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Fannie and Freddie: Cash cows avoid the slaughter?

Feb 27, 2014
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We are making money – the tax payer, that is – on Fannie and Freddie Mac. 

When Freddie Mac hands the treasury a $10.4 billion dividend next month, tax payers will have received more money in interest than was put in. (Technically the two institutions still owe the principal on the loan that bailed them out, but the interest they’re paying will shortly exceed that amount).

But.

There always is a but with these things.

Making money for the tax payer isn’t good if you ask those who want reform.

Back during the financial crisis, conservatives and liberals disagreed over whether Freddie and Fannie were a victim of or a cause of the housing collapse, but they agreed that the institutions needed reform. The profits are throwing a wrinkle into this debate.

“As long as Fannie and Freddie continue to pay substantial amounts of money to the government, they are looked at by some people in Congress as a great source of revenue that reduces the deficit,” explains Peter Wallison with the American Enterprise Institute. His concern – shared by reformers on both sides of the political spectrum – is that if Fannie and Freddie become cash cows, congress won’t want to touch them. 

David Reiss, professor of law at the Brooklyn Law School, agrees. He says the financial crisis wasn’t a one time problem.

“We should think of it as that we dodged a bullet. There’s fundamental problems with the Fannie and Freddie business model which rests on this notion of privatizing profits and socializing losses.”

Freddie and Fannie buy mortgages from lenders, and then bundle them into “mortgage backed securities” that can be sold to investors. It’s useful because it converted illiquid mortgage loans into liquid securities. In plain English, it means a bank or investor who made a mortgage loan to someone didn’t have to wait around for 30 years to be paid back. They could sell their stake in the mortgage to Fannie or Freddie, move along, and go invest in other things. This helped more people get mortgages.

One concern was that Fannie and Freddie were simply too big and too concentrated. Another concern was that the federal government implicitly guaranteed investments in Freddie and Fannie, and that encouraged people to make home loans that were too risky. 

Even without the complication of profits, the debate over how to reform Fannie and Freddie is at a stand still.

House Republicans don’t want the government involved at all, they want an efficient market. The Senate wants the government to be involved a little bit, essentially to promote housing.  

“What I see,” says David Reiss, “is nothing really happening, and us being a holding pattern for a long time.”

It’s possible that reform-minded politicians will compromise before they lose their chance. Also possible they won’t. 

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