The Senate finally confirmed the most powerful man in housing. Here’s what he might do.

December 10, 2013

In something of an anticlimax, the Senate on Tuesday took a procedural vote that paves the way for Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Watt's nomination had been among a handful that Republicans had held up before Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) used the nuclear option, turning it into a hot debate over the role Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should play in the housing finance system going forward.

As director of the agency that oversees Fannie and Freddie, Watt will have a huge influence with big decisions to be made about how to deal with two agencies that are essentially still floating in suspended animation. So, what can we expect from FHFA Director Watt?


This is how much Watt has actually said about what he'd do. (REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

If you listen to conservatives like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute's Peter Wallison, he'll start inflating a new housing bubble by pursuing policies he's supported in the past to help low-income home buyers secure loans. If you listen to fair lending advocates, he would pump more money into stabilizing foreclosures, which current FHFA Director Ed DeMarco refused to consider.

In reality, it's difficult to tell, given how ambiguous Watt has been in his public statements. A Q&A with the Wall Street Journal back in May was hilariously inconclusive, with Watt disavowing all his previous stances in advance of receiving the kind of data only an FHFA director gets to see ("I was a member of Congress advocating for a different constituency with a different set of responsibilities," he said, of his prior support for principal write-downs). His testimony before the Senate Banking Committee was similarly vague; the GOP's refusal to confirm him had more to do with the fact that he was a politician instead of a "technocrat," over any substantive policy disagreements.

The one definitive thing Watt did say was that he favors bringing private capital back into the housing finance system, on which he says there's "broad consensus," even though there's no consensus on how that ought to be done.

Nevertheless, the Journal's Nick Timiraos has a good speculative rundown of the things that Watt will have to consider as Congress figures out the legislative side: One, whether to continue with the contraction of Fannie and Freddie's roles through measures like boosting fees they charge lenders. Two: How to deal with ongoing maintenance of Fannie and Freddie if Congress doesn't act. Three: What, if anything, to do about tight access to mortgage credit. And four: If it's worth sending more direct aid to homeowners in the form of principal write-downs, as Watt had favored in the past (and which might now be too late).

So go read that, and then wait and see.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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