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Fannie and Freddie: Yet another rescue by bank of last resort?

Do you feel a hand reaching into your wallet? Do you feel magnanimous and charitable knowing that the money that is extracted will be used to pay for the high-flying lifestyles of a lot of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac execs who raked in millions running a quasi-governmental mortgage operation beset for years with charges of mismanagement, fraud, and political cronyism?

Coming on the heels of a financial sector already sucker-punched by the Bear Stearns brokerage meltdown, the feds taking over the failing IndyMac Bank in California, and warnings of other banks poised to go belly up, the news that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — which jointly hold or back nearly half of the nation's $12 trillion mortgage debt — were in danger of being dragged under by the ongoing housing crisis sent markets reeling worldwide.

Everyone from the President Bush to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to key congressional leaders rushed before the TV cameras to assure everyone that Fannie and Freddie are too big, and their role too important in the nation's overall financial structure, for them to be allowed to go belly up. So, good old Uncle Sam will open the Treasury coffers to get them over the rough spot, adding billions of dollars in debt to a government already deeply mired in debt — and of course, it's we taxpayers who ride to the rescue.

For years, we've endured all manner of whining and griping about ad hoc disaster programs for farmers, yet every time we turn around there's an ad hoc rescue program for the financial sector that makes anything for agriculture look positively penny ante.

And unlike payments to farmers for natural disasters such as flood or drought, those in the government/financial sectors are too often the result of outright mismanagement.

Critics of Fannie and Freddie — and there are a goodly number, including several key members of Congress — say the way the companies were set up created the potential for an eventual house of cards. As government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), they are publicly traded and are expected to generate profits for their stockholders.

But, critics contend, with the government and the Treasury standing behind them, little or no regulatory oversight, and millions spent on lobbying, political campaign contributions, and public relations efforts to thwart those who championed more regulatory control, Fannie and Freddie were running a highly leveraged, high risk game.

With only $80 billion to $90 billion in capitalization, they had some $6 trillion in total debt exposure. In several years, they were in such disarray they overstated or understated earnings by billions of dollars, while paying a slew of $1 million-plus salaries and millions more in bonuses. It worked OK … until the housing market came tumbling down.

Fannie and Freddie should be allowed to fail, many say, as penalty for their mismanagement, while others favor keeping them afloat by providing standby credit, shoring up capitalization, and adding a lot more regulatory oversight.

Unfortunately, there now seems to be a trend in which the taxpayer is expected to be the bank of last resort for corporate and governmental mismanagement.

TAGS: Management
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