World and Nation

Fannie Mae Workers Watch As Stock Plans Dwindle

Fannie Mae’s workers had $116 million in the employee stock ownership plan at the end of 2006. Today, it’s more like $17.5 million.

The employees of Fannie Mae, and those of its counterpart Freddie Mac, are reeling from financial blows themselves as the mortgage finance companies lurch toward what could be a government bailout. Both firms ladled out hefty servings of stocks and options to reward and compensate employees — making them popular employers for years.

The top executive of Freddie Mac, Richard F. Syron, for instance, made about $18.3 million last year, two-thirds of that in stock and options that are worth a lot less today. His counterpart at Fannie Mae, Daniel H. Mudd, made $11.6 million, also much of it in stock.

But midlevel employees were paid in stock, too. Stock and options could account for a fifth of their total compensation, according to former employees and financial planners. Their ability to sell and diversify was often limited by restrictions on the grants, the terms of the specific plans and tighter rules on selling by employees while they addressed years-earlier accounting scandals.

For decades, both companies offered lush benefits, with traditional pension plans, 401(k)s, stock plans and other niceties, like child care plans. That means many employees still have a safety net, though their savings have declined, drastically in some cases.

“If it can happen to Fannie or Freddie, it can happen anywhere,” said Marjorie L. Fox, a certified financial planner in Reston, Va. “This is a cautionary tale you better pay attention to.”

For those people participating in the employee stock ownership plans, known as ESOPs, at Fannie Mae — Freddie Mac did not have one — they could do little but watch this year as the stock lost more than three-quarters of its value. In a lament echoing the fallen share prices at other firms like Bear Stearns, employees discovered their stock was essentially locked up. The Fannie Mae plan, to which the company stopped making contributions last year, invests in company stock, allowing diversification to begin only at age 55.

Still, former employees and financial planners say workers have probably been hurt more severely by their holdings of stock and options outside of retirement plans.

Richard K. Green, who was a principal economist and a director of financial strategy and policy analysis at Freddie Mac from late 2002 to early 2004, said that about 20 percent of his total compensation was in stock options.

“It’s my understanding that for a fair number of people, it was an important part of their retirement planning,” he said. “If you joined in the ‘80s, you did fairly well. But if you joined in the last 10 years or so, those options wouldn’t be worth a whole lot to you.”

Furthermore, both companies tightened restrictions on trading of company stock by employees while working to correct a series of accounting misstatements. Fannie Mae barred employees from selling shares — or buying them — from April 2005 to November of last year.