What Was the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Bailout?

The Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bailout led to many foreclosures and home auctions.
Falling housing prices caused the bailout of Fannie and Freddie. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images).

The Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bailout occurred September 6, 2008. The bailout came as the U.S. Treasury Department was authorized to purchase up to $100 billion in preferred stock of the organizations and buy mortgage-backed securities. As a result, Fannie and Freddie were put into conservatorship by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA).

The Bailout Cost to Taxpayers

According to an independent economic group, the Shadow Open Market Committee (SOMC), keeping the two agencies afloat cost taxpayers US$187 billion over time as the Treasury paid $116 billion for Fannie and $71 billion for Freddie.

In August 2012 the Treasury decided it would send all Fannie and Freddie profits to their fund rather than simply collecting a 10% dividend. As of 2019, the bailout has been paid back with an additional $58 billion in profit, reported by SOMC. Fannie remitted $147 billion, and Freddie paid $98 billion.

The Fannie and Freddie bailout was greater than the 1989 saving and loan crisis, which cost the taxpayers $132 billion. It was on par with the subsequent 2008 bailout of AIG, which started at $85 billion but grew to $182 billion. Both were small potatoes compared to the 2008 $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout of the U.S. banking system, even though the U.S. Treasury shows only $444 billion of TARP funds were spent as of April 2021.

The bailout kept Fannie, Freddie, and the American housing market functioning. The government currently has a warrant to buy up to 79.9% of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's stock at any time, effectively giving them control of the companies again. They have not, however, executed the warrant, so they are both still private and owned by those who hold their stock. Though, the federal government still holds certain powers over Fannie and Freddie and is able to make decisions regarding how and when money is spent.

Building a House for the Bailout

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were two government-sponsored enterprises (GSE) that bought mortgages from banks, a process known as buying on the secondary market. These purchased loans were then repackaged into mortgage-backed securities (MBS). The MBS were, in turn, sold to large, institutional investors on Wall Street. At times these firms would themselves repackage the mortgages into securities where were sold to smaller investors.

These investments were in great demand because they returned a high-interest income to the investor. Loans continued to be sold, repackaged and resold as banks competed with one another to write more and more mortgage loans to often under- or unqualified buyers. The entire financial system depends on trust. The subprime mortgage crisis decimated it.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac remain highly involved in, the secondary market for mortgage-backed securities as they continued to help American families realize the American dream of homeownership. Before the subprime mortgage crisis peaked in 2008, they owned or guaranteed about $5.4 trillion mortgages, or nearly 50%, of all U.S. mortgages, $1.6 trillion of which were subprime mortgages.  Between 1997 and 2007 the the two entities were invested heavily in risky subprime mortgages, it would eventually capsize them. The dream turned into a nightmare and led to the 2008 financial crisis and caused the Great Recession.

The government may have been attempting to avoid taking over the two GSEs, which were only ever supposed to act like private corporations with a government guarantee. However, that set-up was flawed and became a part of the problem because investors had the incorrect view that Fannie and Freddie were back by the U.S. government. Seemingly, with a lack of self-control, Fannie and Freddie took excessive risks to boost their stock prices in the short term, possibly knowing they would be bailed out if their risky practices turned south.

Fannie and Freddie Debt Offering

Before the subprime meltdown, the two GSEs continued to ratchet up their debt holdings. In August 2007, Fannie Mae announced it would skip a benchmark debt offering for the first time since May 2006. Investors rejected even the highly-rated mortgage-backed securities offered by the GSEs. Most investors thought Fannie had enough cash to allow it to wait until the market improved. By November 2007, Fannie declared a $1.4 billion quarterly loss and announced it would seek $500 million in new funds by selling preferred stock. On November 20, 2007 Freddie then disclosed a $2 billion loss, sending its stock price down 29%. In just a month, Freddie's net losses ballooned to $3.1 billion.

March 19, 2008, federal regulators unwisely agreed to let Fannie and Freddie take on another $200 billion in subprime mortgage debt. The two GSEs were desperately trying to raise enough cash to keep themselves solvent. Most people at the time thought the subprime crisis was restricted to real estate and would correct itself soon. Perhaps they didn't realize how derivatives had exported the subprime mortgage defaults throughout the entire financial world. As it turned out, this was another $200 billion the government had to bail out later that year.

March 24, 2008, the Federal Housing Finance Board agreed to let the regional Federal Home Loan Banks take on an extra $100 billion in mortgage-backed securities for the next two years. Fannie and Freddie guaranteed those loans as well.

In just the first two quarters of 2008, the two GSEs had already lost approximately $5.5 billion. Even though their balance sheets were quickly becoming shaky, they continued to take on risky loans. Even four years later, in 2010, 12% of Freddie's investment portfolio could be considered subprime. The Federal Reserve agreed to take on $200 billion in bad loans from dealers (such as investment banks) in exchange for Treasury securities. Last, but certainly not least, the Fed had already pumped $200 billion into banks through its Term Auction Facility. In all, with the passing of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, the federal government eventually agreed to pay over $700 billion to bailout the GSEs taking part in risky subprime mortgages and the failing banks.

