April 18, 2016
After 2008, everyone hated Fannie and Freddie, and for good reason. These quasi-private companies are essentially giant piles of money that were intended to advance a simple, utility-like mandate to keep credit flowing in the housing markets.
In the pre-crash years, however, the firms’ leaders acted less like the stewards of utilities and more like sleazy Wall Street hotshots. They made hyper-aggressive business decisions because their bonuses were tied to earnings growth. Some executives even engaged in Enronesque accounting manipulations in an effort to jack up their bonuses even further. These efforts led to record civil fines.
Contrary to popular belief, the one thing they weren’t guilty of was causing the 2008 crash. As the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission later concluded, the GSEs were followers rather than leaders of the subprime craze. They invested far less recklessly than did the giant Wall Street firms primarily responsible for inflating the housing bubble.
In fact, it’s a little-known subplot of the financial crisis that bailout-era Fannie and Freddie was turned into a kind of garbage facility for other Wall Street institutions, buying up toxic mortgages that private banks were suddenly desperate to unload.
As early as March of 2008, then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson was advocating using Fannie and Freddie to “buy more mortgage-backed securities from overburdened banks.”
And at the heat of the crisis, none other than former House Financial Services Committee chief and current Hillary Clinton booster Barney Frank praised the idea of using Fannie and Freddie to ease economic problems. “I’m not worried about Fannie and Freddie’s health,” he said. “I’m worried that they won’t do enough to help out the economy.”
Even after the state took over the companies in September of 2008, Fannie and Freddie continued to buy as much as $40 billion in bad assets per month from the private sector. Fannie and Freddie weren’t just bailed out, they were themselves a bailout, used to sponge up the sins of private firms.
The original takeover mechanism was a $110 billion bailout, followed by a move to place Fannie and Freddie in conservatorship. In exchange, the state received an 80 percent stake and the promise of a future dividend. All told, the government ended up pumping about $187 billion into the companies.
But now here’s the strange part. Within a few years after the crash, the housing markets improved significantly, to the point where Fannie and Freddie started to make money again. Lots of money. The GSEs became cash cows again, and in 2012 the government unilaterally changed the terms of the bailout.
Now, instead of taking a 10 percent dividend, the government decided that the new number it preferred was 100 percent. The GSE regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), explained the new arrangement.
“The 10 percent fixed-rate dividend was replaced with a variable structure, essentially directing all net income to the Treasury,” the FHFA wrote. “Replacing the current fixed dividend in the agreements with a variable dividend based on net worth helps ensure stability [and] fully captures financial benefits for taxpayers.”
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