IT MAY BE CURTAINS SOON FOR THE MANAGEMENTS and shareholders of beleaguered housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac . It is growing increasingly likely that the Treasury will recapitalize Fannie and Freddie in the months ahead on the taxpayer’s dime, availing itself of powers granted it under the new housing bill signed into law last month. Such a move almost certainly would wipe out existing holders of the agencies’ common stock, with preferred shareholders and even holders of the two entities’ $19 billion of subordinated debt also suffering losses. Barron’s first raised the possibility of a government takeover of Fannie and Freddie in a March 10 cover story, “Is Fannie Mae Toast?”
Heaven knows, the two government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs, both need resuscitation. Soaring mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures have led the companies to gush red ink for the past four quarters, and their managements concede the outlook is even grimmer well into next year. Shares of Fannie Mae (ticker: FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE) have lost around 90% of their value in the past year, with Fannie now trading at $7.91, and Freddie at $5.88.
Similarly, the balance sheets of both companies have been destroyed. On a fair-value basis, in which the value of assets and liabilities is marked to immediate-liquidation value, Freddie would have had a negative net worth of $5.6 billion as of June 30, while Fannie’s equity eroded to $12.5 billion from a fair value of $36 billion at the end of last year. That $12.5 billion isn’t much of a cushion for a $2.8 trillion book of owned or guaranteed mortgage assets.
What’s more, the fair-value figures reported by the companies may overstate the value of their assets significantly. By some calculations each company is around $50 billion in the hole. But more on that later.
Note, too, that Fannie and Freddie have nonpareil lobbying operations and formidable political strength, owing to their hefty donations and penchant for hiring former political operatives. Besides, the agencies claim they’ve landed in their current predicament through no fault of their own. As Freddie Mac Chairman and CEO Richard Syron recently put it, the GSEs have been hit by a “100-year storm” in the housing market, accentuated by some higher-risk mortgages that they were forced to buy to meet government affordable-housing targets.