WASHINGTON – Treasury Secretary-designate Steven Mnuchin wasted no time Wednesday joining one of the thorniest debates in the financial services arena, saying the Trump administration would seek to end government control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and return them to the private sector.
"We gotta get Fannie and Freddie out of government ownership," Mnuchin said on Fox Business. "It makes no sense that these are owned by the government and have been controlled by the government for as long as they have."
Mnuchin appeared to disagree with the traditional Republican view that Fannie and Freddie should be wound down and eliminated. His comments indicated he foresaw them being recapitalized and spun out again, much as they were before the crisis that forced them into conservatorship.
When asked if Fannie and Freddie should be privatized, Mnuchin said, "Absolutely."
Government control of Fannie and Freddie "displaces private lending in the mortgage markets," Mnuchin said. "And we need these entities that will be safe. So let me be just be clear: We'll make sure that when they're restructured, they're absolutely safe and they don't get taken over again. But we gotta get them out of government control."
His comments came within hours of an official confirmation from President-elect Donald Trump's transition team officially that the hedge fund executive and movie financier would be the Treasury pick. His view contrasts sharply with that of another policymaker who had been on shortlist – House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, who has advocated for completely privatizing the mortgage market.
The Texas Republican is unlikely to sign off on a plan such as the one Mnuchin is suggesting.
Fannie and Freddie have been in conservatorship for eight years, and attempts by Congress to reform the housing finance system have been unsuccessful. As part of the conservatorship agreement, the two mortgage giants are required to sweep their profits and a portion of their capital to the Treasury.
As Treasury secretary, Mnuchin could rework that agreement. The GSEs' stock price soared after Mnuchin's comments, as did the hopes of private investors who have been suing the government in an effort to reclaim control of the enterprises. Their capital is expected to be depleted by 2018.
Mnuchin suggested that efforts to reform the housing finance system have been unsuccessful because it wasn't a priority of the Obama administration.
"I think in this administration it hasn't been a priority ... in our administration, it's right up there on the top-10 list of things that we're going to get done. And we'll get it done reasonably fast," he said.