The imposition of federal levies on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored housing agencies, is again being presented as a deficit-reduction option. But credit and equity analysts say investors shouldn't lose sleep over the issue.
In what has become a ritual part of its annual deficit-reduction study, the Congressional Budget Office has revived the option of assessing "cost of capital offset fees" on the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp.
Asserting that implicit government backing enables Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to lower their borrowing costs, the budget office said the imposition of $700 million of annual fees would "be a step toward more equitable competition" and "would compensate taxpayers for the value of the capital services that the government provides."
Assuming the two agencies were not able to pass along any of the special levies to customers, the budget office estimates, Fannie Mae's return on equity would fall six percentage points to roughly 18%, and Freddie Mac's ROE would slide five percentage points to about 15%.
Taken at face value, that scenario seems sufficient to derail the 1995 stock rallies of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. As of Monday, Fannie's shares were up 13.4% from Dec. 30, and Freddie's shares had risen by 21%.
But many analysts insist there is no cause for panic.
For one thing, the two dominant housing finance players probably could transfer most fee expenses to customers. This pricing power, while protective in and of itself, also lowers the odds that lawmakers will muster the political courage to impose levies, since they would increase homeowner borrowing costs.
Besides, federal lawmakers are preoccupied with other financial intermediary issues. Potential repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act is a hot topic, as is the question of what to do about the languishing Savings Association Insurance Fund.
"Political risk, in my opinion, is not the major risk facing Fannie and Freddie shares," said Thomas O'Donnell, an analyst at Smith Barney.
To be sure, there are other important issues facing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. As rising rates drive borrowers into variable-rate mortgages, institutions sell fewer fixed-rate loans into Fannie and Freddie pools, cutting the agencies' fee income.
Seeking offsetting interest income, Fannie and Freddie have been inflating their investment portfolios by repurchasing some of their own mortgage-backed securities. Rising funding costs work against this strategy somewhat, and analysts say repurchases can't go on forever.
Fannie Mae common shares on Tuesday closed at $tk.tk, up/down tk for the day. Freddie Mac common shares closed at $tk.tk, up/down tk.
The short interest in Fannie Mae totaled 995,369 shares at March 15, with a cover ratio of one day. The short interest in Freddie Mac was 3,794,307 shares, with a cover ratio of 8.4 days.
Multiples remain robust, with Fannie Mae trading at xxx.x% of book, or xx.x times trailing 12 months' earnings, and Freddie Mac trading a xxx.x% of book, or xx.x% times trailing earnings.
Salomon Brothers Inc. analyst Bruce Harting pointed out that the levies were just one among 216 deficit-reducing ideas put forth by the budget office.
Lawmakers will be slow to assess special levies, Mr. Harting asserted, because "they will be passed along to homeowners in the form of higher mortgage costs and thus will be viewed as a housing tax."
The budget office downplayed the impact of levies, however. It said shifting the entire $700 million of annual fees to homebuyers would raise mortgage rates by only 10 basis points.
To the extent that Fannie and Freddie could not pass along the cost of levies, the shortfall would work against capital formation, warned PaineWebber Inc. analyst Gary Gordon.
Noting that risk-based capital guidelines will be unveiled for the two agencies next year, the analyst said Congress should at least wait to see how the new "stress tests" play out before diverting Fannie's and Freddie's earnings.
Michael T. DeStefano, a credit analyst at Standard & Poor's Corp., said the imposition of levies probably would not affect debt ratings at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Such a move, though "definitely impacting the profitability" of the two agencies, would not be so onerous as to call into question the government's implicit backing of their debt, said Mr. DeStefano.
"Financial performance could be weakened without shaking our triple-A assessment," he said.
According to First Call Corp., the consensus forecast for Fannie Mae's 1995 earnings per share is $8.58, an expected 10.4% increase from 1994. The consensus for Freddie Mac is $5.77 per share, an expected 13.6% increase.
Obviously, the market is anticipating continued earnings progress at the two government-sponsored enterprises.
But analysts concede they can't drop their guard. It is not so much the financial impact of levies that worries them as it is the potential precedent.
Levies "would mark the breaking of new ground," said Mr. O'Donnell of Smith Barney. "Investors would start worrying about what other favors the government might require."