Saturday, September 06, 2008

Fannie Mae - Then and Now

Then (Wall Street's Favorite Girl, Time Magazine, Dec. 7, 1970):
Speculators have been intrigued largely because Fannie Mae's quasi-governmental status exempts it from all the regulations of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Alone among the 1,325 common issues on the Big Board, Fannie Mae shares can be bought with only a 20% down payment, compared with the usual 65% margin for other stocks.

Why does Fannie Mae have this unique position? As a Government agency, created in 1938, it had little difficulty raising money for its mortgage loans on the private market; but all of these borrowed funds went on the Treasury's books as red ink, swelling the federal deficit. So Fannie Mae became a private corporation in 1968, and last May control of its board of directors passed into the hands of its 7,300 private stockholders. Nevertheless, Fannie Mae remains by law a "corporate instrumentality of the U.S.," and many crucial decisions concerning its borrowing, dividends and other matters are subject to approval by George Romney, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. With $15.5 billion in assets, Fannie Mae ranks as the nation's eighth largest company.

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Former Fannie Mae President Raymond Lapin, a prominent California Democrat who was ousted last year by President Nixon, concedes that the low margin requirement on the stock is "a weird arrangement." Still, Lapin maintains that Fannie Mae has become so vital to home building that "if it got into real trouble the Government would have to rush in and bail it out." Considering the increasing political importance of housing, Lapin is probably right. Compared with their chances for a quick killing, Fannie Mae stock speculators are exposed to minimal risk. At a time when Washington may be called on to impose stricter standards of behavior on the stock markets, it seems ironic that a loophole in the law has allowed a quasi-Governmental stock to become the most popular chip in the casino.
The Treasury Department late Friday was putting together final details of a plan to take the two into conservatorship, effectively a government takeover, at a potential cost of tens of billions to taxpayers.

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Reports circulating Friday night have the two companies entering conservatorship, which would nearly wipe out equity holders but preserve the interests of debt holders. The chief executives of both companies would lose their jobs, but the companies could continue to operate, with quarterly infusions of capital from the Treasury depending on losses.

Any announcement would come just weeks before the two companies have to refinance $225 billion of mostly short-term notes. Fannie and Freddie sell debt to investors regularly, but concern about their financial position threatens to scare away those needed buyers, many of them foreign banks. A solid federal guarantee would allay investor fears and allow Fannie and Freddie to continue to raise funds as needed.

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