On September 7, 2008, in the largest nationalization in American history (executed expeditiously and without an obviously transparent process), the U.S. government announced that it was placing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into conservatorship. As part of the conservatorship, the government would provide capital support, if necessary, of up to $100 billion to each GSE through Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements. Although no cash changed hands, in consideration of this backstop, the U.S. government received 80% of the common stock plus $1 billion in preferred stock in each institution. This backstop has recently been increased to $200 billion as part of the Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan. In the process, they suspended dividends on existing preferred stock of both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, eliminating approximately $36 billion in value, most of which was held by the major commercial banks in the United States.
Rather than help solve the housing and mortgage problem, the unintended consequences of this action were manifold. First, bank capital was depleted. Not only was $36 billion in GSE preferred wiped out, but the whole market for financial preferred securities went into a free fall, wiping out additional equity from financial institutions, including many large insurance companies. Second, despite the boards of directors of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac consenting to conservatorship, neither company has ever given an explanation for its consent. For those who are sophisticated in finance, neither Fannie Mae nor Freddie Mac had a “funding” problem. Because each GSE’s balance sheet was comprised of highly liquid Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS) that pay off on a monthly basis, it should have been easy for either to pledge securities to raise money or to shrink their balance sheet and meet their financial obligations as they came due. The logical explanation for the boards of directors giving consent rests with the presumption that if they did not consent, there was some other threat that would have been even worse for those directors. As for the shareholders the directors represented, it is hard to imagine anything worse than having their investment effectively wiped out, and they had no vote on the matter.
Investors in regulated industries rely on the fact that regulators will not behave in an arbitrary fashion and, if they do, that there are due process remedies that their managements and boards can pursue. Investors in financial institutions who experienced what can happen when funding was compromised earlier in the year in the case of Bear Stearns, now experienced what can happen when a regulator unilaterally decides that the rules of the game are not sufficient or appropriate. Both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had capital in excess of the required levels under regulatory guidelines and accounting rules in effect, with Fannie Mae’s capital being significantly in excess of the required levels. However, if one were to use some other standard (and many were being suggested and recommended for quite a while), one could make the case that neither company had the capital desired by their critics, some of whom were not investors, while others had an academic or political interest in the housing and mortgage area that was adverse to the GSEs.