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Freddie Mac's Duel With Regulator: Does It Report Government's Role in Its Losses?
Freddie Mac executives told the regulator that they had to disclose the information under federal securities law. The executives said they were prepared to seek confirmation from the SEC for their position if the regulator continued to insist that the information be withheld. But they also agreed to negotiate with the regulator over precise wording.
When the filing was made March 11, it included the following language: "We have made changes to certain business practices that are designed to provide support for the mortgage market in a manner that serves public policy and other non-financial objectives but that may not contribute to profitability," Freddie Mac's regulatory disclosure said. "Some of these changes have increased our expenses or caused us to forgo revenue opportunities."
The main way that the government is c ausing Freddie to incur losses is by requiring it to play a central role in the Obama administration's Homeowner Affordable and Stability Plan, a $75 billion effort launched this month. The program aims to restructure mortgages that struggling borrowers cannot afford, bolster the sagging housing market and bring down interest rates on home loans.
The Obama plan will require Freddie Mac to modify mortgages, which entails reassessing the value of loans and marking them down to current market price. The company must then record a charge to reflect these decreased values. Based on Dec. 31 figures, Freddie Mac said it would incur "an initial pre-tax charge" of $30 billion. That number could grow as the economy declines and would have to be offset by infusions of government capital.
"These initiatives are likely to have a significant adverse effect on our financial results or condition," Freddie Mac warned in its regulatory disclosure.
Freddie Mac spokeswoman Sharon McHale declined to comment on any discussion about the disclosures but said the company and its regulator "share a mutual commitment to ensuring the company is well-positioned to achieve our housing mission, which is critical to the nation's housing market."
FHFA spokeswoman Stefanie Mullin declined to comment.
Several experts in securities law said that publicly traded companies are required to disclose changes that could affect financial performance.
"As a general matter, the federal securities laws require a company to disclose uncertainties that are likely to have a significant impact on an investor's perception of the company. This includes accounting issues," said Brian Lane, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and a former director of the SEC's corporate finance division.
Because of timing, Fannie Mae did not face the same issue over disclosure. Fannie Mae filed its annual report in February, before the details of the administration's housing plan were announced, so the firm did not need to factor in the costs of carrying out the program, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The disclosure dispute is not the only way that Freddie and Fannie's unresolved status has caused problems.
After the companies were taken over, investors around the world who buy the companies' debt and mortgage investments weren't willing to pay top dollar, reflecting doubts about whether the U.S. government would stand behind the firms if they faltered further. As a result, mortgage rates initially rose, further depressing house prices, contrary to what the government intended when it took over the firms.
Then, earlier this month Freddie Mac lost its chief executive, longtime banker David Moffett, who joined the company at the government's behest in September. He clashed with government regulators who pushed him to take steps that would forgo revenue opportunities. Freddie Mac is now looking for a new chief executive, chief operating officer and chief financial officer -- and having trouble finding them.
Inside Freddie Mac, executives are struggling to determine whether their highest priority should be to fulfill the mandates of the Obama administration or find a way back to profitability.