WASHINGTON – The Federal Reserve and the Treasury announced steps Sunday to shore up mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose shares have plunged as losses from their mortgage holdings threatened their financial survival.
The steps are also intended to send a signal to nervous investors worldwide that the government is prepared to take all necessary steps to prevent the credit market troubles that started last year from engulfing financial markets and further weakening the economy and housing markets.
The Fed said it granted the Federal Reserve Bank of New York authority to lend to the two companies “should such lending prove necessary.” They would pay 2.25 percent for any borrowed funds – the same rate given to commercial banks and big Wall Street firms.
The Fed said this should help the companies’ ability to “promote the availability of home mortgage credit during a period of stress in financial markets.”
Secretary Henry Paulson said the Treasury is seeking expedited authority from Congress to expand its current $2.25 billion line of credit to each company should they need to tap it and to make an equity investment in the companies – if needed.
“Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac play a central role in our housing finance system and must continue to do so in their current form as shareholder-owned companies,” Paulson said Sunday. “Their support for the housing market is particularly important as we work through the current housing correction.”
The Treasury’s plan also seeks a “consultative role” for the Fed in any new regulatory framework eventually decided by Congress for Fannie and Freddie. The Fed’s role would be to weigh in on setting capital requirements for the companies.
The White House, in a statement, said President Bush directed Paulson to “immediately work with Congress” to get the plan enacted. It also said it believed the plan outlined by Paulson “will help add stability during this period.”
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac either hold or back $5.3 trillion of mortgage debt. That’s about half the outstanding mortgages in the United States.
The announcement marked the latest move by the government to bolster confidence in the mortgage companies. A critical test of confidence will come this morning, when Freddie Mac is slated to auction a combined $3 billion in three- and six-month securities.
The Fed’s offer of funds is viewed as a temporary backstop until Treasury can get its plan in place. The collateral they would have to pledge – Treasury securities and federal agency securities – is more narrow than the collateral commercial banks and Wall Street firms must pledge for emergency lending privileges.
Last week Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Paulson, appearing before the House Financial Services Committee, made a point of saying that the regulator of Fannie and Freddie, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, has found both companies adequately capitalized.