“Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac to help cut deficit”

Really?? Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac to help cut deficit Fannie and Freddie to the rescue…we are saved right?

Oh boy…where to begin. I’ll start by saying…this is complex, none of the articles I have read provide much detail, and while I think I understand what is going on here…I could be wrong. But here goes.

It is not really news that Fannie and Freddie are contributing to government revenues….all “profits” they generate ultimately flow into fed coffers…as do losses. Unfortunately, they don’t get their own line item on the Daily Treasury Statement, so I can’t whip out the stats, but on 3/29, a $12.3B payment was received in the “Other Category labeled as GSE dividends….sounds like Fannie/Freddie to me… So annualized (assuming this was a quarterly payment), $40B-$50B sounds about right for a current run rate and more or less in line with the stories I have been reading.

But if I am reading this correct, this current news story is actually about something else…some awesome accounting entries that could add $60B or so to Fannie’s bottom line. Enter…Deferred Tax Assets. Let me again profess…this is a bit outside the realm of my accounting expertise, but here goes. As you know….companies and individuals are taxed on net income income..or profits. A company that has $1B in revenue, and $1B in cost…will have no profit, and pay no tax…obviously. So a company that has a $1B profit in year one, would then pay about 35%…$350M in income taxes, and be on their merry way. But then…in year two, say they post a $1B loss. Obviously, they wouldn’t pay any taxes in Y2….turns out, they can actually get a refund…subject to some limitation…on prior taxes paid. Essentially, they could get a refund on the $350M in taxes they paid in Y1….

So…imagine the same scenario…just in reverse. The loss in Y1 of 1B creates a tax asset of ~$350M…. so the next $1B they make will kinda be tax free. This is a deferred tax asset…and it is more or less a real asset with real value…more or less.

Now enter our good buddies at Fannie Mae. This is a bit low, but let’s assume that in a given year…a long time ago….they managed to lose an astonishing $100B.  Hooray right….tax assets galore. The problem was….they were still losing money…and had no real expectations of ever making a profit again….so, per accounting guidelines….they were forced to write off a huge amount of tax assets…per this article…around $59B. Yawn….long time ago right??

Well…thanks to some help from Chairman Bernanke and his free money ZIRP policies, low and behold….Fannie is now (though probably temporarily) profitable again. Hooray!!….these profits are the $10B or so we are seeing each quarter. But now…it’s time for some accounting magic…followed by a bit of trickery and insanity.

First…accounting magic. With a return to profitability comes a new set of expectations…. all of those “tax assets” written off long ago….suddenly might have value again. So, what they are contemplating doing…or maybe have already decided…is to write them up…all $59B….and guess where it all flows….profit….Talk about a blowout quarter!! Note that in reality….these “assets” would be recognized over many many years until fully depleted.

Now…for the trickery and insanity. According to the articles….per the takeover agreement of Fannie and Freddie…Profits must be remitted to the government via dividends. The problem then…is that this is just a two line accounting entry….Fannie doesn’t actually have $59B of free cash sitting in the vault….so….what to do???? Hmmmm…. Ok..how about they borrow $59B (from the fed??)….use that to pay a special dividend right in the middle of the next debt limit showdown. Phew….wouldn’t that be awesome?

Yes….it would be incredibly awesome…let’s do it!!

Now…let me just add one more silly thought to the whole silly ordeal. As an essentially wholly owned subsidiary of the federal government….the income taxes paid, or not paid by Fannie and Freddie are essentially irrelevant to the true federal deficit picture…let me illustrate why. Say in a given Year…Fannie posts a $20B profit before tax. If they had no tax assets…they would pay $7B in income taxes…then remit the balance, $13B to the government. Now….with their tax assets…taxes are zero…so they remit the full $20B to the government. Anybody spot the problem? Yeah…paying taxes to yourself is kind of a silly game to play.

So to summarize….accountants at Fannie are going to create a make believe $59B accounting entry to increase assets and income. Then, they will borrow $59B of real money, pay it to the government as a special dividend….then probably in a few years default on that. By doing all of this…we get an extra two weeks or so in the upcoming debt limit showdown, and maybe get to pretend that we cut the deficit by  an additional $59B….probably 6% or so.

Perhaps the most hilarious part of all….is that there probably aren’t half a dozen people in DC that could actually follow this fun little money trail. Yep…we’re still screwed.