NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- "I don't know whether it's Ralph moving or me moving but we're finding ourselves more and more aligned these days."
The speaker was Ted Olson, partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, former solicitor general during the George W. Bush administration, and he was referring to Ralph Nader, the occasional Presidential candidate and storied consumer advocate.
What brought them together for a panel discussion on Wednesday was a shared belief that the U.S. Treasury Department needs to recognize the rights of shareholders in government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae (FNMA) and Freddie Mac (FMCC).
Olson is representing Perry Capital, a large hedge fund, in a lawsuit against the government, while Nader is a shareholder himself, representing what he says are just regular folks, "not day traders" who relied on government assurances that Fannie and Freddie were safe investments, before the GSEs were taken under government conservatorship at the height of the financial crisis in September 2008.The status of Fannie and Freddie shareholders "is intimately related with affordable housing goals," Nader said. "These are very delicate institutions and if you don't have a capital market you're not going to have affordable housing." But consumer and housing advocates who also sat on the panel seemed to have little interest in what happens to common and preferred shareholders in the GSEs. "It's high cotton for me," said John Taylor, President and CEO of the nonprofit National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which seeks to "increase the flow of private capital into traditionally underserved communities," according to its website. "I'm not a hedge fund guy. They have their fight and they have their lawyers." Taylor claims his only interest is enabling middle and working class people to afford homes, but "it looks like preserving Fannie and Freddie is the most likely scenario in which that outcome will come to [pass]," he said in a follow-up interview after the panel discussion. Many hedge fund investors will presumably like the sound of this. Michael Kao of Akanthos Capital, for example, has been advocating for a return of Fannie and Freddie to the private markets for more than three years. But there is a point where the interests of shareholders and housing advocates diverge. For example, another nonprofit called the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLHC) filed a lawsuit against the Federal Housing Finance Authority, which oversees the GSEs, arguing the FHFA failed to live up to obligations to pay into a National Housing Trust Fund and a Capital Magnet Fund "The obligation to fund the Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund precedes other claims," said Sheila Crowley, President and CEO of the NLHC. Speaking on Wednesday's panel, Crowley said her group is looking for $500 million to $1 billion for the funds, which would be "the first new money to go into housing for poor people in a very very very long time." If the GSEs pay into those funds, it means less money for shareholders, whether Fannie and Freddie live or die. Similarly, winding down Fannie and Freddie could be immensely profitable for shareholders, depending on how the wind-down is structured. Indeed, one large GSE shareholder, Fairholme Capital's Bruce Berkowitz, has proposed a wind-down --something he presumably wouldn't do if he didn't stand to make a killing. Whether the GSEs live or die, in other words, may ultimately have little to do with determining what the recoveries would be for preferred and common stockholders.
Still, it is worth noting that several speakers on the panel, including Taylor and Crowley, as well as another consumer advocate, Ed Mierzwinski of U.S. PIRG, and Tim Pagliara, a professional money manager, appeared to like the idea of keeping Fannie and Freddie alive. Even James Glassman, a conservative pundit and visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, didn't sound wholly opposed to the idea. That would be contrary to the stated goals of President Obama as well as legislation proposed by Senators Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and Mark Warner (D., Va.), which so far has attracted more support than any other GSE reform proposal. A couple of years ago it seemed everyone wanted to kill Fannie and Freddie, but no one had the guts to do it for fear of crashing the economy. Now, in an increasing number of quarters, Fannie and Freddie aren't such dirty words. What that means for shareholders remains to be seen. Follow @dan_freed
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