May 06 2010
Democrats fear a Senate measure to reform the failed mortgage giants.
One sign that the White House financial reform is less potent than its advertising claims is that it doesn't even attempt to reform the two companies at the heart of the housing mania and panic, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. So we're glad to see that yesterday GOP Senators John McCain, Richard Shelby and Judd Gregg introduced a Fan and Fred reform amendment that will let Democrats show if they're serious about reducing reckless lending and taxpayer risk.
The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission spent yesterday focusing on financial "leverage," using Bear Stearns as an example. But Fannie and Freddie were twice as leveraged as Bear, and much larger as a share of the mortgage market. Fan and Fred owned or guaranteed $5 trillion in mortgages and mortgage-backed securities when they collapsed in September 2008. Reforming the financial system without fixing Fannie and Freddie is like declaring a war on terror and ignoring al Qaeda.
Unreformed, they are sure to kill taxpayers again. Only yesterday, Freddie said it lost $8 billion in the first quarter, requested another $10.6 billion from Uncle Sam, and warned that it would need more in the future. This comes on top of the $126.9 billion that Fan and Fred had already lost through the end of 2009. The duo are by far the biggest losers of the entire financial panic—bigger than AIG, Citigroup and the rest.
From the 2008 meltdown through 2020, the toxic twins will cost taxpayers close to $380 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office's cautious estimate. The Obama Administration won't even put the companies on budget for fear of the deficit impact, but it realizes the problem because last Christmas Eve it raised the $400 billion cap on their potential taxpayer losses to . . . infinity.
Moreover, these taxpayer losses understate the financial destruction wrought by Fan and Fred. By concealing how much they were gambling on risky subprime and Alt-A mortgages, the companies sent bogus signals on the size of these markets and distorted decision-making throughout the system. Their implicit government guarantee also let them sell mortgage-backed securities around the world, attracting capital to U.S. housing and thus turbocharging the mania.
The virtue of Mr. McCain's amendment is that it will give Senators a chance to vote on the kind of reform that Congress blocked for so long, notably with Senator Barack Obama helping the blockade. The amendment mandates that the current government conservatorship of Fan and Fred will end within 30 months. In the meantime, the companies will have to reduce their mortgage portfolios by 10% each year. If the terrible twosome can't stand on their own after conservatorship, they would then go into receivership and be liquidated.
If they can survive on their own, they would have three years before the expiration of their federal charters, during which time they would have new operating restrictions. Messrs. McCain, Shelby and Gregg would repeal the affordable housing goals previously legislated for Fan and Fred and which contributed to their terrible mortgage bets, and the companies would have to reduce the mortgage assets held on their books by nearly 50% within two years and raise their capital standards.
Fannie and Freddie would also have to start paying state and local sales taxes, lose their exemption from full registration at the Securities and Exchange Commission when they issue securities, and start paying fees to repay the taxpayer for the value of federal guarantees. The $400 billion limit on taxpayer assistance would be reinstated, and for as long as they are in federal conservatorship or receivership, they would have to be included in the federal budget.
In short, the McCain amendment precisely targets the problems that caused the mortgage crisis: If the housing giants are no longer subsidized, they will become small enough to fail. That means they will stop lending money to people who cannot afford to pay them back, and in turn they will stop endangering taxpayers.
This is a genuine anti-bailout vote, and you would think Democrats would be more than happy to go along given their claims that they want to stop bailouts. Yet Republicans aren't even sure that Majority Leader Harry Reid will allow a vote on the McCain measure lest Democrats get pressure from the White House to oppose it. They would then reveal that their reform is less about reducing risk than about giving the political class more control over the financial status quo.