Former Fannie Mae / Federal National Mortgage Association (OTCBB:FNMA) CFO Timothy Howard has reentered the public conversation on the housing crisis with his new book The Mortgage Wars, but whether it’s a self-serving account of the run up to the crisis or an important part of the national debate on the mortgage industry seems to depend on your politics.
Fannie Mae /Freddie Mac debate creates odd political alliances
The debate over Fannie Mae / Federal National Mortgage Association (OTCBB:FNMA) and Freddie Mac / Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp (OTCBB:FMCC) doesn’t split evenly down Republican/Democratic lines, and the issue has made for some strange bedfellows. Some people want to scrap the entities and allow the market to take over the secondary mortgage market. Free market conservatives are included in this group, obviously, but it also includes people who simply don’t like the idea of a state sponsored company that sends its profits to shareholders (as Fannie and Freddie once did) with the implicit guarantee of a taxpayer bailout in times of crisis. In both cases, they see the tension between public and private obligations as the source of Fannie Mae’s problems.
Those who want to keep Fannie Mae / Federal National Mortgage Association (OTCBB:FNMA) and Freddie Mac / Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp (OTCBB:FMCC) around include investors who are angry that their shareholder rights aren’t being respected (such as hedge funds and Ralph Nader), as well as housing advocates who point out that the organizations have made housing more affordable for decades, and that something should fill that role even if it isn’t these exact entities.
Howard portrays Fannie Mae / Federal National Mortgage Association (OTCBB:FNMA)’s history as a prolonged effort on the part of the banks to take a piece of the secondary housing market for themselves, leading to eventual catastrophe and a round of hefty bailouts, a narrative that appeals to people ready to cast banks as villains in the crisis.
Reaction seems to reflect readers’ politics
Kathleen Day, writing for USA Today, is extremely unimpressed. “Lacking a more realistic critique of history, Howard, with or without the book, sheds little light for policymakers on how to preserve the pluses while avoiding the pitfalls Howard was part of,” she writes. Steve Pearlstein at The Washington Post calls The Mortgage Wars one of the more convincing attempts to make sense of the crisis, before expounding on his own view of events, which happen to dovetail with Howard’s pretty well.
The fact that Howard’s book hasn’t changed either of their opinions means he may not be as prominent a part of this debate as he would like.