Citing parallels with the costly collapse of the savings and loan industry, the General Accounting Office yesterday urged Congress to tighten regulation of the family of "government-sponsored enterprises" that have made $800 billion in low-interest loans for housing, agriculture and education backed by the Treasury.
The GAO warned that the government "would not be prepared to prevent or mitigate losses from a future crisis facing" the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. (Freddie Mac) or the Student Loan Marketing Association (Sallie Mae), the three largest of the government-chartered, privately owned businesses and some of the Washington area's largest financial institutions.
The report called for requiring stockholders to put more of their money into the firms to protect taxpayers against losses and for setting new limits on the financial risks taken by all the enterprises.
The GAO report aligned the congressional watchdog agency with the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget against the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), which categorically reject comparisons between their operations and the S&Ls and have launched an aggressive lobbying campaign in Congress to thwart any move toward greater government oversight.
Unlike the thrifts, whose deposits are insured by the government, the Congress has never explicitly promised to insure Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or the other GSEs. But because the government created these corporations and gave them special powers, investors have long counted on the government to protect the GSEs from failing, the GAO said.
The government did intervene when the Farm Credit Banks got in trouble a few years ago, promising up to $4 billion in assistance to the system, the GAO pointed out, noting that "the Farm Credit and thrift crises vividly demonstrate the effects of inadequate federal supervision."
None of the enterprises are in any financial trouble today, the report stressed, but "the speed with which a firm can go from an apparently sound position to one that is financially imperiled was seen in the thrift industry, the Farm Credit System and Fannie Mae in the early 1980s," when that company almost failed because of a sudden jump in interest rates.
The GAO said it would wait until next year to offer specific recommendations for improving regulation of GSEs, but the question may be settled before then.
GSEs have become an issue in the budget negotiations between the White House and Congress because OMB Director Richard G. Darman wants to include the cost of backing the GSEs in the federal budget. Congressional negotiators led by Rep. J.J. Pickle (D-Tex.) also want to get a handle on GSEs so that loan guarantee programs are not used as a back-door way to finance programs outside the federal budget.
Lobbyists for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have tried unsuccessfully to extract themselves from the budget negotiations, but sources in the administration and Congress said that both sides are determined to take action on GSEs so they cannot be blamed if problems develop in the future.
The Treasury says the way to assure that GSEs never require a government bailout is to require them to qualify for top AAA credit ratings from the private agencies that evaluate the financial soundness of corporations. That proposal is opposed by Fannie Mae, which says it would abdicate the government's role as a private watchdog, but many Democrats in Congress are said to support the plan.
The GAO report did not comment on the Treasury's credit-rating proposal, but it did endorse the administration's call for taking regulatory responsibility for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac away from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and giving it to the Treasury or some other financial regulatory agency.
The leading private critic of GSEs, Washington attorney Thomas Stanton, praised the GAO effort. "The GAO report documents that the government is not properly monitoring GSE risk-taking, does not have proper minimum capital standards in place and lacks appropriate enforcement authority," he said.