WASHINGTON — More than six months after Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were seized by the government, the role of chief executive at the government-sponsored enterprises continues to evolve.
James Lockhart, the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, is overseeing both companies as their conservator. It remains unclear what authority Fannie and Freddie's CEOs hold, and several sources said this uncertainty caused David Moffett, the leader installed at Freddie after the conservatorship, to resign this month. The search for his successor continues.
Some observers say the chief executive position at the GSEs — once one of the mightiest jobs in finance — is now irrelevant.
"My own conclusion at this point in time is that upon conservatorship, in essence Jim Lockhart became CEO of both companies," said Judy Kennedy, the CEO of the National Association of Affordable Housing Lenders. The chief executives "only do what they're told."
In an interview last week, Fannie's CEO, Herbert Allison, acknowledged the constraints on his power.
The FHFA is the "ultimate authority," he said. "That is certainly true. There isn't a CEO in the world who doesn't have an ultimate authority. It's the board and ultimately it's the shareholders. And that's pretty much the model we're working with as well."
Of course, the shareholders of both GSEs were wiped out after Sept. 6, when the companies went into conservatorship. But Allison said: "I view FHFA as our controlling shareholder. We have a board of directors as well. Just like I have to keep the board informed, I've got to keep FHFA informed."
Allison said he maintains control over Fannie's operations, however.
"I manage the company on a day-to-day basis, just like you would with only a board of directors," he said. "I check with our board and FHFA on major decisions and make sure everyone is in agreement. If there are any issues, we look at the facts. When people share the same facts, they tend to reach the same conclusions."
In an interview on Tuesday, Lockhart backed up Allison's argument and said his agency simply does not have the manpower to run the GSEs on a daily basis.
"The CEOs make a lot of the day to day and sometimes even the long term decisions," he said. "We're only 400 people at FHFA and we have responsibility for not only Fannie and Freddie but the 12 Home Loan banks so we don't have the capabilities to run them on a day to day basis nor should we."
Allison insisted he has not had a single disagreement with the FHFA "that would have retarded progress in any way or caused us to change course from what I thought was the right way to go."
A representative for Freddie did not comment for this story, but Lockhart has acknowledged that the challenges for both CEOs are considerable.
Bruce Marks, the CEO of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, said the role of CEO at Fannie and Freddie is becoming clearer as the companies adjust to conservatorship.
"No one had defined what it means to be in conservatorship," he said. "So you're feeling your way through on where the authority is. … As the confidence grows and the lines of authority are more clearly defined, you're going to see more control reverting back to the GSEs."
Bert Ely, an independent consultant in Alexandria, Va., who has frequently criticized Fannie and Freddie, said the CEOs' power will center on administrative tasks now.
The CEOs are "basically government administrators," he said. "You still need a chief executive to run the operation. But they are not what they were before nor do I think they ever will be again."
That could actually make things simpler than the model Fannie and Freddie operated under before the conservatorship, according to Brian Gardner, an analyst at KBW Inc.'s Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.
"Prior to September, you had a dual mandate and the companies had obligations to their shareholders and their mission," he said. "There are no shareholders to speak of. There is no fiduciary duty. In that way, it's probably a little bit easier."