The GSEs are on their way to paying back the money they owed the government under the original bailout deal, making 2018 an opportune time for an overhaul of the housing finance market.
the treasury department and the Federal Housing Finance Agency recently struck a deal amending how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s profits are sent to Treasury as dividends on their senior preferred stock.
But no one pretends this is anything other than a patch on the surface of the Fannie and Freddie problem.
The government-sponsored enterprises will now be allowed to keep $3 billion of retained earnings each, instead of having their capital go to zero, as it would have done in 2018 under the former deal. That will mean $6 billion in equity for the two combined, against $5 trillion of assets — for a capital ratio of 0.1%. Their capital will continue to round to zero, instead of being precisely zero.
Fannie and Freddie’s top regulator, Mel Watt, had worried about their running with exactly zero capital going forward, so any quarterly losses, perhaps from the vagaries of derivatives accounting, would force renewed bailout investments from the Treasury. That would have looked bad.
Additional bailout investments may well be necessary anyway, as Treasury and the FHFA admit, because by dropping the corporate tax rate, the new tax reform law implies major write-downs in Fannie and Freddie’s deferred tax assets. That will look bad, too.
Here we are in the 10th year since Fannie and Freddie’s creditors were bailed out by Treasury. Recall the original deal: Treasury would get dividends at a 10% annual rate, plus — not to be forgotten — warrants to acquire 79.9% of both companies’ common stock for an exercise price of one-thousandth of one cent per share. In exchange, Treasury would effectively guarantee all of Fannie and Freddie’s obligations, existing and newly issued.
Of course, in 2012 the government changed the deal, turning the 10% preferred dividend to a payment to the Treasury of essentially all Fannie and Freddie’s net profit instead. To compare that to the original deal, one must ask when the revised payments would become equivalent to Treasury’s receiving a full 10% yield, plus enough cash to retire all the senior preferred stock at par. The answer is easily determined. Take all the cash flows between Fannie and Freddie and the Treasury, and calculate the Treasury’s internal rate of return on its investment. When the IRR reaches 10%, Fannie and Freddie have sent in cash economically equivalent to paying the 10% dividend plus retiring 100% of the principal. This I call the “10% Moment.”
Freddie reached its 10% Moment in the second quarter of 2017. With the $3 billion dividend Fannie was previously planning to pay on Dec. 31, the Treasury’s IRR on Fannie would have reached 10.06%. The new Treasury-FHFA deal will postpone Fannie’s 10% Moment a bit, but it will come. As it approaches, Treasury should exercise its warrants and become the actual owner of the shares to which it and the taxpayers are entitled. When added to that, Fannie reaches its 10% Moment, then payment in full of the original bailout deal will have been achieved, economically speaking.
That will make 2018 an opportune time for fundamental reform.
Any real reform must address two essential factors. First, Fannie and Freddie are and will continue to be absolutely dependent on the de facto guarantee of their obligations by the U.S. Treasury, thus the taxpayers. They could not function even for a minute without that.
Second, Fannie and Freddie have demonstrated their ability to put the entire financial system at risk. They are with no doubt whatsoever systemically important financial institutions. Indeed, if anyone at all is a SIFI, then it is the GSEs. If Fannie and Freddie are not SIFIs, then no one is a SIFI.
Alex J. Pollock is a senior fellow at the R Street Institute and was president and CEO of the FHLBank of Chicago from 1991 to 2004.
Here we are in the 10th year since Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s creditors were bailed out by Treasury.