March 23, 2015
The Federal Housing Finance Agency Office of the Inspector General has issued a White Paper Report, The Continued Profitability of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Is Not Assured. The Executive Summary opens,
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (collectively, the Enterprises) returned to profitability in 2012 after successive years of losses. Their improved financial performance is encouraging; however, their continued profitability is not assured. The mortgage industry is complex, cyclical, and sensitive to changes in economic conditions, mortgage rates, house prices, and other factors. The Enterprises have acknowledged in their public disclosures that adverse market and other changes could lead to additional losses and that their financial results are subject to significant variability from period to period.
Notwithstanding the Enterprises’ recent positive financial results, they face many challenges. For example:
The Enterprises must reduce the size of their retained investment portfolios over the next few years pursuant to the terms of agreements with the U.S. Department of Treasury (Treasury) and additional limits from FHFA. Declines in the size of these portfolios will reduce portfolio earnings over the long term. These portfolios have been the Enterprises’ largest source of earnings in the past.
Core earnings from the Enterprises’ business segments—single-family guarantee, multifamily, and investments—comprised only 40% of net income in 2013. Sixty percent of the Enterprises’ net income came from non-recurring tax-related items and large settlements of legal actions and business disputes, which are not sustainable sources of revenue. Core earnings comprised 55% of net income in 2014.
The Enterprises are unable to accumulate a financial cushion to absorb future losses. Pursuant to the terms of agreements with Treasury, the Enterprises are required to pay Treasury each quarter a dividend equal to the excess of their net worth over an applicable capital reserve amount. The applicable capital reserve amount decreases to zero by January 1, 2018.
Stress test results released by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) in April 2014 indicate that the Enterprises, under the worst scenario—a scenario generally akin to the recent financial crisis— would require additional Treasury draws of either $84.4 billion or $190 billion, depending on the treatment of deferred tax assets, through the end of the stress test period, which is the fourth quarter of 2015.
Absent Congressional action, or a change in FHFA’s current strategy, the conservatorships will go on indefinitely. The Enterprises’ future status is beyond their control. At present, it appears that Congressional action will be needed to define what role, if any, the Enterprises play in the housing finance system. (1-2)
While I am overall sympathetic to the underlying message of this white paper — Reform Fannie and Freddie Now! — I think it is somewhat misleading. Fannie and Freddie have been sending billions of dollars to the Treasury that exceed the amount of support that they received during the financial crisis. Before we could talk about a second taxpayer bailout, I think we would have to credit them with those excess payments.
That being said, the Obama Administration and Congress have left Fannie and Freddie to linger for far too long in conservatorship limbo. I have no doubt that this state of affairs will contribute to some kind of crisis for the two companies, so we should support some kind of exit strategy that gets implemented sooner rather than later. Inaction is the greatest threat to Fannie and Freddie, and to the housing finance system itself.