Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

May 5, 2014

The Second Frannie Bailout: Who Could’ve Known?

By David Reiss

There is a good chance that five or so years from now, Fannie and Freddie will be in the midst of another bailout. This next crisis will be directly caused by the Executive and Legislative branches of the federal government. But members of those branches will say, “Nobody could have known that this crisis was going to happen, nobody is at fault.” That won’t be true, but nobody will be punished in any case. That’s because the crisis will result from inaction, that most fearsome of government flaws.

Who is the Cassandra, warning us of this impending crisis? None other than Donald Layton, the CEO of Freddie. You may think that he is speaking merely from self-interest and you would probably be right. But his self-interest happens to align with the truth in this matter.

In a letter to FHFA Director Watt, Layton writes:

the ability of Freddie Mac to continue to support the mortgage markets and the U.S. economy duling an unprecedentedly lengthy transition period should be one of the most important objectives of a housing finance reform proposal, such as the Johnson-Crapo Bill. The existing Bill draft does not focus on this issue and so, in my personal but experienced opinion, leaves the risk of a failure in Freddie Mac’ss Core Policy Function unacceptably high. With certain specific changes, none of which alter the fundamental nature of the future state envisioned or even the key aspects of the transition, l believe this risk can be reduced, although it would still remain high. (7)

Layton highlights the extraordinary complexity of Freddie’s activities in an appendix to the letter. The highlights include the fact that Freddie Mac guarantees  “about  17% of all U.S. mortgage debt outstanding;” 1,400 Servicers and 2,000 Sellers work with Freddie; and Freddie manages 44,600 REO properties. (8)

Layton states that “It goes without saying that Freddie Mac cannot deliver upon its Core Policy Function, its support of the transition to a future state, or its support of Conservatorship initiatives without experienced and knowledgeable people in place at the executive level, at the Subject matter expert level and at the “been-here-a-long-time-to-know-how-everything-works level.” (3) He believes that departures are likely to cripple the company as experienced staff move on to other, more stable opportunities, leaving behind the quagmire that life in a GSE has become.

The Executive and Legislative branches are not really moving toward some kind of resolution of the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships, although we are now five years past the initial crisis. There is a good chance that the federal government will not move us to the next phase of housing finance in the next couple of years. Operations at the two GSEs will thus continue to suffer and will likely build up to a new crisis. And it will be a totally predictable crisis.

I am the kind of person who likes to say, “I told you so.” But the stakes here are so humungous and so important for the health of the economy, that I could take no pleasure in saying I told you in 2014 that our entire housing finance edifice was going to crumble a second time in a decade. But it will, if nothing is done to prevent it today.

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