WASHINGTON — On Friday, Fannie Mae passed a milestone years in the making. The District of Columbia-based mortgage giant announced that by next month it will have sent the Treasury more than it received from a taxpayer-funded bailout.
Fannie reported that it will pay the government $7.2 billion in March. With that payment, the company will have sent $121 billion in dividends to the government — compared with the $116 billion it requested from the Treasury.
“I’m very, very happy for the taxpayer,” Tim Mayopoulos, Fannie’s chief executive, said in a call with reporters.
Going into the housing crisis, Fannie and rival Freddie Mac were publicly traded companies. But the market assumed that the government would step in if there were extraordinary losses, and it did. The government took control of the companies in 2008 and has since given them $188 billion in bailout money.
With Fannie’s latest payout, the government will have recouped all of its investment. McLean, Va.-based Freddie sent the Treasury $71.34 billion in dividends by the end of last year, about $9 million more than it drew from the government.
Unlike other companies that received federal support during the financial crisis, Fannie and Freddie were required to enter into a preferred-stock program with the government. Each company drew money from the Treasury as needed to maintain a positive net worth. In return, the Treasury received dividends.
Eventually, each institution turned a solid profit. On Friday, Fannie reported net income of $84 billion for the year and $6.5 billion in the fourth quarter, its eighth consecutive quarterly profit.
Despite the turnaround, some congressional lawmakers have been clamoring to shutter the companies, and President Barack Obama has publicly called for an end to the two institutions. Even in 2008, top government officials did not envision that the firms would ever go back to business as usual. Both were widely blamed for exacerbating the financial crisis by buying millions of dollars in risky loans and passing on the risk to taxpayers.
When announcing the government’s equity investment in the institutions, then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said that the arrangement should be viewed as a “timeout” while policymakers decide the “future role and structure” of the companies.
On Friday, Mayopoulos said that he saw a need to push forward with a restructuring.
“I don’t think our profitability should be interpreted as a reason for delaying housing-finance reform,” Mayopoulos told reporters.
Last month, Michael Stegman, the Treasury Department’s housing adviser, offered similar commentary. In a speech at an industry conference in Las Vegas, Stegman said Fannie and Freddie couldn’t continue as is just because they’re flush with cash. A “taxpayer-backed duopoly is neither sustainable nor sensible public policy,” he said.
Besides, the companies’ recent financial performance may “overstate” their financial health, Stegman said. He cited several one-time gains that benefited Fannie and Freddie, including $10 billion from settlements in lawsuits involving mortgage-backed securities.
Rising home prices and low interest rates also helped, but both factors may moderate, said Stegman, adding that the administration is committed to changes.
Any move to revamp Fannie and Freddie would need the government’s approval. What policymakers want to avoid is a return to the old framework, one in which the desire for profit exposed the public to unreasonable risks, they say.
Sens. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, are working on legislation to overhaul Fannie and Freddie. The administration is lending its technical and policy expertise to that effort, Stegman said. The bill is expected to be unveiled in coming weeks.
Many observers who track Fannie and Freddie say that it’s difficult to imagine the current framework lasting much longer. All profits generated by the companies have been going to the Treasury since August 2012. Ten investor groups are challenging the arrangement in court, including Fairholme Capital Management.
Fairholme offered to take over key portions of Fannie and Freddie, infuse them with $52 billion in capital and run them as private companies. The proposal prompted Pershing Square Capital Management, a fund run by activist investor William Ackman, to take 10 percent stakes in the companies a few days later.
But privatizing the companies would also require government approval. Some lawmakers and the Obama administration have bristled at the proposal.