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The magical world of Fannie Mae accounting

July 12, 2013: 8:37 AM ET

Fannie Mae converted a huge non-cash profit into a deficit-reducing payment to the Treasury by borrowing the money without having it count as part of the national debt even though taxpayers guarantee it. Too bad we can't all use that stratagem to pay our own bills.

fannie-mae-620xaFORTUNE -- Here I am, sitting around in the middle of summer, listening to my air-conditioning system labor and wondering which pot of money to tap for the generator I've ordered to provide backup power to my house during the next big storm. And it hits me: I need to think the way the federal government does when it deals with Fannie Mae, the giant "government sponsored enterprise" mortgage finance outfit. You gotta love it. Fannie, which has been in federal conservatorship since 2008, created a paper profit of $50.6 billion during the second quarter of this year. Then it borrowed $50.6 billion in the financial markets and sent that borrowed money to the Treasury on June 28. This ended up reducing the federal budget deficit, as calculated by most people in Washington, despite the fact that the government is on the hook for every penny of the $50.6 billion that Fannie borrowed. What's more, this money doesn't show up as part of the national debt. Pretty slick, isn't it?

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, quite properly in my opinion, treats Fannie and Freddie as if they're owned by the government. Therefore, the CBO doesn't count money they pay to the Treasury as revenue. It treats it as just a transfer from one part of the government to another.

However, the rest of official Washington considers Fannie's and Freddie's payments to the Treasury to be the equivalent of tax revenues, and uses them to reduce the stated budget deficit.

Heaven knows, the payments are certainly cash that the government can use to pay its bills. The big payment from Fannie to the Treasury last month bolstered the Treasury's cash position, and extended the time we have to resolve the debt-ceiling problem. Not, of course, that it will be resolved in any rational or timely fashion.

MORE: What's behind Perry Capital's Fannie & Freddie gambit?

Now, watch. The $50.6 billion non-cash profit that Fannie took offset $50.6 billion of previous non-cash losses. When Fannie was hemorrhaging cash, it seemed that it would never earn enough money to utilize its tax losses. So Fannie, as required by accounting rules, took a $50.6 billion paper loss by declaring that its "deferred tax assets" had no value.

Now, though, Fannie (FNMA) is making record profits, primarily because it and Freddie (FMCC) are about the only game in town when it comes to converting mortgages into mortgage-backed-securities.

So in March, Fannie decided it would likely make enough money to use its tax losses, and reversed the $50.6 billion charge, as required by accounting rules. This created a non-cash profit.

Someday soon, I expect Freddie Mac to produce a non-cash profit of $30 billion or so by reversing the charge it took when it declared its deferred tax assets to be worthless. Then, I'm sure, Freddie will borrow an amount equal to that non-cash profit, send it to the Treasury, and do its bit to help reduce the deficit by using borrowed money without adding to the national debt.

Now, back to my house generator. I've tried and tried, but can't figure out how to create a non-cash profit, borrow an offsetting amount, not have it count as debt, and use it to pay for my generator. So I'm going to have to use actual money that my wife and I have saved, and set aside for capital projects.

Unless, of course, I can move to Washington, and pick up some federal budget accounting skills …

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About This Author
Allan Sloan
Allan Sloan
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune

Allan Sloan, who has been writing about business for more than 40 years, joined Fortune in July of 2007. Before that, he was the Wall Street editor for Newsweek for 12 years. His work also appears in The Washington Post. Allan is a seven-time winner of the Loeb Award, business journalism's highest honor, receiving awards in four different categories for five different employers. He is a graduate of Brooklyn College and has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He and his wife live in New Jersey. They have three grown children.

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