WASHINGTON - Fannie Mae is fighting to reverse a new rule that it fears would excessively tighten regulatory scrutiny over any new activities it wants to take on.
Because Fannie Mae - the Federal National Mortgage Association - is backed by the government, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has a mandate to review any new Fannie Mae programs, and rules to cover such oversight have been on the books for years. But HUD decided to update the rules as part of a comprehensive new regulation to be published Thursday in the Federal Register.
From Fannie Mae's point of view, the new rules go too far, giving too much power to HUD and raising the possibility that HUD will try to micromanage Fannie. Its executives are lobbying furiously to have the rules axed.
"There's no need for those regulations," Frank Raines, vice chairman of Fannie Mae, told the American Banker. "This is regulatory habit. This is people wanting to have a regulation in order that they can be part of the process."
The rule is so broad that Fannie Mae will have to get HUD approval several times a week, Mr. Raines said. He said his agency believes that each of Fannie's affordable housing loan programs would have to be approved by HUD because they involve greater risks than the average product.
HUD officials, meanwhile, said they had no intention to micromanage.
"Our intent is to carry out the congressional obligation to review new programs ... as nonintrusively as possible," said Nicolas P. Retsinas, assistant secretary for housing.
He added that HUD would be willing to rethink its stance if the new rule produced "unintended consequences."
Observers say that the government's review of new programs at Fannie Mae has long been a thorny subject.
During the debate that led to the 1992 government-sponsored enterprise law, thrifts lobbied to strengthen the program review provisions. They wanted to be sure that the government could keep tabs on the growth of Fannie Mae and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., Freddie Mac.
Wanting to protect their franchise, the two agencies lobbied for weaker provisions.
Government oversight of the two agencies has sometimes been problematic as well.
"There has been an unfortunate history both at Fannie Mae and at Freddie Mac of government involvement for often counter-productive purposes," said Thomas H. Stanton, a Washington lawyer who was active in the debate that led to the 1992 law.
For example, in the late 1970s, HUD tried to withhold approval of the mortgage-backed securities program until Fannie Mae increased its lower- income lending, Mr. Stanton said. The delay interfered with Fannie Mae's effort to deal with the risk of funding long-term holdings with short-term debt.
And the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which regulated Freddie Mac, used Freddie to engage in financially unsound transactions to help insolvent thrifts, he said.
For Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the issue underlines the tension between the agencies' government franchise and stockholder ownership.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac owe their existence to a congressional charter, but are owned by stockholders. In other words, they answer to two masters.
The larger public policy question, Mr. Stanton said, is how to reconcile changing priorities in housing policy at HUD with the need for consistent profits for stockholders.
Even a proper involvement of the government can be an "irritant" to management, Mr. Stanton said.
Mr. Retsinas said HUD's review would be directed at broad, significantly different new programs that the agencies may undertake. For example, if the agencies were to undertake small business lending, HUD would want to review it, he said.
Meanwhile, Fannie Mae is likely to find a friendly audience in Congress.
A Republican aide said lawmakers would be concerned about HUD's capacity to take on intensive new regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The rules will be available for comment for 75 days after their publication Thursday. Mr. Retsinas said a final rule would be published later this year.