on all their purchases and use that surcharge to pay back the taxpayer. Fannie and Freddie, combined, will likely purchase about a $1 trillion annually in mortgages over the next few years. Assuming a six year wind-down, that’s $6 trillion. A 2 percent surcharge gets back most of the bailout. That’s also high enough to encourage private money to come into the mortgage market and compete with Fannie and Freddie. If my Realtor friends feel this is a ”tax on home-ownership” then they are free to drop their commissions by 2 percent, leaving buyers no worse off. Even better, they can encourage buyers to use a non-government mortgage.

Any forecast of housing activity is going to have some error. So the numbers above are likely off, in one direction or another. The point is a surcharge on the purchases made by these Government-Sponsored Enterprises can kill two birds with one stone: getting the taxpayers’ money back and reducing the GSEs’ footprint in the mortgage market.

Geithner Favors Fannie Mae Debtholders over Taxpayers … Again

You have to give Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner some credit for spin: today the Treasury announced “Further Steps to Expedite Wind Down of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” The only problem is that the steps announced largely put the taxpayer at greater risk in order to protect holders of Fannie and Freddie debt.

Essentially, the Treasury has amended its agreements with Fannie and Freddie so that the companies no longer have to pay a fixed dividend to the U.S. taxpayer, but instead “every dollar of profit” from the companies to the taxpayer. The problem is that the Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSE) have never had a year where their profits would have covered the dividend payments, so while we can debate if the taxpayer will recover anything from the GSEs, shifting to just collecting profits definitely means the taxpayer’s potential recoupment is lower.

The GSE’s regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) was at least a little more honest in its announcement of the changes, stating that, “as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shrink, the continued payment of a fixed dividend could have called into question the adequacy of the financial commitment contained in the PSPAs.”  Read “financial commitment” to mean protecting debtholders from loss.

How does the change protect debtholders over taxpayers? It reduces the ability of FHFA to place Fannie or Freddie into a receivership, under which FHFA could impose losses on creditors. Under Section 1145 of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act, FHFA has the discretion of appointing a receiver if one the GSEs displays an “inability to meet obligations,” which would include dividend payments. By essentially taking away that lever from FHFA, Treasury has greatly reduced any chance of a receivership. Sadly, I believe a receivership was the only thing that would force Congress to also deal with Fannie and Freddie. Treasury’s actions have been a massive win for the broken status quo.

Don’t let the rest of the Treasury announcement fool you. Yes, Treasury has both agreed to reduce the GSEs’ portfolios and to require the GSEs to submit an “annual taxpayer protection plan,” but both of these efforts are little more than fig-leafs to cover Treasury’s protection of GSE creditors at the expense of taxpayers. After all, the first commandment in the Geithner bible, as witnessed during the 2008 bailouts, is that debtholders shall take no losses, regardless of the expense to the taxpayer.

GSE Loan Limits Fell…and Home Sales Went Up

On October first, the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac maximum loan limit fell (from around $729,000 to $625,000). The Senate later voted to extend that limit until December 2013. Some House members, such as Rep. John Campbell (R-CA) warned that if the loan limits were not raised back to their previous levels, our housing market would “crater.” And of course the special interests in the real estate industry all but implied that if the taxpayer did not remain on the hook, then we’d all be living in caves before too long.

It was easy enough to make such outlandish statements in the absence of data. Now we have some data, and from of all people, the real estate industry. According to the National Association of Realtors (full disclosure: I worked there about 10 years ago):

Total existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, rose 1.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.97 million in October from a downwardly revised 4.90 million in September, and are 13.5 percent above the 4.38 million unit level in October 2010. [emphasis added]

You read that correctly. The loan limits fell and then home sales actually rose, which is the opposite of crater. I’m not claiming that the decline in loan limits caused home sales to increase, but I am claiming that the housing market did not crater, as was predicted.

‘Monstrous Moral Hybrids’

Sunday’s dinner of the Society for Development of Austrian Economics featured a keynote from George Mason University economics professor Richard Wagner. The talk brought back a lot of memories for me. Wagner was chair of my dissertation committee and it was in his graduate public finance class (back in 1992?) that I first gave any thought to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac when I wrote a paper on government sponsored enterprises. Little did I know I’d spend much of the following years working to reform Fannie and Freddie.

During his talk, Wagner invoked a term first used by Jane Jacobs: “monstrous moral hybrids.” I suspect Jacobs used the term to describe how Robert Moses managed to wield unaccountable power over development in New York City (Caro’s account of Moses, Power Broker, still being the single best read on city government). Ms. Jacobs describes two distinct moral syndromes,  commercial and guardian. Obviously commercial pertains to the market, while guardian can pertain to government. The monstrous moral hybrids are when we get the worst of both instincts combined in one entity. For instance, I generally view competition as a good thing; however, competition underwritten by government guarantees will almost always lead to disaster. Its competition without the discipline of failure.

I  repeatedly watched, while working in Senate, Fannie/Freddie invoke their “private” nature in order to avoid regulation while invoking their “public” nature to gain protection and privilege. The result was little accountability from either the market or the government (our largest banks currently enjoy a smaller version). Of course, one of the primary differences in debates over financial regulation is the degree to which one believes that either the market or government provides accountability. Setting aside those debates, we should all be able to agree that companies should be either private or government. That the mixing of the two, government sponsored enterprises, is a recipe for avoiding accountability and transparency. But then I suspect that might have been the intent all along. Monstrous moral hybrids by design.