Hope for GSE Shareholders

Judge Lamberth issued an opinion in Fairholme Funds, Inc. v. FHFA (Civ. No.13-1439) (Sept. 28, 2018) that gives some hope to the private shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These shareholders have been on the losing end of nearly every case brought against the government relating to its handling of the conservatorships of the two companies.  Readers of this blog know that I have long been a skeptic of the shareholders’ claims because of the broad powers granted the government by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, passed during the height of the financial crisis, as well as the highly regulated environment in which the two companies operate. This highly regulated environment means that GSE profits are driven by regulatory decisions much more than those of other financial institutions. As such, Fannie and Freddie live and die by the sword of government intervention in the mortgage market.

Judge Lamberth had dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims in their entirety, but was reversed in part on appeal. In this case, he revisits the issues arising from the reversal of his earlier dismissal. Once again, Judge Lamberth dismisses a number of the plaintiffs’ claims, but he finds that that their claim that the government breached the duty of good faith survives.

The opinion gives a road map that shareholders can follow to success. The judge identifies allegations that, if true, would be a sufficient factual basis for a holding that the government breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. It is plausible that the preponderance of proof may support these allegations. Some evidence has already come to light that indicates that at least some government actors had good reason to believe that Fannie and Freddie were on the cusp of sustained profitability when the government implemented the net worth sweep. The net worth sweep had redirected the net profits of the two companies to the U.S. Treasury.

Judge Lamberth highlights some of aspects of the plaintiffs’ argument that he found compelling at the motion to dismiss phase of this litigation. First, he notes that absence of “any increased funding commitment” is atypical when senior shareholders receive “enhanced disbursement rights,” as was the case when the government implemented the net worth sweep. (21) He also states that the plaintiffs would not have expected that the GSEs would have extinguished “the possibility of dividends arbitrarily or unreasonably.” (22)

While this opinion is good news for the plaintiffs, it is still unclear what their endgame would be if they were to get a final judgment that the net worth sweep was invalid. Depending on the outcome of regulatory and legislative debates about the future of the two companies, the win may be a pyrrhic one. Time will tell. In the interim, expect more discovery battles, motions for summary judgment and even a trial in this case. So, while this opinion gives shareholders some hope of ultimate success, and perhaps some leverage in political and regulatory debates, I do not see it as a game changer in itself.

In terms of the bigger picture, there are a lot of changes on the horizon regarding the future of the housing finance system. The midterm elections; Hensarling and Corker’s departure from Congress; and the Trump Administration’s priorities are all bigger drivers of the housing finance reform train, at least for now.

Fannie and Freddie Visit the Supreme Court

Justice Gorsuch

Fannie and Fredddie investors have filed their petition for a writ of certiorari in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin. The question presented is

Whether 12 U.S.C. § 4617(f), which prohibits courts from issuing injunctions that “restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of” the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) “as a conservator,” bars judicial review of an action by FHFA and the Department of Treasury to seize for Treasury the net worth of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in perpetuity. (i)

What I find interesting about the brief is that relies so heavily on the narrative contained in Judge Brown’s dissent in the Court of Appeals decision. As I had noted previously, I do not find that narrative compelling, but I believe that some members of the court would, particularly Justice Gorsuch. The petition’s statement reads in part,

In August 2012—nearly four years after the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac1 in conservatorship during the 2008 financial crisis—FHFA, acting as conservator to the Companies, agreed to surrender each Company’s net worth to the Treasury Department every quarter. This arrangement, referred to as the “Net Worth Sweep,” replaced a fixed-rate dividend to Treasury that was tied to Treasury’s purchase of senior preferred stock in the Companies during the financial crisis. FHFA and Treasury have provided justifications for the Net Worth Sweep that, as the Petition filed by Fairholme Funds, Inc. demonstrates, were pretextual. The Net Worth Sweep has enabled a massive confiscation by the government, allowing Treasury thus far to seize $130 billion more than it was entitled to receive under the pre-2012 financial arrangement—a fact that neither Treasury nor FHFA denies. As was intended, these massive capital outflows have brought the Companies to the edge of insolvency, and all but guaranteed that they will never exit FHFA’s conservatorship.

Petitioners here, investors that own preferred stock in the Companies, challenged the Net Worth Sweep as exceeding both FHFA’s and Treasury’s respective statutory powers. But the court of appeals held that the Net Worth Sweep was within FHFA’s statutory authority, and that keeping Treasury within the boundaries of its statutory mandate would impermissibly intrude on FHFA’s authority as conservator.

