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Fannie, Freddie, and the Pending Taxpayer Bailout

July 11, 2008

Robert Reich

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two giant quasi-public housing lenders that together own or guarantee about half the $12 trillion in home loans outstanding, are heading into insolvency. No surprise. As housing prices continue to drop, more and more middle-class homeowners who got their loans from Fannie or Freddie are under water — owing more on their homes than their homes are now worth. And as the economy continues to go south, more and more of them can’t meet their loan payments.

While it’s true that most of their home loans were made before 2006 when lending standards were tighter, that doesn’t really matter because the rip-tide of this sinking economy is now hitting a much broader group of home owners.

Fannie and Freddie may not be technically insolvent yet, but I’m betting that if their lending portfolios reflected the true market prices of their loans they would be. That’s why their own investors are bailing out.

Fannie and Freddie are treated like giant investor-driven entities as long as they’re healthy and their investors and executives are doing well. But when they start to go down the tubes they become public entities with public responsibilities, the rest of us have to bail them out.

So who gets stuck with the tab? Investors in Fannie and Freddie have always believed that the loans issued by the two giants were guaranteed by the federal government but technically they aren’t. The guarantee has always been assumed but has never been put into law explicitly, and the liabilities have never been carried on the federal books. Yes, the companies’ charters give the Treasury the authority to buy as much as $2.25 billion in each of their securities in the event of possible default, and the two companies have access to the Fed’s so-called Fedwire payments system allowing them to access funding if needed. But these won’t keep the two afloat for long.

As a practical matter, we’re facing a Bear Stearns squared. Fannie and Freddie are way too big to fail — especially now. There’s no question the government will have to take over the companies, which means taxpayers will get stuck with the tab yet again.

Here we have another example of socialized capitalism. The executives of Fannie and Freddie have been among the best paid in all of corporate America. We’re talking tens of millions a year in CEO pay alone. Fannie and Freddie are treated like giant investor-driven entities as long as they’re healthy and their investors and executives are doing well. But when they start to go down the tubes they become public entities with public responsibilities, the rest of us have to bail them out.

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry appeared on his blog.

Copyright 2008 Robert B. Reich

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