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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Fannie & Freddie problems

Excerpts from a terrific Article in the WSJ regarding Fannie, and Freddie

MCLEAN, Va.—When Charles E. Haldeman Jr. became Freddie Mac's chief executive officer in August, the ailing housing-finance giant had already consumed $51 billion of government money to stay afloat. It's likely to need even more.

Freddie's federal overseers nevertheless have instructed Mr. Haldeman to focus on something that isn't likely to make the bleak balance sheet look any better: carrying out the Obama administration plan to allow defaulted borrowers to hang onto their homes.

Former Fannie CEO Daniel Mudd testifying in 2008, says the U.S. is running Fannie and Freddie 'not as a business.'On a recent afternoon, employees at Freddie's headquarters here peppered Mr. Haldeman with concerns about the company's future. He responded that they were "fortunate" to have such a clear mission—the government's foreclosure-prevention drive. "We're doing what's best for the country," he told them.

Freddie and its larger rival, Fannie Mae, were among the first big financial institutions to receive massive federal bailouts after the financial crisis hit in 2008. Government officials have been racing to fix bailed-out car makers and banks and are pushing to reshape the financial-services industry. But Fannie and Freddie remain troubled wards of the state, with no blueprints for the future and no clear exit strategy for the government.

Nearly a year and a half after the outbreak of the global economic crisis, many of the problems that contributed to it haven't yet been tamed. The U.S. has no system in place to tackle a failure of its largest financial institutions. Derivatives contracts of the kind that crippled American International Group Inc. still trade in the shadows. And investors remain heavily reliant on the same credit-ratings firms that gave AAA ratings to lousy mortgage securities.

Fannie and Freddie, for their part, remain at the core of a housing-finance system that inflated a dangerous housing bubble. After prices collapsed, sending shock waves around the world, the federal government put America's housing-finance system on life support. It has yet to decide how that troubled system should be rebuilt.

On Dec. 24, Treasury said there would be no limit to the taxpayer money it was willing to deploy over the next three years to keep the two companies afloat, doing away with the previous limit of $200 billion per company. So far, the government has handed the two companies a total of about $111 billion.

This is a scary thought. Considering Fannie and Freddie back a huge portion of the mortgages in the U.S., loses to the taxpayer will be staggering.

The government is willing to tolerate such open-ended exposure for two reasons. First, it sees the companies as essential cogs in the fragile housing market. Fannie and Freddie buy mortgages originated by others, holding some as investments and repackaging others for sale to investors as securities. Together with the Federal Housing Administration, they fund nine in 10 American mortgages. Worries about potential insolvency would cripple their ability to fund home loans, which would hamstring the market.

Second, the companies are a convenient tool for the administration to use in its campaign to clean up the housing mess.

"We're making decisions on [loan modifications] and other issues, without being guided solely by profitability, that no purely private bank ever could," Mr. Haldeman said in late January in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club.

Besides playing a key role in the loan-modification program, Fannie and Freddie have jump-started lending by state and local housing-finance agencies by helping to guarantee $24 billion in debt. They also are lending support to the apartment sector by becoming the main funders of loans to builders and buyers of apartment buildings.

Freddie CEO Charles Haldeman says: 'We're doing what's best for the country.'
By using Fannie and Freddie for such initiatives, the White House doesn't have to go to Congress for funding. The Treasury and White House can simply issue instructions to Fannie and Freddie via their federal regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, or FHFA.

The government is "running Fannie and Freddie as an instrument of national economic policy, not as a business," says Daniel Mudd, who was forced out as Fannie Mae's chief executive in September 2008 when the government took control.

Assistant Treasury Secretary Michael Barr says that because Fannie and Freddie are "owned by the taxpayers in the middle of the biggest housing crisis in 80 years," it would be unrealistic to expect the companies wouldn't be used to help stabilize the market. He says the administration's actions have been "prudent" and "consistent with taxpayer protection."

I pose the question: Are we stabilizing the market or prolonging the agony?


Some housing experts contend that prolonged government intervention will make it more difficult and costly to eventually wean the companies off government support. "The more aggressively we continue kicking the can down the road, the larger the losses become and the harder it becomes" to address the companies' future, says Joshua Rosner, managing director at investment-research firm Graham Fisher & Co.

As mortgage delinquencies rise, Fannie and Freddie are required to set aside more capital to cover anticipated losses. Each quarter, if their revenues are insufficient to meet those financial needs, the Treasury has to kick in more money.

With delinquencies still rising, the outlook is grim. At Freddie, 3.87% of single-family mortgages were at least 90 days past due at the end of December, up from 1.72% a year earlier. Fannie is worse: 5.29% were 90 days past due in November, up from 2.13% a year earlier.

With the fate of the two companies now largely in the hands of the government, employees have shifted their attention to the administration's loan-modification effort, called Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP. It provides financial incentives for banks and other owners of mortgages to reduce monthly loan payments for at-risk borrowers. Fannie and Freddie's job is to oversee how loan servicers—the firms that collect monthly payments on mortgages—are working with homeowners on the front lines.

The program is off to a slow start. The administration said it would offer three million to four million borrowers the chance to modify loans. Through December, loan servicers have signed up 903,000 borrowers for trial modifications. Just 66,000 have received a permanent fix so far.

Both Fannie and Freddie have struggled at times to adjust to the new marching orders. Fannie has warned in financial filings that the modification program had shifted "significant levels of internal resources and management attention" from other parts of the business, which could lead to a "material adverse effect" on the business.

He says he and others warned administration officials that the loan-modification goals were unrealistic, that borrowers whose homes weren't worth what they owed were unlikely to take part, and that many participants would be likely to re-default within months. "They really didn't want our views," Mr. Moffett says.


Freddie's current chief executive, Mr. Haldeman, 61 years old, says it was immediately "very clear" to him that the loan-modification program was a top priority of the Obama administration. But the program isn't his only headache. As foreclosures mount, Freddie finds itself with title to more and more homes. The company wants to price them to sell, but doesn't want to put downward pressure on overall housing prices.

"Imagine having to keep the lawns mowed, the lights on, and the property secured for one house, let alone more than 40,000 homes all over the country," says Mr. Haldeman. "It's not an easy process."

The Mortgage Bankers Association estimates that mortgage delinquencies won't peak any sooner than the middle of this year. At the current pace, around 6% of Fannie's loans and 4.9% of Freddie's are expected to go into default over the next 18 to 24 months, producing losses that would raise the price tag on Treasury's bailout to $175 billion, according to October estimates by investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. The bank has since said that even that dire forecast is too optimistic.

Former FHFA head James Lockhart, the companies' top regulator until last August, says the U.S. is unlikely to ever fully recoup its investment in the two companies.

As I've mentioned before, I don't think this is a political issue as both sides of the congressional aisle are culpable and there is simply no quick fix to this crisis. The government simply needs to decide if we are going to be socialists or capitalists. Pick one and go with it. Playing this game where we pretend to be capitalists, while acting like socialists will only prolong our problems.

For more information on the Foreclosure Crisis, consider contacting a Kirkland Foreclosure Attorney.

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