Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Putting “Profits Before People”?

Now that Fannie and Freddie are essentially owned by the taxpayers, why aren’t these institutions doing more to help homeowners? Particularly, why are they so adamantly against allowing mortgage principal reductions?

These are questions that ProPublica, “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest,” has been following and reporting on in a recent series of articles. I’m highlighting two of those articles in this blog.

Inherently Conflicting Purposes

Why Fannie and Freddie Are Hesitating to Help Homeowners” describes “Fannie and Freddie’s role in the housing market, and why it seems as if their actions often go against the interests of homeowners.” At the heart of it, these two institutions operate within a conflict about their core purpose: they were set up to make home ownership more accessible, but they are also supposed to make a profit. This first purpose would encourage Fannie and Freddie to be as flexible as possible to allow distressed homeowners to keep their homes. But the profit-making purpose would seem to run counter to letting homeowners too easily get out of their mortgage commitments.

Tax-Payer Takeover Only Complicated the Conflict

Now that taxpayers stand to gain or lose many billions of dollars depending on the profitability of Freddie and Fannie, that would seem to put more emphasis on profit-making and less on homeowner relief. On the other hand, providing significantly more help for distressed homeowners would arguably help stabilize home prices and improve the economy to everyone’s benefit.

As the ProPublica article states:

The two aims of Fannie and Freddie are continually at odds — policies encouraging refinancing and forgiveness for more mortgage holders can increase costs to the taxpayer-owned companies. While the administration has made relief for homeowners their priority, [Edward] DeMarco [the acting head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which oversees Fannie and Freddie] says his agency’s priority is to protect Fannie and Freddie’s profits, aka taxpayers’ assets. Of course, many of those taxpayers are struggling homeowners, and that is at the heart of the dilemma over Fannie and Freddie’s future.

Mortgage Principal Reduction Caught between the Conflicting Purposes

A second ProPublica article addresses whether Fannie and Freddie will allow some homeowners to reduce their mortgage principal balances. That decision hangs in the political balance because of this same conflict between profitability and helping homeowners:

The Obama administration has repeatedly tried to push principal reduction — reducing the size of a borrower’s mortgage — as a way to help homeowners, especially those with homes worth less than their mortgages. But… time and again, Fannie and Freddie wouldn’t participate: a crippling problem, since the two companies own or guarantee about half of the country’s mortgages.

[Edward] DeMarco [the interim head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), says principal reduction could cost taxpayers $100 billion. Some economists counter that while principal reductions might lead to a short-term hit for Fannie and Freddie, it would ultimately result in fewer underwater mortgages, fewer foreclosures and a healthier housing market — all good for Fannie and Freddie’s bottom line.

To give DeMarco the last word, until my next blog:

DeMarco has… [told] Congress many times that “as conservator, FHFA has a statutory responsibility to preserve and conserve the enterprises’ assets.” In plainer terms, he [states] that his role is to “make sure Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac undertake activities that don’t cause further losses for the American taxpayers.”

DeMarco has strongly asserted his independence insisting that he is promoting needed fiscal discipline.

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