Of the many companies whose stock prices have risen since the presidential election, two stand out.
Their investors are hoping for more than just a tax cut, regulatory breaks or new government contracts. Traders bidding up shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are betting on a windfall when and if the two mortgage-finance giants stop being wards of the state.
Such speculation hit a fever pitch Nov. 30 when Steven Mnuchin, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Treasury secretary, said he favored a quick privatization of Fannie and Freddie. The two have been under government conservatorship since 2008, and have paid nearly all of their profits to the Treasury since 2012.
Several hedge funds, including Bill Ackman’s Pershing Square Capital Management and Bruce Berkowitz’s Fairholme Capital, have waged a legal and political fight for Freddie and Fannie to be recapitalized, meaning that the companies would get to keep their profits.
The court case is moving slowly, but investors seem to think their political prospects have brightened. Shares in both companies have more than doubled since Election Day.
Housing finance reform is, of course, one of many issues awaiting action by the Trump administration and the new Congress. Republicans may not consider it as urgent as, say, killing Obamacare, but they’ve made clear that they want to reduce government’s role in the mortgage business.
Just how they do so may affect the cost of your next mortgage. It may even determine whether you can still get a traditional 30-year mortgage.
One option is to do what the hedge funds want and let Fannie and Freddie become the private, profit-making companies they were before the financial crisis — with, of course, implied government backing.
Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, isn’t a fan of what he calls vulture capitalists. “These guys bought the stuff when it was nearly worthless and they hoped to change the politics around it,” he said. “You don’t want people to get rich that way.”
Another approach, which the administration of President Barack Obama endorsed, would replace Fannie and Freddie with a federal mortgage insurance fund. Private banks would take over packaging loans, but the government would keep most of the risk.
A third alternative, pushed by Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, would phase out Fannie and Freddie entirely. It has some appeal: Mortgage markets in other capitalist countries function well without government intervention.
Housing advocates, however, worry that this cold-turkey approach would drive up mortgage rates and kill the 30-year loan. “American homeowners clearly have indicated that they want a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage,” says John Dalton, head of the Financial Services Roundtable’s housing policy council.
The decision is complicated by budget considerations. The Congressional Budget Office projects that, under current rules, Fannie and Freddie will pay $180 billion to the Treasury between 2017 and 2026. If the two are privatized, Congress must find the money elsewhere or see the deficit swell.
At any rate, no one in the Trump camp has laid out a plan for Fannie and Freddie, and Mnuchin offered only a vague clue. “The reaction to his mentioning privatization was really responding to something he didn’t say,” notes Michael Stegman, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
When the Trump administration does outline a housing policy, it has tough choices to make. Whatever it does will anger someone — deficit hawks, homeowners, small-government conservatives and maybe all of the above. The only group it should want to anger are the hedge funds trying to make a quick buck.