What’s a Conservatorship Good For?

A central reason that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have not played a bigger role in rescuing homeowners, or otherwise handing out “freebies,” is that these two companies are in conservatorship.

Conservatorship is almost like a bankruptcy proceeding, or a receivership in the banking context, but without the power to impose losses. I’ve been criticized for believing that a conservatorship requires Fannie’s regulator to “conserve” the company, and not simply allow it to be used as a slush fund. The basis of said criticism is that FHFA, Fannie’s regulator, has a broad public mission, which could include handing out freebies to underwater borrowers.

Matt Yglesias suggests that “clearly the purpose of creating the FHFA and taking Fannie and Freddie into conservatorship can’t have been to minimize direct taxpayer financial losses on agency debt.” Now, Matt makes a lot of Congress being vague in the statute. And he is correct about it being vague, in some areas, but it isn’t here.

As one of the two people (the other being Peggy Kuhn) who actually drafted that section of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA) during my time as staff on the Senate Banking Committee, I can clearly say the purpose of the drafters, in terms of conservatorship, was to nurse those companies back to health. Again, how do I know that? Because I was there.

Of course, if one simply read that section of the statute, Section 1145 of HERA, which amends Section 1367 of the 1992 GSE Act, one would clearly see what the purpose, duties, and role of a conservatorship actually is. For instance, what does the law say the powers of a conservatorship are? They are to ”take such action as may be—(i) necessary to put the regulated entity in a sound and solvent condition; and (ii) appropriate to carry on the business of the regulated entity and preserve and conserve the assets and property of the regulated entity.”

Now, I don’t see anything in there about handing out freebies to underwater borrowers. Citing an agency-written mission statement or a vague “purposes” at the beginning of an act is no substitute for actually reading the provisions of a statute.