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CEO Daily: Tuesday, October 20

Let’s face it: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are a national disgrace. There is no good reason why the nation with the most sophisticated financial markets on earth should maintain a government market for mortgages. Nor is there reason why the last country to resist socialized health care should embrace socialized home ownership.


But here we are and here we will stay. The White House, caught between a rock and a hard place, acknowledged yesterday that housing finance reform will not happen in the Obama administration.


To recap: During the 2008 crisis, the government put the failing Fannie and Freddie into conservatorship, and provided a $187 billion taxpayer bailout. Since then, Uncle Sam has gotten his money back, and more. In 2012, the government changed the rules of the deal to grab additional profits, and has taken in a total of $239 billion.


That has the vulture investors who picked up Fannie and Freddie stock at a bargain crying foul. As long the government takes all the profits, they have no chance of making good on their investments. They want the companies to be recapitalized and released to the market– recreating the insane system of private profit and public risk that existed before the crisis. Top White House adviser Michael Stegman said yesterday that shouldn’t and won’t happen – at least while Obama is president.


But a mortgage market run by the government is equally insane. Problem is, ending the existing mortgage finance system abruptly would pull the rug out from under a weak economy – and no one is willing to do that. So the government is punting. Problem unsolved.


There might be a way out of this fix. Two of the last reasonable men in Congress – Democrat Senator Mark Warner and Republican Senator Bob Corker – started working on a plan in 2013 to phase out Fannie and Freddie, replace them with private insurers, and provide government guarantees in return for an explicit fee. But like most reasonable efforts in Congress these days, that one foundered.


In an excellent new book that attempts to make sense of the senseless history of Fannie and Freddie, Shaky Ground, author Bethany McLean quotes ousted Fannie CEO Franklin Raines saying several years ago that the mortgage giants “will be around a lot longer than anyone thinks. Give it ten years or so, and maybe we’ll rename them Bob and Tom, instead of Fannie and Freddie, but there they will be.”


Looks like he was right.


Enjoy the day. More below.


Alan Murray

Top News

United Airlines names acting CEO

General counsel Brett Hart has been named as acting chief executive officer of United Continental, while CEO Oscar Munoz goes on medical leave after a heart attack he suffered last week. The change was effective immediately and it wasn’t yet known how long the recovery for Munoz would take. Munoz only became CEO last month after his predecessor, Jeff Smisek, resigned following internal and federal probes into United’s relationship with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Reuters

IBM’s slump continues

With IBM’s latest quarterly results comes another disappointment: for 14 straight quarters, sales have declined. Executives told analysts the company is focused on growth opportunities in cloud computing, data analytics, security, and mobile businesses. Those investments will pay off, IBM’s Chief Financial Officer Martin Schroeter promised. But analysts zeroed in on when IBM could show growth, or at least stop the declines. Notably, IBM gave no hard timeline. Fortune

SanDisk, Western Digital mull merger

SanDisk is reportedly in talks to sell itself to Western Digital, a deal that occur as soon as this week and a merger that would combine two storage makers. It was previously reported that SanDisk had talked to both Western Digital and Micron Technology about a possible deal. SanDisk has a market capitalization of about $14.7 billion, with some of that tied to share price appreciation fueled by takeover speculation earlier this month. Bloomberg

E.U. set to rule on tax rates

The European Union is preparing to order Starbucks and Fiat Chrysler to pay “tens of millions of euros” in taxes to the nations that lured them to set up business there with purported illegal sweetheart tax deals. American firms had been setting up their businesses in countries like Ireland, as those nations offered very low tax rates to lure businesses away from larger countries like France and Germany. There are also probes pending into Apple’s deal with Ireland and Amazon’s deal with Luxembourg. Fortune

Around the Water Cooler

Oprah’s gift to Weight Watchers

The stock market saw two surprising winners on Monday: billionaire Oprah Winfrey and Weight Watchers, the company she invested in. Winfrey made a 10% stake in the weight-loss company, news that caused the stock to more than double. The one-day spike also awarded Winfrey, amassing $70 million in the investment, USA Today reports. Diet-focused companies have faced pressure from mobile apps and other rivals so Winfrey’s investment is a bet that her marketing abilities can help the brand. USA Today

Valeant pivots on pricing strategy

The controversy over drug pricing took another interesting twist on Monday: Valeant Pharmaceuticals CEO J. Michael Pearson said the company would likely seek fewer, if any, deals focused on mispriced drugs. Previously, Valeant would buy older treatments and boost their prices drastically, price hikes that have been a big revenue driver for the company. The pivot comes just days after the feds demanded more information from Valeant about how it prices and distributes drugs. Fortune

Blackstone nears NYC property deal

The world’s largest private equity firm has reportedly reached a tentative agreement to pay about $5.3 billion for New York’s Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village. The property has an interesting history, as prior owners paid just under $5.4 billion nine years ago and ended up defaulting on the mortgage in 2010. That was one of the largest collapses in the last decade’s real estate boom. Bloomberg

5 things to know today

Canada and Fiat Chrysler workers vote –5 things to know today. Today’s story can be found here.