Essay by Bill Bonner
As recently as February of this year, Russian officials cleared the way for two of its sovereign wealth funds, the Reserve Fund and National Wellbeing Fund, to invest in various foreign bonds, including those issued by the twin towers of American residential finance, Fannie and Freddie.
“The prospect for every GSE bond clearly states that it is not backed by the United States government,” says Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks. “That’s why investors holding agency bonds already receive a significant risk premium over Treasuries.”
The Russians ignored the warnings and grabbed the risk premium. Today, fully 21% of Russia’s monetary reserves are invested in the obligations of Fannie, Freddie and the Home Loan Banks. And the largest holder of Fannie and Freddie debt is another friendly foreigner, China. The middle kingdom, according to the FreedomWorks organization, owns $376 billion worth of U.S. agency bonds. Altogether, foreigners hold $1.3 trillion of them.
Maybe the foreigners didn’t understand what they were getting into. Or maybe they did.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose family had made a fortune in the opium trade, promised the nation a “New Deal” during the Great Depression of the ’30s. But what he gave it was more like the old false shuffle. The president pulled cards from the bottom of the deck, pretending that government bureaucrats could do a better job of allocating capital than private investors. In 1938, he set up the Federal National Mortgage Association, b.k.a. Fannie Mae. Then, as now, the national housing market was in crisis. House prices had been declining for almost a decade. Who wanted to lend money against falling collateral values? Only a fool…or a government.
For the next 32 years, the firm resembled a nationwide savings and loan institution — borrowing from large institutions and lending to smaller ones, keeping a piece of the spread for its trouble. But Fannie Mae was an imposter from the get-go. Lenders knew that it had something no free market business ever had – the full faith and credit of the US government behind it. Fannie was able to borrow at below-market rates; lenders knew they had no risk of losing their money in a default or bankruptcy. Fannie, with the aces dealt her by the Roosevelt administration, dominated the business for the next 30 years.
Then, another crisis came along, followed by another bamboozle, this one perpetrated by Lyndon Johnson. Specifically, the feds were spending too much on wars – the War on Poverty at home…and one against the Viet Cong across the ocean. Victory eluded Lyndon Johnson on both fronts, but his handling of Fannie Mae should have brought him at least a bronze star. Attempting to balance the government’s ledgers (this was in the days when Americans still believed in balanced budgets), he moved the mortgage business off of the Federal government’s books, privatizing it as a ‘government sponsored agency.’ For good measure, he created a competing organization – the Federal Home Mortgage Association, b.k.a. Freddie Mac.
Many are the ham-fisted dictators and sticky-fingered kleptocrats who have nationalized industries. Even without a credit crunch for camouflage, Francois Mitterand nationalized 36 leading French banks in 1982. Robert Mugabe grabbed farmland in the Zimbabwe. Evo Morales took the gas industry. And Hugo Chavez seized the Orinoco oil fields in 2007. But Lyndon Johnson rarely gets credit for his great advance in the history of public larceny: he privatized the profits while nationalizing the losses. This formula has been a honey pot for clever dirigistes ever since, providing countless opportunities for defeated politicians, hacks and hustlers – speaking fees, consulting contracts, board memberships, bonuses, stock options (notably, the $170 million spent on lobbyists over the past 10 years…mentioned above) – things that wouldn’t be possible for a “public” company. In effect, Fannie Mae could pick the taxpayer’s pocket twice – once by sticking him with a mortgage he couldn’t really afford and a second time by raiding the taxpayers’ vault for a bailout.
In the case at hand, by the year 2007, the CEOs of Fannie and Freddie were earning salaries that would have been respectable, even on Wall Street. Fannie’s main man, Daniel Mudd took home $13.4 million in 2007, a year in which the firm lost $2.1 billion. While the Freddie Kruger of mortgage finance, Dick Syron, pocketed $18.3 for helping Freddie Mac to a $3 billion loss and a 33% trim for the shareholders.
As recently as May of this year, Mr. Mudd told the New York Times that he was “seeing the best opportunities since I’ve been in this business.” Two months later, both Fannie and Freddie are “insolvent,” says former Fed governor William Poole.
In a better world, Mudd and Syron would be hanged…and the bondholders would be wiped out along with the shareholders. But last Sunday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced a bailout. And on Monday, an auction of Freddie Mac debt was oversubscribed. The Russians were right; the deck was stacked from the very beginning.
Enjoy your weekend,
The Daily Reckoning
Bill Bonner is the founder and president of Agora Publishing, one of the world’s most successful consumer newsletter publishing companies, and the author of the free daily e-mail The Daily Reckoning. Bill’s passion for international travel and big ideas are reflected in the company he’s successfully built. In 1979, he began publishing International Living and Hulbert’s Financial Digest. Since then, Agora has grown to include dozens of newsletters focusing on finance, health and travel. Since the early ’90s Bill has vigorously expanded from Agora’s home base in Baltimore, opening offices in London, Paris, Bonn, Waterford, Ireland and Johannesburg, South Africa. Bill’s latest book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets: Surviving the Public Spectacle in Finance and Politics, written with co-author Lila Rajiva, is available now by clicking here: Mobs, Messiahs and Markets