The decision of the court of appeals adopts an erroneous view of conservatorship unknown to our legal system. Conservators operate as fiduciaries to care for the interests of the entities or individuals under their supervision. Yet in the decision below, the D.C. Circuit held that FHFA acts within its conservatorship authority so long as it is not actually liquidating the Companies. In dissent, Judge Brown aptly described that holding as “dangerously far-reaching,” Pet.App. 88a, empowering a conservator even “to loot the Companies,” Pet.App. 104a.

The D.C. Circuit’s test for policing the bounds of FHFA’s statutory authority as conservator—if one can call it a test at all—breaks sharply from those of the Eleventh and Ninth Circuits, which have held that FHFA cannot evade judicial review merely by disguising its actions in the cloak of a conservator. And it likewise patently violates centuries of common-law understandings of the meaning of a conservatorship, including views held by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”), whose conservatorship authority under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (“FIRREA”), served as the template for FHFA’s own conservatorship authority. Judge Brown correctly noted that the decision below thus “establish[es] a dangerous precedent” for FDIC-regulated financial institutions with trillions of dollars in assets. Pet.App. 109a. If the decision below is correct, then the FDIC as conservator could seize depositor funds from one bank and give them away—to another institution as equity, or to Treasury, or even to itself—as long as it is not actually liquidating the bank. The notion that the law permits a regulator appointed as conservator to act in a way so manifestly contrary to the interests of its conservatee is deeply destabilizing to our financial regulatory system. (1-2)

We shall see if this narrative of government overreach finds a sympathetic ear at the Court.

Watt’s Happening with Fannie and Freddie?

FHFA Director Watt

Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Watt testified before the House Committee on Financial Services today and gave a good overview of the decade-long conservatorship of Fannie and Freddie.  He also gave some sense of the urgency of coming up with at least a stopgap measure before the two companies’ capital buffer drops to zero at the end of the year pursuant to the terms of the Senior Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements (PSPAs) that govern the two companies’ relationship with the Treasury. He stated that it would

be a serious misconception for members of this Committee, or for anyone else, to consider any actions FHFA may take as conservator to avoid additional draws of taxpayer support either as interference with the prerogatives of Congress, as an effort to influence the outcome of housing finance reform, or as a step toward recap and release. FHFA’s actions would be taken solely to avoid a draw during conservatorship.

This signifies to me that he is planning on doing something other than reducing the capital buffer to $0.  As far as I can tell, Watt is playing a game of chicken with Congress — if you do not act, I will.

It is not clear to me clear how much authority Watt has or thinks he has to change the rules relating to the capital buffer. Does he think that he could act inconsistent with the PSPAa and withhold capital?  I have not seen a legal argument that says he could.  Is he willing to do it and be sued by Treasury?  These are speculative questions, but I do think that he has laid the groundwork for taking action if Congress and Treasury do not.

It does not seem to me that he was much wiggle room according to the terms of the PSPAs themselves, except perhaps to delay making the net worth sweep at the end of this year by converting it to an annual sweep or by some other mechanism.  That will be a short-term fix.

Given his strong language — “FHFA’s actions would be taken solely to avoid a draw during conservatorship” — I think he might be prepared to take an action that is inconsistent with the plain language of the PSPAs in order to act in a way that he thinks is consistent with his duty as the conservator.  This is less risky than it sounds because the only party that would seem to have standing to sue would be the Treasury, the counter-party to the PSPAs.  One could imagine that the Treasury would prefer to negotiate a response with the FHFA or await Watt’s departure rather than to have a judge decide the issue.  One could also imagine that Treasury would go along with the FHFA without explicitly condoning its actions, particularly if its actions soothed a turbulent market for Fannie and Freddie mortgage-backed securities.

Watt has consistently signaled that he will act if no other responsible party does and he emphasized that again today.

GSE Investors Propose Reform Blueprint

Moelis & Company, financial advisors to some of Fannie and Freddie investors including Paulson & Co. and Blackstone GSO Capital Partners, has release a Blueprint for Restoring Safety and Soundness to the GSEs. The blueprint is a version of a “recap and release” plan that greatly favors the interests of Fannie and Freddie’s private shareholders over the public interest. The blueprint contains the following elements:

1. Protects Taxpayers from Future Bailouts. This Blueprint protects taxpayers by restoring safety and soundness to two of the largest insurance companies in the United States, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This is achieved by (a) rebuilding a substantial amount of first-loss private capital, (b) imposing rigorous new risk and leverage-based capital standards, (c) facilitating the government’s exit from ownership in both companies, and (d) providing a mechanism to substantially reduce the government’s explicit backstop commitment facility over time.

