Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

December 11, 2013

Reiss on Watt Confirmation

By David Reiss

Law360 interviewed me about the Senate confirmation of Mel Watt as the Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency in Fannie, Freddie’s Footprint Could Grow Under New FHFA Head. The article reads in part,

The U.S. mortgage industry is in for a sea change as Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., takes the helm of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, experts say, predicting Watt will seek to expand Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, veering sharply from his predecessor’s plans but lining up more closely with President Barack Obama’s.

The confirmation came Tuesday in a 57-41 vote after months of delay ended by Senate Democrats’ implementation of the so-called “nuclear option” eliminating the filibuster of presidential nominees. Senate Republicans had expressed concern about the choice of a politician like Watt — as opposed to an academic or economist — to head the agency.

Members of the real estate finance community are also divided about whether Watt’s confirmation will have a positive or negative impact on the industry, but most agree that a major change is ahead.

“I think Watt, as director, could end up having a very big impact both in terms of reversing some changes that have been implemented, and also taking the agency in a very different direction,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

Since 2009, interim FHFA head Ed DeMarco has made an effort to shrink the footprint of the regulator and its government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie and Freddie, in the U.S. residential mortgage market.

DeMarco faced pushback in these efforts from industry groups and lawmakers, causing him to backpedal a bit in November when the FHFA announced that it would hold off on reducing the size of mortgages that Fannie and Freddie can guarantee for at least the first half of next year.

Obama also did not share DeMarco’s ideology, but experts believe Watt’s plans for the GSEs are much more in line with those of the president. He appears cautious about allowing Fannie and Freddie to back away from the market entirely and may in fact favor policies that will increase the GSEs’ role in the mortgage market.

“My guess is that Watt will further enmesh Fannie and Freddie in the operations of the mortgage markets, whereas DeMarco was actually shrinking their footprint,” Reiss said.

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The difference between the short-term and long-term impacts of Watt’s expected actions will be significant, experts say.

DeMarco’s moves made short-term waves, but supporters believed the aim was long-term equilibrium and an eventual balance of public and private capital in the mortgage market. Watt may have more potential for positive short-term results, but there will still be a question as to whether this will translate into a stable market for the next generation, Reiss said.

“Often when people are talking about government intervention, they want help for problems now, but they’re also setting up the rules of the game for once the crisis has passed,” he said.

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