Fannie Mae's strategic generosity.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
June 11 2008 7:04 PM

Jim Johnson Leaves Obama Veep Search Team

The man who was once a Medici with your money.

Jim Johnson stepped down today from the three-person team charged with vetting Barack Obama's running mate. On June 7, the Wall Street Journal reported that Johnson received favorable deals on loans from Countrywide Financial Corp.—the mortgage lender that has been the target of Obama's repeated criticism. In 1997, Matthew Cooper profiled Johnson and the philanthropy of Fannie Mae, of which Johnson was chairman at the time. The article is reprinted below.

James A. Johnson, chairman of both the Kennedy Center and the Brookings Institution, has become, at age 53, Washington, D.C.'s Medici. But even though he makes some $5 million a year off the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), of which he is also chairman, he is not a philanthropist with his own money. The fount of Johnson's generosity is Fannie Mae's foundation, funded out of its profits, which gives away millions every year in the District and elsewhere.

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Of course, it is common these days for corporate CEOs to enjoy the perks, status, gratitude, and frisson of generosity that comes from giving away the stockholders' money. What makes Fannie Mae special is that it is essentially the taxpayers' money that Johnson is giving away. Fannie Mae enjoys a massive government subsidy, and its charitable contributions are part of a vital corporate strategy to keep it that way.

Indeed, preserving its government subsidy is Fannie Mae's central mission, which helps to explain why a fellow like Jim Johnson is the CEO of this $325 billion company. Johnson has only a modest business background. A Minnesota native, he was a longtime aide to Walter Mondale, the senator and later vice president. When Mondale lost the vice presidency in 1980, Johnson and Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat, founded Public Strategies, a Washington consulting firm that gave advice to business clients. Later he performed similar services for Shearson Lehman. When Mondale ran for president in 1984, Johnson was the chairman of his campaign. Maxine Isaacs, who later became his wife, was the campaign's press secretary. Considered likable and charming, Johnson and Isaacs were, in a small way, the Carville and Matalin of that period: the hot political couple. Johnson joined Fannie Mae in 1990 and became its chairman a year later.

Established in 1938 as a government agency, Fannie Mae is a financial behemoth with assets greater than Citibank and Wells Fargo combined. In 1968, it became a private, for-profit company. Its stock is publicly traded; its Web site ends in a ".com." Basically what it does is buy home mortgages from banks and package them into what are called "mortgage-backed securities," which it sells to investors. The banks then can use their own money for more mortgages. By giving home buyers indirect access to the world's capital markets, this device makes it easier for Americans to buy a home. That is Fannie Mae's social function. These days, however, that function is served by many private companies: Mortgage-backed securities are a roaring business.

Fannie Mae, though, has special privileges. Its securities need not be registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. It is exempt from state and local taxes, so it escapes having to pay an estimated $300 million a year into the parched District treasury. Most important, Fannie Mae's securities come with an implicit guarantee that they are backed by the federal government. This allows it to raise money at an interest rate that is lower than what a normal private corporation has to pay.

Fannie Mae has it both ways about the federal guarantee. Its securities are required to say in so many words that they are not backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government. But nobody believes it. Why? As a report last year from the Congressional Budget Office explains, "What the government appears to withhold with one requirement, it provides with a host of other legal provisions." The capital markets are persuaded that Fannie Mae's bonds are backed by the government. Fannie Mae, while denying the guarantee exists, fights to preserve the arrangement that makes it possible.

The company also notes that, since it has never missed a payment, the taxpayers have not yet had to shell out a penny. But that is like saying that fire insurance is worthless if you've never had a fire. Just ask other private companies if they would like to have a free federal guarantee of their debts! The government, if it wanted to, could sell its backing to private borrowers like Fannie Mae. As the CBO points out, the government's guarantee of Fannie Mae's debt is just like a giveaway of federal land or hydroelectric power. The fact that no money changes hands doesn't mean it has no cost.

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