2. Promotes Homeownership and Preserves the 30-Year Mortgage. This Blueprint ensures that adequate mortgage market liquidity is maintained, the GSE debt markets continue to function without interruption, and the affordable 30-year fixed-rate conventional mortgage remains widely accessible for every eligible American.

3. Repositions the GSEs as Single-Purpose Insurers. Given the substantial reforms implemented by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) since 2008, the GSEs can now be repositioned and safely operated as single-purpose insurers, bearing mortgage credit risk in exchange for guarantee fees with limited retained investment portfolios beyond that necessary for securitization “inventory” and loan purchases.

4. Enables Rebuild of Equity Capital while Winding Down the Government Backstop. The Net Worth Sweep served the purpose of dramatically accelerating the payback of Treasury’s investment in both companies. The focus must now turn to protecting taxpayers by rebuilding Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s equity capital and winding down the government’s backstop.

5. Repays the Government in Full for its Investment during the Great Recession. Treasury has retained all funds received to date during the conservatorships. The government has recouped the entire $187.5 billion that it originally invested, plus an additional $78.3 billion in profit, for total proceeds of $265.8 billion. Treasury’s profits to date on its investment in the GSEs are five times greater than the combined profit on all other investments initiated by Treasury during the financial crisis.

6. Produces an Additional $75 to $100 Billion of Profits for Taxpayers. Treasury can realize an estimated $75 to $100 billion in additional cash profits by exercising its warrants for 79.9% of each company’s common stock and subsequently selling those shares through secondary offerings. This monetization process, which follows the proven path of Treasury’s AIG and Ally Bank (GMAC) stock dispositions, could bring total government profits to $150 to $175 billion, the largest single U.S. government financial investment return in history.

7. Implements Reform Under Existing Authority. This Blueprint articulates a feasible path to achieving the Administration’s GSE reform objectives with the least amount of execution risk. It can be fully implemented during the current presidential term by FHFA in collaboration with Treasury utilizing their existing legal authorities. Congress could build on these reforms to develop an integrated national housing finance policy that accounts for the Federal Housing Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Rural Housing Service, and emphasizes (i) affordable housing, (ii) safety and soundness, and (iii) universal and fair access to mortgage credit for all Americans. (1)

As can be seen from the last paragraph, GSE investors are trying to use the logjam in the Capitol to their own advantage. They are arguing that because Congress has not been able to get real reform bill passed, it makes sense to implement a reform plan administratively. There is nothing wrong with such an approach, but this plan would benefit investors more than the public.

My takeaway from this blueprint is that the longer Fannie and Freddie remain in limbo, the more likely it is that special interests will win the day and the public interest will fall by the wayside.

Fannie, Freddie & The Affordable Housing Feint


Robert J. Shapiro


Elaine C. Kamarck






Robert J. Shapiro and Elaine C. Kamarck have posted A Strategy to Promote Affordable Housing for All Americans By Recapitalizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. While it presents as a plan to fund affordable housing, the biggest winners would be speculators who bought up shares of Fannie and Freddie stock and who may end up with nothing if a plan like this is not adopted.  The Executive Summary states that

This study presents a strategy for ending the current conservatorship and majority government ownership of Fannie and Freddie in a way that will enable them, once again, to effectively promote greater homeownership by average Americans and greater access to affordable housing by low-income households. This strategy includes regulation of both enterprises to prevent a recurrence of their effective insolvency in 2008 and the associated bailouts, including 4.0% capital reserves, regular financial monitoring, examinations and risk assessments by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), as dictated by HERA. Notably, an internal Treasury analysis in 2011 recommended capital requirements, consistent with the Basel III accords, of 3.0% to 4.0%. In addition, the President should name a substantial share of the boards of both enterprises, to act as public interest directors. The strategy has four basic elements to ensure that Fannie and Freddie can rebuild the capital required to responsibly carry out their basic missions, absorb losses from future housing downturns, and expand their efforts to support access to affordable housing for all households:

  • In recognition of Fannie and Freddie’s repayments to the Treasury of $239 billion, some $50 billion more than they received in bailout payments, the Treasury would write off any remaining balance owed by the enterprises under the “Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements” (PSPAs).
  • The Treasury also would end its quarterly claim or “sweep” of the profits earned by Fannie and Freddie, so their future retained earnings can be used to build their capital reserves.
  • Fannie and Freddie also should raise roughly $100 billion in additional capital through several rounds of new common stock sales into the market.
  • The Treasury should transfer its warrants for 79.9% of Fannie and Freddie’s current common shares to the HTF [Housing Trust Fund] and the CMF [Capital Magnet Fund], which could sell the shares in a series of secondary stock offerings and use the proceeds, estimated at $100 billion, to endow their efforts to expand access to affordable housing for even very low-income households.

