Saturday, February 26, 2011

Obama Administration Proposes Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac Phaseout -


The Obama administration outlined on Friday its plans to begin shrinking the government's broad support of the nation's crippled mortgage market, a process that officials said could take several years and would include phasing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Officials portrayed a housing-finance system that would include a role for both the public and private sectors, but would be different from the current system in that the government's role would be smaller, underwriting standards would be tighter, and borrowers would be required to hold larger amounts of equity in their homes.

The proposal offered a series of short-term steps that would help attract private capital into the mortgage market, including a reduction in the maximum loan sizes that Fannie and Freddie can purchase and gradual increases in the fees the mortgage companies charge lenders. Both of those steps could make it more attractive for lenders and investors to buy loans without government backing, but they could also raise borrowing costs for millions of Americans and weigh on the nation's home-building industry.

"The cost of mortgages is probably going to go up, and homeownership is probably going to go down," said Daniel Mudd, the former chief executive of Fannie Mae who is now CEO of Fortress Investment Group. "Both of those things arguably could be a good thing."

The administration said it would support allowing maximum loan limits to fall to $625,500 from $729,750 as scheduled on Oct 1. It also said it would push to increase minimum down payments to 10% on loans eligible for purchase by Fannie and Freddie. Insurance premiums charged on new loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration could also go up.

Administration officials said the process of transitioning to a post-Fannie and Freddie world would take at least five to seven years, in part because the housing market remains too fragile. Many analysts say the process, which includes dismantling, moving, or reassembling the firms' infrastructure, could take even longer.

The long-awaited proposal was thin on specifics about what would replace Fannie and Freddie, which the government took over in 2008, and which have racked up $134 billion in taxpayer losses. Instead, it outlined three options that were designed to frame what promises to be a prolonged and heated political debate over how to structure the nation's $10.6 trillion mortgage market.

The first of those would put the vast majority of the mortgage market in the hands of the private sector, where lenders would originate mortgages and securitize them without any government backing. The middleman role currently played by Fannie and Freddie would no longer exist.

The government's role would be limited to the FHA and a few other smaller housing agencies, and their reach would be sharply reduced from current levels. The FHA backed 20% of all new mortgages last year. Some conservatives have called for such a private market.

The second option, championed by a handful of economists, would also create a mostly private market with a limited government backstop that would primarily become active buying or guaranteeing loans in periods when private lenders retreated during financial shocks.

The third option would create new privately owned companies to buy mortgages from banks and sell them as securities. Those securities would be explicitly guaranteed by the government as long as they meet certain criteria. The government would collect fees for that backing, just as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. insures bank deposits and regulates banks.

These new companies would essentially replace some of the functions filled by Fannie and Freddie. An array of academics and industry groups have backed such a proposal, and senior Obama administration officials, such as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, have publicly discussed its merits.

The housing industry greeted the proposal coolly, and some mortgage industry officials criticized the administration for not providing more detail. "It was a political football that they punted back onto Congress's side of the field," said Joseph J. Murin, the former president of Ginnie Mae, a government-owned corporation that guarantees payments on mortgages backed by federal agencies.

Producing three different options, instead of one clear recommendation, reflects the fact that there isn't a strong consensus within the administration or Congress, said Laurence Platt, a banking industry lawyer at K&L Gates in Washington. He described the proposals as "Goldilocks and the three options—one's too hot, one's too cold, one's just right, but everyone disagrees which one is which."

But the administration's approach did attract support from Republican lawmakers, who have said the White House has been slow to address Fannie and Freddie's future.

"On a number of these areas, we're going to be on the same page, and that was encouraging, and to see it in writing is equally encouraging," said Rep. Scott Garrett (R., N.J.).

Republicans face their own divisions over what kind of role the government should play in the market, while Democrats have generally said a federal backstop function is needed to ensure broad access to homeownership and the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, in particular.

Many industrialized nations don't have institutions like Fannie and Freddie, and instead rely more heavily on their banking systems to fund mortgages.

But some economists have noted that the mistakes in the U.S. private sector were far greater than the mistakes made by Fannie and Freddie. For example, private-label mortgage securities, which are not government-backed, have performed more poorly than those backed by the mortgage giants. Nearly 45% of private-label loans originated in 2006 had been 90 days past due at least once, compared with 13% for Fannie and Freddie, according to a report from the firms' federal regulator published in September 2010.

"The part of the market that was the most private was also the worst," said Michael Barr, a former assistant Treasury secretary who left the Obama administration in December. He said the report should help remind lawmakers that the government has long had a role backstopping mortgages. "People seem to think there's a nostalgic world that we never had," he said.

Housing advocates voiced alarm over proposals designed to cede more of Fannie and Freddie's role to the private sector. "They're bringing the fox to the henhouse," said John Taylor, the CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

The proposals are likely to set off a furious effort by the financial-services industry to protect generous subsidies and seek out new revenue sources. Investors haven't been willing to buy mortgages that don't have government backing primarily because there haven't been enough steps taken to overhaul the market for private-label securities, said Joshua Rosner, of investment-research firm Graham Fisher & Co. "Investors are on strike," he said.

His clients would buy securities without government backing "hand over fist" if the industry had adopted clear and transparent standards, said Mr. Rosner. "The industry isn't doing that, because it's playing for a guarantee."

by Nick Timiraos The Wall Street Journal February 12, 2011

Obama Administration Proposes Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac Phaseout -

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