Dem Lawmaker Probes Causes of GSE Share Slide: Report
At least one lawmaker is questioning the series of events that led shares of both Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE) to tank in the past month, giving some legs to private rumblings by various Street analysts and other market participants. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has asked CEOs of both GSEs if there is any evidence of White House officials tampering with their share prices. The Washington Post first reported on the story Thursday morning, after obtaining a letter from Waxman to Freddie CEO Richard Syron that said the lawmaker was evaluating whether or not to open a formal investigation into the "recent distress in the share prices of Freddie Mac." The Post said the letter asked for documents "relating to any actual or rumored disclosure of communication by a White House official to investors, the media, or board members of a plan to nationalize, place in conservatorship, or assume control of Freddie Mac." While both GSEs confirmed the letter as authentic, neither would comment on their response; a committee spokeswoman declined to comment on the requests to the GSEs as well, according to the newspaper. Waxman's probe here gets to the heart of rumors whispered by numerous HW sources during the share price turmoil at Fannie and Freddie a few weeks back; in particular, discussions around a New York Times story that had suggested that government officials were planning possible conservatorship for the GSEs. That story was the final nail in the coffin of falling share prices, ahead of a weekend pronouncement by the Treasury and Federal Reserve that both were taking extraordinary steps to backstop both Fannie and Freddie; the recently-passed housing bill granted the Treasury an unlimited expansion of its credit line to both GSEs, as well as the right to invest directly into each company's equity if needed. Numerous market participants told HW at the time that the pattern of information leaks smacked of "trial ballooning," a tactic long used by government officials to assess public reaction to a possible policy change. "Many are wondering if the administration or Congressional Republicans didn’t deliberately bobble the public relations efforts to reassure the markets in the wake of concerns that new accounting rules would increase regulatory capital needs," said one source, an ABS analyst, in reference to a report from Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (LEH) that had served to spark the downward spiral in share prices. "I'm still pretty sure that [Treasury secretary] Paulson put a knife to GSE (Dem donors) throats via the press," said another analyst via email, under condition of anonymity. "Problem is, they just didn't realize the far reaching repercussions of leaking, and I think IndyMac's failure might have helped clear the air." IndyMac's failure was announced by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. on July 11; the Treasury's rescue plan was unveiled on July 13. "Now they have pretty much put the government in the position of bailing out any too too big to fail institution," said the source. Waxman is seeking documents for the period July 1 though July 31, according to the Post's coverage. During that time, Freddie Mac's share price dropped by 50 percent, while Fannie Mae's shares fell 41 percent. Disclosure: The author was long FRE, and held no positions in FNM when this story was published; indirect holdings may exist via mutual fund investments. HW reporters and writers follow a strict disclosure policy, the first in the mortgage trade.