By WILLIAM POOLE
Published: August 11, 2010
THE Federal National Mortgage Association — known as Fannie Mae — and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation — Freddie Mac — were poorly structured from the time, 40 years ago, when they were set up as so-called government-sponsored enterprises. Both of these technically private companies, designed to foster the issuance of home mortgages, enjoyed implicit federal backing in the event they got into financial trouble but only weak regulation to prevent such trouble. Essentially, the federal government insured the companies’ liabilities but never charged a premium.
Fannie and Freddie had a license to print money. They could borrow at an interest rate only a bit over the Treasury rate and then accumulate large portfolios of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities earning the market rate. What a deal — borrow at the low rate, invest at a higher one, hold little capital and let the federal government bear the risk! Investors enjoyed high returns, and management enjoyed high salaries. Incidentally, politicians also got a steady flow of campaign contributions from the companies’ executives.
Fannie and Freddie’s risky policies led to their near collapse; in September 2008, the federal government brought them under federal conservatorship. Fannie and Freddie have cost taxpayers about $150 billion so far.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration plans to hold a conference to address the question of what to do with the two companies. Clearly, it would be an inexcusable mistake to reconstitute them as private companies in anything close to their prior form. Some people have suggested recasting them as a single new “Fan-Fred agency” that would continue to securitize and guarantee home mortgages. It’s true that Fannie and Freddie played an important role in developing the market for mortgage-backed securities. But they have completed that work, and they should not be preserved in any form. They should be thanked for their successes and gracefully retired.
William Poole, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and a distinguished scholar in residence at the University of Delaware, was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis from 1998 to 2008.
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