Treasury Plan to Wind Down Fannie and Freddie

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Friday, Feb. 11, 2011.

The Obama administration released a white paper proposing the gradual winding down of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and overhauling the mortgage securities market.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

The Obama administration Friday laid out an ambitious vision for U.S. housing finance reform, in which the government gradually diminishes its role and private investors return to the mortgage securities market.

But the plan doesn't specify how to overhaul or eliminate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, instead setting out three possible options for the mortgage giants, which have been operating under government conservatorship since September 2008. Under the landmark Dodd-Frank financial overhaul legislation approved last year, the Treasury Department was supposed to present to Congress by Jan. 31 a report on the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) to help lawmakers write legislation to reform the agencies.

"This is a plan for fundamental reform — to wind down the GSEs, strengthen consumer protection, and preserve access to affordable housing for people who need it," said Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in a statement. "We are going to start the process of reform now, but we are going to do it responsibly and carefully so that we support the recovery and the process of repair of the housing market."

At stake are the health of the real estate market, economic growth and, some argue, the future of the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. The challenge for policymakers is to attract private investors back into the mortgage market while retaining the benefits that Fannie and Freddie established — a liquid secondary mortgage market and greater access to homeownership. The administration and lawmakers are also attempting to prevent a repeat of the excessive risk-taking and inadequate supervision of the housing market that led to the 2008 financial crisis, while reassuring foreign investors in housing bonds and U.S. government debt.

Whistleblower Rule: Business Leaders Want it Changed

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Monday, Feb. 7, 2011.

The SEC will soon issue a rule giving corporate whistleblowers the chance to collect big money for reporting securities violations, but the business community fears a wave of frivolous claims.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

In his continuing outreach to business leaders, President Obama spoke at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce this morning about global competition, technological innovation and the outdated or unnecessary government regulations. But a major concern of many corporate leaders is a proposed federal rule giving corporate whistleblowers an opportunity to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars for reporting securities law violations. The rule has alarmed the business community, which argues that the plan would encourage frivolous claims and undermine a decade of work to provide safe reporting channels for whistleblowers.

By April 17, the Securities and Exchange Commission must give final approval to the rule, which Congress ordered as part of the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law aiming to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.

Corporate lawyers and lobbyists have asked the SEC to require whistleblowers to report problems internally before going to the government, to limit the people eligible to collect a bounty and to extend the time a company has to correct violations. On the other side, lawyers who represent whistleblowers say the provisions the SEC proposed are needed to protect tipsters from retaliation and prevent corporate cover-ups.

The rulemaking is the latest in a series of government attempts to encourage corporate employees with knowledge of fraud or other violations to come forward. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 — which Congress passed in response to accounting fraud at Enron, WorldCom and other corporate giants — required companies to establish internal reporting programs and made boards of directors and top executives personally liable for neglecting to investigate fraud complaints. In both 2001 and 2008, scandals over the activities of publicly traded companies quickly spread from the stock market to the broader economy, affecting everyday Americans as well as shareholders.

"This is one of the most explosive issues that has come up in a while for such a broad group of companies," said Alice Joe, a senior director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than three million businesses. "Our companies have spent millions of dollars over the past 10 years trying to build up these compliance programs. Now you've got a rule that the SEC has proposed that is going to incentivize whistleblowers to completely bypass these systems."