WASHINGTON — The Treasury Department's continued silence on its pending plan for the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is fueling suspicion that the administration does not have a concrete proposal.
Instead, analysts, industry representatives and academics are increasingly convinced that the White House will offer guiding principles outlining its philosophy on the government-sponsored enterprises and potentially offering some alternatives vetted by the Treasury on how to approach the matter.
"We do believe they will come out with guiding principles, not an absolute restructuring plan," said Scott Griffith, the chairman of the GSE presidential advisory group at the National Association of Realtors.
Industry observers are divided on whether such a move would make sense. Some said it would be a mistake to fail to produce a concrete proposal, considering that the GSEs have been in conservatorship for more than two years and that the administration has previously punted on the issue.
"It is incumbent for the administration to come up with a plan," said Cornelius Hurley, the director of the Morin Center for Banking and Financial Law at Boston University. "Punting it out another month or two is not an option financially or politically."
Karen Shaw Petrou, the managing partner at Federal Financial Analytics, said another delay would give GOP critics more ammunition against the administration.
"It would be a Christmas present, belatedly, to the Republicans, and the administration knows that," said Shaw Petrou. It would be "exposed again to irate editorials and criticisms that they are well aware of. That doesn't mean that they have to have the 700-page bill drafted with every contingency considered, but kicking the can down the road would expose them to political fire."
The administration has already postponed delivery of a GSE plan twice, and it promised last year to unveil a proposal to Congress by January. Policymakers took that vow a step further by mandating a plan by the administration under the Dodd-Frank Act.
Some observers said the administration does not have to deliver a detailed proposal but could at least move the ball forward by presenting alternatives and guiding principles.
Republicans, who took control of the House this year, are widely expected to oppose any plan the Obama administration offers, and any specific solution would be unlikely to satisfy the variety of interests different stakeholders support.
"We're not at the endgame here; we are at the beginning of a debate on Fannie and Freddie that we really haven't had," said a mortgage finance policy expert who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The Treasury Department could do a real service by listing the options and really, really going into the pros and cons of … these proposals that have been made by numerous groups."
Robert Davis, an executive vice president at the American Bankers Association, agreed it would make more sense for the administration to take an "incremental" approach in crafting a plan for the GSEs "rather than a definite plan, or a strict timetable."
Doing so would let the administration technically keep its promise while also giving Congress the lead in drafting GSE legislation.
"What I am expecting more than anything else is a discussion of alternatives, not a concrete plan and, frankly, tossing the ball to Congress," said Bert Ely, an independent analyst in Alexandria, Va. "I don't think there is any easy way for them to address the concerns of the core political constituency and also something the House Republicans would take seriously. I wouldn't be surprised if there are a lot of generalities and they avoid the tough questions."
A Treasury spokesman declined to comment on what approach the administration might take.
"Those who are sitting around speculating about speculation, about what we are going to do and not do, really, isn't all that healthy," said Steve Adamske, a Treasury spokesman. "We are in the process here of making policy decisions. That's the thing about a process, it takes a while. We are working on it."
Adamske also declined to say how detailed the plan would be.
"The plan is not done yet," he said. "We know that the transition of where we are going to is going to take a really long time; even the Republicans admit that. We are working very diligently to put together this report by the end of this month, and that is what we are doing."
Many see the administration's silence, however, as proof it will not offer a concrete proposal.
"It is a little surprising how quiet this has been kept," said Griffith of the Realtors group.
It also appears the administration will wait until near the Jan. 31 deadline. The Treasury is not expected to release any plan ahead of President Obama's State of the Union address on Jan. 25.
At the heart of the political debate is an ideological dispute over how much government support the housing market should get, and many believe this will be a major impediment to passing a housing finance bill through Congress this year.
On one side, Republicans would rather see a plan to abolish Fannie and Freddie than endorse any plan by Democrats to maintain even the slightest government guarantee.
For that reason, some said, it would be smart for the Treasury to present alternatives, including offering a clear explanation of what it would mean to the housing market if there were no federal guarantee.
The Treasury is also widely expected to discuss creating an explicit government guarantee for mortgage-backed securities similar to the deposit insurance system supervised by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Offering options could give the Treasury a better feel for which plan has the most political support without tying itself to any one option.
"Coming up with multiple plans could be part of the strategy on how to move it forward," said Brian Harris, an analyst at Moody's Investors Service.