Fannie Mae in the Black, Now What?
Fannie Mae is back in the black, but does that mean the U.S. government will put it on the block—or not?
The housing finance company—whose 2008 taxpayer bailout was one of the biggest firestorms of the financial crisis—announced Tuesday the largest net income in the company's history with $17.2 billion hauled in for 2012, and $7.6 billion alone in the fourth quarter of that year.
That meant the company did not request a draw of cash from Treasury for the fourth quarter of 2012, after drawing more than $116 billion from taxpayers in the years following the financial crisis. (This wasn't the first time they didn't ask for money.)
(Read More: The Inside Story Inside America's Economic Crisis)
CEO Timothy J. Mayopoulos called those results "terrific" and said they represent a turning point for the company, driven in part by a rebound in the nation's housing market and lower delinquency rates on mortgage loans.
What's more, the company said, it expects to remain profitable for the foreseeable future and that it expected to return "significant value" to the taxpayers who bailed it out in the wake of the financial crisis.
But the good financial news at Fannie Mae could have an unexpected consequence, blunting movement in Washington to deal with the last major outstanding question of the crisis: What's the best role for the government to play in the housing market—if any?
Lawmakers could see an era of steady profits from Fannie Mae as a signal that the crisis is over, easing pressure to decide whether or not to unwind the government's significant involvement in the nation's housing finance, through its ownership of Fannie Mae and its similarly wayward sister company, Freddie Mac.
Plus, profits from Fannie Mae could be seen as a rare piece of budgetary good news in a nation's capital that's otherwise drowning in debt. That could freeze the current post-bailout situation in place, which the Fannie Mae executives said they thought would be a mistake.
The executives also said the company would not take advantage of certain tax measures based on past year losses that could have added nearly $60 billion to the firm's profit, but would have triggered a much bigger dividend payout to the government.
The company said that since 2008 it has paid $35.6 billion in dividends back to the taxpayers.
Lawmakers in both parties said post-crisis that they would like to wind down both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but there's been no clear solution of how to do that without causing a decline in home prices that could damage significant household wealth and slow the tepid economic recovery.
—By CNBC's Eamon Javers; Follow him on Twitter: @eamonjavers