August 8, 2007 in Business

Mortgage giants may not offer a solution

Marcy Gordon Associated Press
 

WASHINGTON — Easing the investment constraints faced by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may not be enough to rescue homeowners and investors caught up in the mortgage market turbulence.

Shares of the government-sponsored home-loan financiers have surged in recent days on speculation that regulators will raise the amount of mortgage securities Fannie and Freddie can hold as investments. Mainstream Wall Street analysts believe such a move would ease the country’s housing woes by injecting more cash into the market.

But critics of the idea caution that such a move would not help Wall Street or Main Street very much because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac generally do not buy or guarantee the types of mortgages that are most severely affected.

The companies were created by Congress to pump money into the $8 trillion home-loan market by buying mortgages from lenders and then bundling them into securities for sale to investors worldwide. Combined, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac finance or guarantee more than 75 percent of all U.S. home mortgages.

Word spread Monday that Fannie Mae had asked the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight to lift the mandated cap on its mortgage holdings — now at around $727 billion — as a way to provide more cash for the distressed mortgage market.

That function is especially crucial now, analysts say, as falling home prices and a spike in payment defaults have scared investors away from mortgage debt, including bonds and other securities backed by home loans.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said Tuesday “it may be appropriate, consistent with safe and sound practices as determined by the regulator, to ease the temporary regulatory cap on Fannie and Freddie’s mortgage portfolio.”

Any such increase, he added, “would have to be used only to purchase loans made consistent with the highest standards of consumer protection.” The companies “should not be used to bring liquidity to loans with abusive terms,” he said.

By getting into the market in a crisis, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “would fulfill the mission for which they were created and bolster political goodwill,” Morgan Stanley analyst Kenneth Posner said in a research note. He put “high odds” on OFHEO lifting the caps, “lest it be blamed for exacerbating a housing market shock.”

“We cannot imagine OFHEO or the Bush administration wanting to shoulder the blame for making a bad situation worse,” Posner wrote.

Not so fast, said Bert Ely, a banking consultant based in Alexandria, Va., who is a critic of the two companies and longtime OFHEO watcher.

The agency’s director, James B. Lockhart, “hasn’t given any signal” in recent weeks, as the mortgage market’s woes deepened, that he could be amenable to raising the caps on the companies’ mortgage holdings, Ely said.

Lockhart has said that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, both roiled by accounting scandals in recent years that led to the caps on mortgage portfolios, have made progress toward correcting serious financial weaknesses but still face significant problems and have a distance to go.

OFHEO spokeswoman Stefanie Mullin declined comment Tuesday. Lockhart has 60 days to make a decision on Fannie Mae’s request.

At any rate, Ely said, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac can simply buy up more mortgages from lenders and package them as securities to inject cash into the market, not needing to expand their investment portfolios.

The two companies in April announced plans to purchase tens of billions of dollars worth of high-risk subprime mortgages, those targeted to people with tarnished credit histories, to help borrowers with high-priced loans keep their homes. At the same time, the companies have tightened their policies for purchasing subprime home loans from lenders.

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