Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

January 24, 2017

Can Fannie and Freddie Be Privatized?

By David Reiss

Kroll Bond Rating Agency posted Housing Reform 2017: Can the GSEs be Privatized? The big housing finance reform question is whether there is now sufficient consensus in Washington to determine the fate of Fannie and Freddie, now approaching their ninth year in conservatorship.

Kroll concludes,

The Mortgage Bankers Association sends a very clear message about privatizing the GSEs: It will raise rates for homeowners and add systemic risk back into the financial system. Why do we need to fix a proven market mechanism that is not broken? KBRA believes that if Mr. Mnuchin and the President-elect truly want to encourage the growth of a private market for U.S. mortgages, then they must accept that true privatization of the GSEs that eliminates any government guarantee would fundamentally change the mortgage market.

The privatization of the GSEs implies, in the short term at least, a significant decrease in the financing available to the U.S. housing market. In the absence of a TBA market, no coupon would be high enough to support the entire range of demand for mortgage finance, only pockets of higher quality loans as with the jumbo mortgage market today. Unless the U.S. moved to the Danish model with 100% variable rate notes, no nonbank could fund the production of home mortgages efficiently and commercial banks are unlikely to pick up the slack for the reasons discussed above.

In the event of full privatization of the GSEs, private loans will have significantly higher cost for consumers and offer equally more attractive returns for financial institutions and end investors, a result that would generate enormous political opposition among the numerous constituencies in the housing market. Needless to say, getting such a proposal through Congress should prove to be quite an achievement indeed. (4)

I disagree with Kroll’s framing of the issue:  “Why do we need to fix a proven market mechanism that is not broken?” To describe Fannie and Freddie as “not broken” seems farcical to me. They are in a state of limbo with extraordinary backing from the federal government. It might be that we would want to continue them with much the same functionality that they currently have, but we would still want this transition to be done intentionally.  Nobody, but nobody, was thinking that putting them into conservatorship was the end game,

While the current structure has some advantages over privatization, the reverse is true too.  The greatest benefit of privatization is getting rid of the taxpayer backstop in case of a failure by one or both of the companies.

We shouldn’t be saying — hey, what we have now is good enough. Rather, we should be asking — what do we expect out of our housing finance system and how do we get it?

There appears to be a broad consensus to reduce taxpayer exposure to a bailout.  There also appears to be a broad consensus (one that I do not support as broadly as others) to protect the 30 year fixed rate mortgage that remains so popular in the United States.

Industry insiders believe that a fully private system would not provide sufficient capital for the mortgage market. They are also concerned that a fully private system would put the kibosh on the To Be Announced (TBA) market that provides so much stability for the mortgage origination process.

A thoughtful reform proposal could incorporate all of these concerns while also clearing away the sticky problems built into the Fannie/Freddie model of housing finance.

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is not a good enough philosophy after we have lived through the financial crisis. We should focus on the big questions of what we want from our 21st century housing finance system and then design a system that will implement it accordingly.

| Permalink