Larry Wall of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta has posted one of his Notes from the Vault, Have the Government-Sponsored Enterprises Fully Repaid the Treasury? It opens,
Have U.S. taxpayers been fully compensated for their bailout of the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? The Treasury is reported to have argued that “the value of Treasury’s commitment to the GSEs was “incalculably large,'” with the implication that it could never be repaid. Richard Epstein, the Peter and Kirsten Bedford Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution [and who discloses that he consults “with several hedge funds with positions in Fannie and Freddie”], responded that “the level of the Treasury commitment was not ‘incalculably large’: it was $188 billion, all of which will shortly be repaid.” The significance of Epstein’s argument is that if Treasury has been fully compensated for its bailout of Fannie and Freddie, a case can be made that the future profits of the two GSEs should go to their private shareholders.
As an accounting matter, one could argue that Epstein is correct; the dividends equal the amount of Treasury funds provided to the GSEs. And as a legal matter, the issue may ultimately be resolved by the federal courts. However, as an economic matter, the value of the government’s contribution clearly exceeds $188 billion once the risk borne by taxpayers is taken into account.
In this Notes from the Vault I examine the value of the taxpayers’ contribution to Fannie and Freddie from an economic perspective. My analysis of these contributions is divided into three parts: (1) the GSEs’ profitability prior to the 2008 conservatorship agreement (bailout), (2) the value of the taxpayer promise at the time of the bailout, and (3) support of new investments since they were placed in conservatorship. (1)
The article goes on to explain each of these three parts of the taxpayers’ contribution and concludes,
The claim that the taxpayers and Treasury have been fully repaid for their support of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is based on an accounting calculation that does not withstand economic analysis. The claim that Treasury’s commitment has been fully repaid attributes no dividend payments to Treasury starting in 2012, attributes no value to the government guarantee to absorb whatever losses arose in the pre-conservatorship book of business, and arguably reflects Treasury setting too low of a dividend rate on its senior preferred stock. Moreover, the profits that are being used to pay the dividends did not arise from the contributions of private shareholders but rather entirely reflect risks borne by the Treasury and taxpayers. Thus, the Treasury claim that the value of the aid was “incalculable” is an exaggeration; the value surely can be fixed within reasonable bounds. However, the implication of this claim, that the GSEs cannot repay the economic value on behalf of their common shareholders, is nevertheless accurate. (2)
This article offers a useful corrective to the story one hears from those representing Fannie and Freddie’s shareholders. They have constructed a simple narrative of the bailout of the two companies that ignores the way that the two companies’ fortunes have been intrinsically tied to the federal government’s support of them. That simple narrative just nets out the monies that Treasury fronted Fannie and Freddie with the payments that the two companies made back to Treasury. After netting the two, they say, “Case closed!” Wall has demonstrated that there are a lot more factors at play than just those two.
I would also highlight something that Wall did not: the federal government actually determines the level of profits that Fannie and Freddie can make by setting the fees the two companies charge for guaranteeing mortgages. So, the federal government could wipe away future profits by lowering the guaranty fees. And wiping away those profits would make those outstanding shares worthless.
So the question remains: what is the endgame for the investors who have brought these lawsuits?