Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are broke. The two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) that together finance more than $5 trillion in mortgages are insolvent, if you don’t count the $150 billion already injected into them by the federal government. The common shares of these state-corporate hybrids have lost more than 99 percent of their value, both have been delisted from the New York Stock Exchange, and since September 2008 they have been official wards of the state. The largest owner of their obligations is now the United States Federal Reserve.
Housing finance inflation was at the center of the financial crisis, and the GSEs were at the center of housing finance inflation. Any meaningful reform of the mortgage system, and therefore the financial problems underlying the recession, must deal directly with Fannie and Freddie. But last summer our elected representatives instead passed a 2,300-page financial “reform” act that purposefully avoided addressing this central issue.
Discussions of how to reform Fannie and Freddie have now belatedly begun on Capitol Hill and in the Obama administration. The process will be complicated and controversial. But if we are to avoid future distortions and government-inflated bubbles in the housing market, Fannie and Freddie can and should be dismantled.
Divided and Conquered
The core problem with GSEs isn’t hard to understand. You can be a private company disciplined by the market, or you can be a government entity disciplined by the government. If you try to be both, you can avoid both disciplines.
To fix that, the first step is to put the GSEs into receivership (as opposed to the current conservatorship), so that the small remaining value of the common shares and all their governance rights are wiped out. Then the restructuring can proceed, Julius Caesar style: divide them into three parts.
The first of those parts, unfortunately, must be a “bad bank,” a liquidating trust that will bear Fannie and Freddie’s deadweight losses—the $150 billion spent by the Treasury so far, plus the additional losses that are embedded in the GSEs’ portfolios and will be realized over time. According to various estimates by the CBO and private analysts, it will cost in the range of $200 billion to $400 billion to make whole the foreign and domestic creditors of Fannie and Freddie. That cost will unjustly, but at this point unavoidably, be borne by taxpayers.
All the current debt and mortgage-based securities obligations that bear the Treasury’s implicit but very real guarantee should be placed in these trusts to run off over time, with all the current mortgage assets of the GSEs dedicated to servicing them. These trusts will be responsible for liquidating the old GSEs. They can be modeled on the structure used in the 1996 act that privatized another GSE: Sallie Mae, the federal student loan company.
The second of the three parts should be formed by privatizing Fannie and Freddie’s prime mortgage loan securitization and investing businesses. All their intellectual property, systems, human capital, and business relationships should be put into truly private companies, sold to private investors, and sent out into the world to compete, flourish, or fail like anybody else. As fully private enterprises, they will be free to do anything they think will create a successful business—except trade on the taxpayers’ credit card.
When there is a robust private secondary market for the largest segment of Fannie and Freddie’s business—high-quality prime mortgage loans to the middle and upper middle classes—private investors can then put private capital at risk, taking their own losses and reaping their own gains. In this mortgage sector, the risks are manageable, and no taxpayer subsidies or taxpayer risk exposures are necessary.
Decades ago, there may have been an argument for GSEs to guarantee the credit risk of prime mortgage loans in order to overcome the geographic barriers to mortgage funding, barriers that were themselves largely created by government regulation. More recently, there may have been a case for using GSEs to get through the financial crisis that they themselves had done so much to exacerbate. But as we move into the future mortgage finance system, the prime mortgage market can and should stand on its own, just like the corporate bond market.
A private secondary market for prime mortgages should have developed naturally a long time ago. It didn’t because no private entity could compete with the GSEs’ government-granted advantages. Bond salesmen, pushing trillions of dollars of GSE debt and mortgage-backed securities to investors all over the world, basically told them this: “You can’t go wrong buying this bond, because it is really a U.S. government credit, but it pays you a higher yield. So you get more profit with no credit risk.” Although there was, and still is, no formal government guarantee of Fannie and Freddie’s obligations, what the bond salesmen told the investors was nonetheless true, as events have fully confirmed. The Treasury has made it clear that its financial support of Fannie and Freddie is unlimited.
There can be no private prime middle class mortgage loan market as long as Fannie and Freddie use their government advantages both to make private competition impossible and to extract duopoly profits from private parties. The duopoly element of the old housing finance system should not be allowed to survive.
The third part to be carved from Fannie and Freddie should consist of intrinsically governmental activities, such as housing subsidies and nonmarket financing of risky loans. These should move explicitly to the government, where they will be fully subject to the discipline of congressional approval and appropriation of funds. This would
be in sharp contrast to past practice, in which the GSEs received huge subsidies and used some of the money to
win political favor, all concealed off budget. Instead, the funding for these activities would have to be appropriated by Congress in a transparent way, subject to the disciplines of democracy. These functions of Fannie and Freddie should be merged into the structure of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with the government mortgage programs of the Federal Housing Administration and Ginnie Mae.
Ending Freddie and Fannie, SlowlybIt is unrealistic to expect to achieve all this at once, but by clarifying where we should arrive, we can start the journey. That process has become somewhat easier because Fannie and Freddie are basically government housing banks
now, overwhelmingly owned and entirely controlled by the government.
Fair and transparent accounting demands that the GSEs not receive the political benefits of off-balance-sheet accounting. The Accurate Accounting of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Act (H.R. 4653), proposed by Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), would require Fannie and Freddie to be part of the federal budget, a change recommended by the Congressional Budget Office. Honest, on-budget accounting would give Congress a strong incentive to junk the GSE model and restructure Fannie and Freddie on the principle of “one or the other, but not both.”
Congress should also take up a proposal from Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), the GSE Bailout Elimination and Taxpayer Protection Act (H.R. 4889), which lays out a transition to a world with no GSEs. Hensarling’s bill would increase Fannie and Freddie’s capital requirements, reduce their role in the mortgage market, and establish a sunset on the GSE charters.
The ongoing, unlimited bailout of the GSEs will hit the taxpayers for much more than the $150 billion cost of the notorious savings and loan collapse of the 1980s. It is obviously difficult for Fannie and Freddie’s longtime political supporters to admit that the GSEs were a massive blunder. But that is now undeniable. The failure of Fannie and Freddie creates a perfect opportunity to restructure these hybrids, leaving no government-sponsored enterprise behind.
Alex J. Pollock (email@example.com) is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. He was president and CEO of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago from 1991 to 2004. This column first appeared at Reason.com.