Acting Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Joseph Otting has certainly gotten the mortgage market’s attention.

To the great interest of all concerned, but especially to the joy of the speculators in Fannie and Freddie’s shares, he recently told agency staff that the FHFA and the Treasury would be working on a plan to soon take Fannie and Freddie out of their 10 years of government conservatorship. Their share prices jumped.

The joy — and the share prices — have since moderated, after more careful comments from the White House. Still, it appears that any near-term change would have to be done by administrative action, since there is zero chance that the divided Congress is going to do so by legislation.

The FHFA and Treasury can do it on their own. They put Fannie and Freddie into conservatorship and constructed the conservatorship’s financial regime. They can take them out and implement a new regime.

But should they? Only if, as part of the project, they remove the Fannie and Freddie capital arbitrage which leads to the hyper-leverage of the mortgage system.

Running up that leverage is the snake in the financial Garden of Eden. As everybody who has been in the banking business for at least two cycles knows, succumbing to this temptation increases profits in the short term but leads to the recurring financial fall.

Leverage is run up by arbitraging regulatory capital requirements in order to cut the capital backing mortgages. Before their failure, when they had at least had some capital, Fannie and Freddie still served to double the leverage of mortgage risk by creating mortgage-backed securities.

Here’s the basic math. The standard risk-based capital requirement for banks to own residential mortgage loans is 4% — in other words, leverage of 25 to 1. Yet if banks sold the loans to Fannie or Freddie, then bought them back in the form of mortgage-backed securities, Fannie and Freddie would have capital of only 0.45% and the banks only 1.6%, for a total of 2.05%, due to lower capital requirements for the government-sponsored enterprises. Voila! The systemic leverage of the same risk jumped to 49 from 25. This reflected the politicians’ chronic urge to pursue expansionary housing finance. Now that Fannie and Freddie have virtually no capital, even the 0.45% isn’t there.

The risks of the assets are the same no matter who holds them, and the same capital should protect the system no matter how the risks are moved around among institutions — from a bank to Fannie or Freddie, for example. If the risk is divided into parts, say the credit risk for Fannie or Freddie and the funding risk for the bank, the sum of the capital for the parts should be the same as for the asset as a whole.

But the existing system abysmally fails this test.

If 4% is the right risk-based capital for mortgages, then the system as a whole should always have to have at least 4%. If the banks need 1.6% capital to hold Fannie and Freddie mortgage-backed securities, then Fannie and Freddie must have 2.4% capital to support their guarantee, or about 5 times as much as their previous requirement. If Fannie and Freddie hold the mortgages in portfolio and thus all the risks, they should have a 4% capital requirement, 60% more than their former requirement.

The FHFA is working on capital requirements and has the power to make the required fix.

Bank regulation also needs to correct a related mistake. Fortunately, Mr. Otting is also Comptroller of the Currency. Banks were encouraged by regulation to invest in the equity of Fannie and Freddie on a super-leveraged basis, using insured deposits to fund the equity securities. Hundreds of banks owned $8 billion of Fannie and Freddie’s preferred stock. For this disastrous investment, national banks had a risk-based capital requirement of a risible 1.6%, since changed to a still risible 8%. In other words, they owned Fannie and Freddie preferred stock on margin, with 98.4%, later 92%, debt. (Your broker’s margin desk wouldn’t let you do that!)

In short, the banking system was used to double leverage Fannie and Freddie. To fix that, when banks own Fannie and Freddie equities, they should have a dollar-for-dollar capital requirement, so it really would be equity from a consolidated system point of view.

All in all, if Treasury and the FHFA decide to end the conservatorships, that would be fine. That is, provided they simultaneously stop the systemic capital arbitrage and add the two highly-related reforms.

Fannie and Freddie will continue to be too big to fail, even without the capital arbitrage, and will continue to be dependent on and benefit enormously from the Treasury’s effective guarantee. They need to pay an explicit fee for the value of this taxpayer support. The fee should be built in to any revision of the existing senior preferred stock purchase agreements between them and the Treasury.

Finally, Fannie and Freddie are without question systemically important financial institutions. To address their systemic risk, Treasury and the FHFA should get them formally designated as the SIFIs they so obviously are.

Image from Shutterstock

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