One more bailout

Paul McMorrow
The Boston Globe

WHEN PRESIDENT Barack Obama signed legislation overhauling the nation’s financial regulations last month, he declared an end to Wall Street bailouts. Going forward, he said, failing finance houses won’t skirt by on the taxpayers’ dime. Bay State Representative Barney Frank characterized the new law as a death penalty for reckless institutions.

Both men are only half right. Congress has one more bailout to complete. That job — bringing Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s toxic balance sheets onto the government’s ledger — was left out of last month’s financial overhaul because the job is so massive and so politically unpalatable that it dwarfs every record-breaking handout that came before it.

That approach is also the only realistic option on the table.

Next Tuesday, policymakers will convene a summit to help determine what to do with Fannie and Freddie, the two government-owned mortgage giants. It’s bound to conclude that there’s little to do but nationalize them, stuff them with $300 billion in taxpayer funds, and hope that when they’re eventually able to stand on their own as semi-private corporations, the nation’s economy doesn’t implode again.

Fannie and Freddie were once the most powerful forces in the US housing industry. They pumped liquidity into the sector by buying up mortgages written by banks and mortgage companies. That kept the cost of capital low and increased the volume of mortgages. Government backing allowed the two to borrow money at lower rates than anyone else in the housing financing market.

While Fannie and Freddie operated under some form of congressional oversight, they ultimately answered to their stockholders. Their business was making money. They joined Wall Street firms in making record profits — and hauling in record bonuses — by buying, securitizing, and reselling subprime mortgages that never should have been written in the first place.

The housing market’s collapse sowed destruction and put the nation’s biggest banks on a government lifeline. No lifeline has been bigger than the rope the feds threw Fannie and Freddie, though. In September 2008, the two firms received a bottomless line of credit. So far, their tab stands around $148 billion — more than AIG, the company that insured all of Wall Street’s worst housing bets, is in hock for.

In January, the Congressional Budget Office said the total cost to taxpayers could reach $373 billion. Government aid to Fannie and Freddie has been handed out piecemeal so far. It’s easier to stick another $3.3 billion on the tab, as the two did last week after posting massive quarterly losses, than it is to grab the whole $300 billion pie all at once. But there’s a growing recognition in Washington that Fannie and Freddie can’t keep stringing along like this.

The article continues at the Boston Globe.

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