HomeStay Program

In April 2007, Fannie made further commitments to help subprime mortgage holders keep their homes. They developed a new effort called HomeStay. This program gave borrowers ways to get out from under adjustable-rate loans before interest rates reset at a higher level and make monthly payments unaffordable. Unfortunately, it was too little and too late. Unfortunately, it was too little and too late.

Investing in Shares of Fannie and Freddie

In July 2008, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson asked Congress to approve a bill allowing the Treasury Department to guarantee as much as $25 billion in subprime mortgages held by Fannie and Freddie. The two GSEs held or guaranteed more than $5 trillion, or half, of the nation's mortgages.

The $25 billion guarantee was more to reassure investors. It didn't work for long. Wall Street investors continued to pummel the GSEs stock prices, to the point that they couldn't raise the cash needed to pay off the loan guarantees they held. Wall Street was savvy enough to realize that a $25 billion infusion by the Federal government wasn't going to be enough. Stockholders wanted out before the government nationalized Fannie and Freddie and made their investments worthless.

Wall Street's fears that the loans would default sent Fannie's and Freddie's shares plummeting. It became impossible for private companies to raise the additional capital needed to cover the mortgages. Most people don't realize that the July bailout also included:

  • $3.92 billion in CDBG grants to help homeowners in poor neighborhoods.
  • Approval for the Treasury Department to buy shares of Fannie's and Freddie's stock to support stock price levels and allow the two to continue to raise capital on the private market.
  • Approval for the Federal Housing Administration to guarantee $300 billion in new loans to keep 400,000 homeowners out of foreclosure.
  • Billions in housing tax breaks, including a credit of up to $7,500 for first-time buyers.
  • An increase in the statutory limit on the national debt by $800 billion, to $10.6 trillion.
  • A new regulatory agency to oversee Fannie and Freddie, including executive pay levels.

Treasury Reassures Investors

Treasury Secretary Paulson wanted to reassure financial markets that the banking system was reliable despite the failure of IndyMac Bank.

Paulson appeared on television throughout the weekend. He warned that the economy would go through months of challenging times. As it turns out, it's been years of challenging times. On CBS Face The Nation he admitted, "The three big issues we're facing right now are, first, the housing correction which is at the heart of the slowdown; secondly, the turmoil of the capital markets; and thirdly, the high oil prices, which are going to prolong the slowdown."

However, he added "...our economy has got very strong long-term fundamentals, solid fundamentals. And you know, your policy-makers here, regulators, we're being very vigilant." Unfortunately, they should have been more vigilant years earlier, when the subprime derivatives were being bought and sold in an unregulated market.

Interest Rates Continue Rising

Despite the bailout, mortgage rates continued to rise. By August 2008, rates on a 30-year mortgage were 6.48%. That was nearly an 8.5% increase since March of the same year. Rates rose despite a decline in U.S. Treasury bond yields. Those fell to near zero as investors fled to the safety of government-backed bonds. (Bond yields fall when demand for the underlying bond rises.)

Fixed mortgage rates usually closely follow that of Treasury bond yields, since the same type of investors like both. Since Fannie and Freddie were in crisis, investors were leery of mortgage products, and have chosen Treasuries instead. Hence, mortgage rates rose, and Treasury yields fell.

Nationalizing Fannie and Freddie

The continued rising of rates forced Paulson to nationalize Fannie and Freddie. Nationalization meant the Treasury would take over the GSE's entirely, essentially wiping out stockholders' wealth. As Fannie and Freddie's stock prices were declining due to fears of nationalization, it only made it harder for the GSE's to raise capital, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The other option would be for the Treasury to start injecting large sums of cash to an essentially private company. That would make stockholders happy but continue the precedent set by the Federal Reserve's bailout of Bear Stearns. 

Many banks were still in jeopardy since they also owned billions of dollars in preferred shares of Fannie and Freddie. These shares quickly lost value once the government took the next step, putting the two GSEs into conservatorships. Some shareholders even put forth lawsuits to the tune of $41 billion for "just compensation" when Fannie and Freddie were nationalized. 

Bailout to Stop the Housing Slump

The Federal government stepped in to restore that trust by promising to bail out bad loans. It was meant to keep the housing slump from getting worse. Unfortunately, it was all funded by the U.S. Government, which already had a $9 trillion national debt in 2007. The provision to allow the debt level to be raised to over $10 trillion acknowledged who exactly footed the bill for the bailout. Global concerns about the sustainability of U.S. debt kept downward pressure on the dollar. However, the greater threat from the eurozone debt crisis created a flight to safety. When the world is in turmoil, the dollar looks strong, despite the high debt-to-GDP ratio of the United States. 

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