NEW YORK (
) - A lot of people lost a lot of money when
were placed into conservatorship: Roughly 20,000 entities -- mutual funds, pension funds, banks and individual investors -- were registered as holders of the common stock alone.
But since the government has taken so long to come up with a plan for their future, a handful of speculative traders have made a killing in the aftermath of their collapse.
On Wednesday, Fannie and Freddie's regulator officially announced that they would
delist from major exchanges. Edward DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, explained that the decision was made because of minimum pricing requirements and "curing deficiencies" -- in other words, a lack of liquidity in the stocks.
The FHFA's directive "does not constitute any reflection on either enterprise's current performance or future direction, nor does delisting imply any other findings or determination on the part of FHFA as regulator or conservator," he added.
Phew -- that's reassuring. One might have inferred that the government was actually taking a stand.
DeMarco's statement seems to miss the point. The two firms haven't consistently met exchange requirements since entering conservatorship. Everyone's still waiting for the government to sketch out what the "future direction" is, and have been doing so for more than 19 months. In the meantime, their operational performance is widely considered to be atrocious: Fannie and Freddie have lost more than $107 billion since the start of 2007, because of unprecedented stress in the mortgage markets they support.
New York Stock Exchange
notified Fannie Mae on Nov. 12, 2008 that it had failed to meet requirements for continued trading. Fannie didn't regain compliance for nearly a year, because it traded consistently under $1. But it has been failing to meet that level, once again, since May.
When the Treasury Department announced plans to effectively acquire 80% of the GSEs in September 2008, their shares were already under heavy pressure. Since then, the firms have lost about $70 billion in market value, which doesn't include the wiping out of privately-held preferred shares.
Taxpayers, of course,
have lost even more.
Since becoming government wards, Fannie and Freddie's stock prices have been
extremely volatile, even if their combined market value never surpassed a few billion dollars. Fannie has ranged from a low of 30 cents in 2008, to a high of $2.13. Freddie has ranged from 25 cents to $2.98.
That type of volatility is where speculative traders roam.
Hedge fund manager
probably did well shorting the stocks in July 2008 as shares of Fannie and Freddie each fell roughly 85% over the next two months. Analysts pointed to the hedge fund world again as an explanation for why the stocks soared during the summer of 2009, when a
zombie-stock frenzy sent the two firms flying, along with
, only to see them
fall again. Some have suggested that options or other derivatives plays fueled the surge, while short sellers reaped gains by driving prices back down.
Essentially, players the government often points to as culprits of misdeeds have benefited from Fannie and Freddie's demise. Meanwhile, California retirees, whose CalPERS pension fund still holds 6.2 million shares of the two firms, have merely watched them bounce around like ping-pong balls. Taxpayers are left looking at a $145 billion bailout which only continues to grow, without a definitive exit plan.
Delisting common and preferred shares of Fannie and Freddie is only placing the ping-pong tourney onto a new table; after all, the OTC bulletin board is where speculators thrive. It certainly won't provide the
comprehensive solution that is sorely needed for taxpayers, investors and the mortgage-finance system, but is
noticeably absent from President Obama's reform agenda.
The FHFA announced its directive Wednesday morning. By the afternoon, Freddie shares were down 38% at 76 cents, but had recovered from the day's low of 52 cents. Fannie was down 41% at 55 cents, paring earlier losses from 40.5 cents. The trouncing occurred on heavier volume than the two stocks have seen in weeks.
-- Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York