Among the strategic goals for reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac specified by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in Congressional testimony on October 22 was: “Legislation could achieve lasting structural reform that…eliminates the GSEs’ competitive advantages over private-sector entities.” A good idea, except legislation won’t happen.
As the Secretary suggests, replacing the current government-dominated, duopolistic secondary housing finance sector with a truly competitive one is an excellent goal. But fortunately, it does not take legislation. It can be achieved with purely administrative actions—three of them, to be exact. These administrative actions are:
1. Set Fannie and Freddie’s capital requirements equal to those of private financial institutions for the same risks.
2. Have Fannie and Freddie pay the same fee to the government for its credit support that other Too Big To Fail financial institutions have to pay.
3. Set Fannie and Freddie’s g-fees at the level that includes the cost of capital required for private financial institutions to take the same risk.
The Same Capital Requirement
The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), Fannie and Freddie’s regulator, has full authority to set their capital requirements. FHFA simply has to set them in a systemically rational way: namely, so that the same risk requires the same capital across the system: the same for Fannie and Freddie as for private financial institutions.
Running at hyper-leverage was a principal cause of Fannie and Freddie’s failure and bailout. It naturally induced market actors to perform capital arbitrage and send credit exposure to where the capital was least—that is, into Fannie and Freddie—thereby sticking the taxpayers with the risk.
The capital for mortgage credit risk is still the least at Fannie and Freddie and the risk is still sent every day to the taxpayers by way of them. Even with the revised agreement between the FHFA and the Treasury announced on September 30, Fannie and Freddie will be able to in time increase their capital only to $45 billion combined. This is exceptionally small compared to their risk of $5.5 trillion: it would represent a capital ratio of less than 1%, still hyper-leverage.
Something like a 4% capital requirement would be more like the equilibrium standard required to eliminate the capital arbitrage, which would imply a total capital for the two government-backed entities of about $220 billion. I do not insist on the exact numbers, only that the FHFA should implement the right principle: same risk, same capital.
The Same Fee for Government Support
Fannie and Freddie are Too Big To Fail (TBTF). No one doubts or can doubt this. Their business and indeed their existence utterly rely on the certainty of government support. This means their creditors have immense moral hazard: they don’t have to worry about the credit risk of the trillions of Fannie and Freddie fixed income securities they hold. History has proved that the creditors are right to rely on government support—when Fannie and Freddie were deeply insolvent, the bailout assured that the creditors nonetheless received every penny of interest and principal on time.
What is this government support worth? A huge amount. There is widespread agreement that Fannie and Freddie should pay an explicit fee for it, but how much? The right answer is to remove their unfair competitive advantage by having them pay at the same rate as any other Too Big To Fail institution with the same leverage and the same risk to the government.
In other words, have the FDIC determine what the deposit insurance rate for a TBTF bank with Fannie and Freddie’s leverage and risk would be, and require them to pay that to the Treasury. Then they would be on the same competitive basis as private financial institutions.
Setting the right fee in exchange for the ongoing government support is within the power of the FHFA as Conservator and the Treasury, by the two of them amending their Fannie and Freddie Senior Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements accordingly.
The Same Guaranty-Fee Logic
The key action here, which the FHFA is already not only empowered but directed by Congress to take, is already in law—to be specific, in the Temporary Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011. This statute requires the setting of Fannie and Freddie’s g-fees to include not only the risk of credit losses, but also “the cost of capital allocated to similar assets by other fully private regulated financial institutions.” The FHFA Director is instructed to make this calculation and increase the g-fees accordingly. The FHFA has egregiously not carried out this unambiguous instruction. It should do so now, thereby removing the third distorting competitive advantage which historically allowed Fannie and Freddie to drive out private capital.
Each of these administrative actions by itself would create a serious advance toward the stated goal. To take all three of them would settle the matter: game, set, match. No legislation needed.