April 28, 2016
Senator Shelby (R-AL), the Chair of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, sent a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office regarding the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, sometimes known as the “enterprises.” It provides an interesting roadmap of Republican thinking about the appropriate role of the federal government in the mortgage market:
the FHFA [Federal Housing Finance Agency] has taken steps that appear to encourage a more active, rather than a reduced, role in the mortgage market for the enterprises. These steps include issuing proposed rules regarding the enterprises’ duty to serve, creating principle [sic] write-down requirements, lowering down-payment requirements, allowing allocation of revenues to the national housing trust fund despite the enterprise having no capital, and other actions. Moreover, the development of the common securitization platform, a joint venture established by the enterprises at the FHFA’s direction, raises a number of questions about the FHFA’s stated goal to gradually contract the enterprises’ dominant presence in the marketplace.
Initially, the purpose of the FHFA’s efforts, such as the common securitization platform, was to facilitate greater competition in the secondary mortgage market, but now it appears that the FHFA is no longer taking steps to enable the platform to be used by entities other than the enterprises. Likewise, lowering the down-payment requirement for mortgages guaranteed by the enterprises will make the enterprises more competitive with others in the mortgage market, not less. Overall, these FHFA actions raise questions about the goals of the conservatorship and whether its ultimate purpose has changed.
To better understand the impact of these changes, I ask that the GAO study and report the extent to which the FHFA’s actions described above could influence:
- The enterprises’ dominance in residential mortgage markets;
- A potential increase in the cost of entry for future competitors to the enterprises;
- Current and future financial demands on the Treasury;
- Possible options for modifying the enterprises’ structures (1)
As I have stated previously, Congress and the Obama Administration have allowed the FHFA to reform Fannie and Freddie on its own, with very little oversight. Indeed, the only example of oversight one could really point to would be the replacement of Acting Director DeMarco with Director Watt, a former Democratic member of Congress. It is notable that Watt has continued many of the policies started by DeMarco, a Republican favorite. That being said, Shelby is right to point out that Watt has begun taking some modest steps that Democrats have favored, such as funding the housing trust fund and implementing a small principal-forgiveness program.
Housing finance reform is the one component of the post-financial crisis reform agenda that Congress and the Executive have utterly failed to address. It is unlikely that it will be addressed in the near future. But perhaps the FHFA’s independent steps to create a federal housing finance infrastructure for the 21st century will galvanize the political branches to finally act and implement their own vision, instead of ceding all of their power to the unelected leaders of an administrative agency.