WASHINGTON — Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton appears likely to embrace a recent plan to merge Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into a single government corporation if she wins the White House.
The New York Democrat has tapped Gene Sperling, who developed the plan with four other housing experts, as a top adviser, and it would follow the broad outline of the candidate's views offered to date.
The plan is similar to an earlier one from Sens. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, which offered a catastrophic government backstop for losses in the mortgage market.
"If you look at the folks on her team … the reform proposals she would put forward are more akin to something along the lines of a Johnson-Crapo or even the paper," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics and another co-author of the paper. "Something where you have a catastrophic backstop and there is a lot of private capital in front of any risk that any taxpayers might absorb."
While housing finance reform is not near the top of Clinton's agenda, a source familiar with her views indicated that she would probably tackle it within her first 18 months in office if elected. Clinton is unlikely to support calls to recapitalize Fannie and Freddie, the source added.
"There is not enough reform built into that," said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
To be sure, Clinton has said nothing to date about how she views the issue. But the paper by Sperling, Zandi, the mortgage securitization pioneer Lewis Ranieri, Urban Institute senior fellow Jim Parrott and Barry Zigas of the Consumer Federation of America has a practical approach that could avoid the pitfalls of the Johnson-Crapo bill.
Their legislation would have replaced Fannie and Freddie with a catastrophic federal guarantee for the mortgage market and set up a system similar to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., only for mortgage credit guarantees. The bill cleared the committee but failed to win sufficient support from other key Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who felt it did not do enough to promote affordable housing.
Many continue to view the Johnson-Crapo approach, or one like it, as the most likely scenario for successful reform of the government-sponsored enterprises. The approach laid out by Sperling, Zandi and others in the Urban Institute paper is less drastic in that it merges Fannie and Freddie into a single company, rather than replace them, and would keep some of the current affordable housing goals, which could win over some of the progressives. The plan relies on so-called front-end risk transfers that supporters argue would lessen taxpayer risk and ensure a better private market.
"The framework outlined by this proposal is both operationally and politically sound, which leads us to believe that it will serve as the starting point for mortgage finance reform talks when the issue reemerges, especially under a Clinton White House," Isaac Boltansky, an analyst with Compass Point Research & Trading, wrote when the plan was unveiled in March.
Clinton raised eyebrows when she released a housing policy statement that focuses on increasing homeownership, particularly for minority communities. That prompted some to wonder if she would be willing to keep Fannie and Freddie around.
Edward Pinto, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, speculated that Clinton's housing policies will have "a tremendous amount of similarities" to her husband's in the '90s with a push to get homeownership rates closer to 70%.
In Clinton's policy statement she notes that the homeownership rate for whites is more than 70% and is less than 50% for African-Americans and Latinos.
"We must make sure that everyone has a fair shot at homeownership," Clinton's website says. "We should lift more families up to enter a housing market that remains strong and inclusive."
But the source familiar with Clinton's views said she does not want to stretch the current system, but rather use tools like housing counseling and improve credit scoring to help get people in a better a position to responsibly own a home.
"She was careful not to take the bait to juice up the housing market to boost the home ownership rate," the source said. "The idea is not to push the system down. It is to lift people up."
The Clinton campaign did not return calls seeking comment.
The Obama administration appears to have given up any hope of GSE reform in the near term, but Clinton would have to weigh in, Zandi said.
"I would be surprised if the Clinton administration didn't take a crack at GSE reform," Zandi said. "She is well aware of the problems at the GSEs and the fact that they are in conservatorship and this is not a long-term plan for the GSEs or for the mortgage market, for housing, so I think that will be on the agenda."
Her likely rival Donald Trump's views, meanwhile, are harder to gauge. The New York businessman has said little to nothing about banking policy beyond a general pledge to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act.
Still, given the GSEs' crucial role in providing mortgage credit, analysts believe it's unlikely he would seek a controversial solution like full privatization of the GSEs, a move favored by conservatives.
"I have trouble believing a populist like [Trump] would want to end the only viable route to homeownership currently available to the middle class," said Chris Low, chief economist at FTN Financial.
Ed Mills with FBR Capital Markets said Trump is unlikely to get bogged down with the details of the issue unless he is forced to confront it.
"GSE reform comes with a lot of political baggage people don't want to touch, so to the extent that you are making America great again, you do things in broad strokes," he said.
One intriguing possibility is if Trump picks Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., as his vice presidential nominee. Corker's name has been floated as a possibility, though the lawmaker has said he has no knowledge of Trump's plans.
Corker is an architect of the Johnson-Crapo plan. He originally introduced a similar bill with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., in 2013, which was effectively rolled into the Johnson-Crapo plan.
"I would think that if he was the VP pick and campaigning that the issue would rise to the surface because I know that we would at every opportunity would ask him about it," said Gerald Howard, the head of the National Association of Home Builders.
The trade group reached out to each presidential candidate early on in the campaign process to discuss housing finance reform, Howard said.
"The Clinton campaign was extremely responsive and we met and talked with them a couple of times and exchanged information a couple of times both on housing, but also on housing finance reform," Howard said. "We have been told by the Trump campaign that they would like to sit down and talk, but at this point there have been no conversations with the Trump campaign."
Whatever their future plans, don't expect GSE reform to become a flash point during the campaign.
"It is hard to understand, hard to explain and Congress has been wrestling with this and the administration for eight years with little progress," Pinto said. "So it is a difficult area to wade into particularly with soundbites and things like that."