Under this strategy, Fannie and Freddie could once again ensure the liquidity and stability of U.S. housing markets, under prudent financial constraints and less exposure to the risks of mortgage defaults. The strategy would dilute the common shares holdings of current private investors from 20% to 10%, while increasing their value as Fannie and Freddie restore and claim their profitability. Finally, the strategy would establish very substantial support through the HTF and CPM for state programs that increase access to affordable rental housing by very low-income American and affordable home ownership by low-to-moderate income households.

Wow — there is a lot that is very bad about this plan.  Where to begin? First, we would return to the same public/private hybrid model for Fannie and Freddie that got us into so much trouble to begin with.

Second, it would it would reward speculators in Fannie and Freddie stock. That is not terrible in itself, but the question would be — why would you want to? The reason given here would be to put a massive amount of money into affordable housing. That seems like a good rationale, until you realize that that money would just be an accounting move from one federal government account to another. It does not expand the pie, it just makes one slice bigger and one slice smaller. This is a good way to get buy-in from some constituencies in the housing industry, but from a broader public policy perspective, it is just a shuffling around of resources.

There’s more to say, but this blog post has gone on long enough. Fannie and Freddie need to be reformed, but this is not the way to do it.


Here: Complaint in Louise Rafter et al. v. U.S.

Here is a copy of the Complaint in Louise Rafter et al. v. U.S., Pershing Square’s Takings case in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. I will blog about it later, but thought that some might want to see it as soon as possible because it is not widely available yet.

Investors Unite for High GSE-Fees

Investors Unite, a “coalition of private investors . . . committed to the preservation of shareholder rights for those invested in” Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac sent a letter to FHFA Director Watt pushing for higher guarantee fees (g-fees). The technical issue of how high g-fees should be set actually contains important policy implications, as I had blogged about earlier.

Tim Pagliara, the Executive Director of Investors Unite, writes,

g-fees were historically determined by the GSEs and FHFA does not have a mandate as conservator to run the GSEs as not-for-profit entities. We urge you to adhere to a set of principles that takes into account the critical purpose of setting appropriate guarantee fees while respecting the rights of all economic stakeholders, including the GSE’s shareholders. Ideally, after undoing the 2012 sweep, when setting guarantees fees, FHFA should also take into full consideration that:

1. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have profit-making purposes onto which public mandates are layered, and they should charge guarantee fees that earn an appropriate market-based return on the capital employed, whether taxpayer capital or private capital. This is an absolutely critical factor “other than expected losses, unexpected losses and G&A fees” that should be considered when determining g-fees.

2. Increasing guarantee fees will provide more cash flow with which the GSEs can build capital and be restored to “safe and solvent condition.” Maximizing returns is not only consistent with, but arguably required by, the conservatorship.

3. FHFA as conservator has legal duties to the direct economic stakeholders – including all shareholders – that must be respected alongside the interests of other parties.

4. Earning an appropriate return on capital is entirely consistent with the conservatorship and affordable housing mandates. There is no conflict here between the GSEs building capital and setting aside funds for affordable housing. Indeed, it is only when the GSEs have earned their way back to a “safe and solvent condition” that they can sustainably meet their public affordable-housing mandates. After the GSEs have adequate capital, the suspension of those mandates can be reversed, i.e. the affordable housing support can be turned back on.

5. Keeping guarantee fees low to support the housing market in general, including homeowners and homebuyers that are well off and do not need help, is not as important as charging higher guarantee fees (a) to build a capital base to protect against future credit losses, and (b) to redistribute a portion of earnings to targeted constituencies that  particularly need financial support.

6. Guarantee fee rates should be tied to sound underwriting standards. If FHFA directs the GSEs to relax underwriting standards, it is essential that guarantee fees be adjusted upwards to account for the greater credit risk assumed in doing so.

Ultimately, g-fees profits should be allowed to stay within the housing market and should be set at levels that help ensure safety and soundness of the GSEs, that protect long-term health of the housing market, and that respect the rights of all economic stakeholders-including the GSE’s shareholders. (1-2, emphasis added)

This letter goes to the heart of the g-fee debate and the GSE litigation, as far as I am concerned.  The g-fee level will determine whether Fannie and Freddie shares have any value at all. A low g-fee means no profits and no value. A high g-fee means profits and shareholder value. I agree with Pagliara that g-fees should reflect “sound underwriting.” The FHFA should therefore clearly outline the goals that the g-fee is intended to achieve. I may disagree with Pagliara as to what those goals should be, but sound underwriting is key to any vision of a sustainable housing finance market.