Long-time consumer advocate and perennial presidential candidate Ralph Nader predicts that bailed-out mortgage businesses Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will survive legislative attempts to disband them.
That would be a good outcome in Nader's view. He has become the improbable spokesman for a group that advocates for Fannie and Freddie shareholders and opposes a reform bill taking shape in the Senate — a diverse crew that also includes several hedge funds that would not typically be allied with Nader.
Nader said that those hedge funds, which include Fairholme Funds and Pershing Square, have "jumped on the bandwagon," and that he's been involved in advocacy relating to the two government-sponsored enterprises for 25 years, including back when the two were "flying high, wining and dining politicians."
"When I started raising the banner for the shareholders, I couldn’t find anybody," Nader said. Nevertheless, he's glad to have big-time investors involved, because "they’re hiring high-powered lawyers and paying their fees."
Fairholme has sued the federal government for changing the terms of the government's conservatorship of Fannie and Freddie, aiming to reverse a 2012 decision by the Treasury to keep all profits rather than distribute them to shareholders. After receiving a taxpayer bailout totaling $188 billion, Fannie and Freddie have returned to positive cash flow as the housing market has improved. In total, they have returned $202 billion in dividends to the Treasury.
Separately, Fairholme and other investors have pitched the federal government to sell them Fannie and Freddie's mortgage-insurance business, making it a private-sector enterprise.
Nader predicted that something along those lines would come to pass and that the two government-sponsored enterprises would not be shuttered, as both Democrats and Republican lawmakers say they should be. Both a bipartisan bill in the Senate and a GOP bill advanced by the House Financial Services Committee envision winding down the two.
Instead, Nader said, Fannie and Freddie will continue on, and "the best-case scenario is they preserve the shareholders' chance to recover, they recapitalize and they become like a public utility” with strong government oversight and regulation.
Any of the measures included in the Senate bill intended to ensure that taxpayers and consumers are not ripped off "can easily be put into effect on Fannie and Freddie” as they currently exist, Nader said.
Nader warned last week that both the bipartisan Senate measure and the House GOP bill "do not adequately anticipate the greed and power embedded on Wall Street in its incentive structure."
In recent weeks, multiple advocacy groups have joined Nader's efforts. The conservative seniors' group 60 Plus launched an ad campaign against senators supporting the bill sponsored by Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and his Republican counterpart on the committee, Mike Crapo of Idaho, calling it "Obamacare for mortgages." A new group, the Coalition for Mortgage Security, also announced it would be running ads targeting supporters of the bill.
Supporters of the Treasury's decision to take all Fannie and Freddie profits and wind down the companies say that it would be a mistake to allow them to remain private companies with an implicit government backstop, and that they have not repaid the government for the risk it took on when they failed at the peak of the crisis.
Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta economist Larry Wall seconded that analysis in March, writing that "the claim that the taxpayers and Treasury have been fully repaid for their support of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is based on an accounting calculation that does not withstand economic analysis."