“I am just shocked how they missed this, and why, when it became completely clear that the problem was snowballing, guys like Bill Miller doubled down,” said Douglas A. Kass, head of Seabreeze Partners and an outspoken short-seller.
For years, the shares of Fannie Mae, the larger of the two companies, have ranked among the most widely held stocks in America. Many ordinary investors believed that the company’s quasi-governmental status would insulate shareholders from big losses.
“People perceived they had government support of some sort,” said Byron Wien, the chief investment strategist at Pequot Capital. “The perception was they were more secure investments than they turned out to be.”
Members of the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac rank-and-file were big shareholders, too. Stock and options could make up a fifth of employees’ total pay.
While those who bought the companies’ shares lost, short-sellers who bet against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac won. So-called short interest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stock soared in recent months as the companies’ troubles deepened.
Among the most vocal short-sellers betting against the companies is William A. Ackman, who runs a hedge fund called Pershing Square Capital. Mr. Ackman was among the earliest to warn of the credit crisis, and he is believed to have landed a windfall after shorting both companies, according to a person with direct knowledge of a recent investment letter.
Wall Street investment banks, meanwhile, are breathing a sigh of relief. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pay hefty fees to big Wall Street debt underwriters, and that is unlikely to change. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s business was worth $1.5 billion in fees in 2007, according to a Sanford C. Bernstein report. Through the first six months of this year, that figure sank to $600 million.
Washington lobbyists, however, may be hurting. Over the last decade, Freddie Mac paid more than $94.8 million for lobbying services, in part to fend off attempts to tighten oversight, according to the Center for Responsive Politics; Fannie Mae spent about $79.5 million. The government plan will immediately eliminate that spending.
Some commercial banks and insurance companies that hold the companies’ preferred stock could suffer, too. Auditors may force those investors to mark down the value of the holdings. Sovereign Bancorp, a regional lender near Philadelphia, holds about $588 million of the securities, about 13 percent of its tangible capital, according to a research report by Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, a securities broker.
Midwest Banc Holdings, a community bank in Illinois, and Gateway Financial Holdings, which operates in Virginia and North Carolina, each have tens of millions of dollars of the preferred stock, representing more than one-third of their tangible capital, the report said. And federal banking regulators said in a joint statement that a “limited number” of smaller banks could need new financing.
The Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., urged those institutions to contact their regulator, which said it was “prepared to work with those institutions to develop capital-restoration plans” and other corrective actions.