Plan to wind down mortgage companies could hurt housing recovery - The Buffalo News
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Plan to wind down mortgage companies could hurt housing recovery

A U.S. Senate plan to dismantle Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may deliver an unintended blow to a fragile housing recovery.

A draft of the measure, which Senate Banking Committee leaders released Sunday, would replace the two financiers with a government-backed mortgage-bond insurer. Private interests would be required to bear losses on the first 10 percent of capital, leading to higher mortgage rates, according to Credit Suisse AG analysts. The plan also would eliminate a mandate that a percentage of mortgages go to lower- and middle-income families, threatening to decrease America’s homeownership rate.

Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat from South Dakota, and Sen. Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, are trying to pass the measure this year. Outside the Senate chambers, the housing market is showing signs of cooling as tighter lending and higher prices shut out increasing numbers of first-time buyers.

“It certainly slows the rate of recovery,” said Kevin Chavers, a managing director at BlackRock Inc. and a member of its government relations and public policy group in New York. “It raises the question of what the implications are for the recovery as you raise costs and reduce the universe of people eligible to participate.”

Fannie Mae was established in 1938, near the end of the Great Depression, to boost homeownership by making mortgages more available for low- and moderate-income borrowers. Along with the smaller Freddie Mac, created in 1970, the company bundles loans into mortgage-backed securities that are sold to investors with the support of the government.

Federal officials steadily increased the firms’ mortgage origination goals during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. By 2008, the government’s mandate to reach low- and moderate-income families peaked, an aim made possible by lenders peddling riskier loans.

During the housing crash, the surge in defaults almost sunk the companies and regulators seized them in 2008. The two firms received $187.5 billion in taxpayer funds over the next three years. And the Federal Housing Finance Agency lowered the firms’ mortgage origination goals. It took about three years for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to earn profits again.

President Obama and Democratic and Republican lawmakers want to wind down the two companies, shrink the government’s influence in the market and bring in more private capital to create a less risky housing finance system.

The Senate plan’s requirement that the industry absorb the first 10 percent of mortgage losses would be a challenge for the market, Credit Suisse analysts led by Mahesh Swaminathan said in a report last week. Additional insurance fees for the holders of the mortgage-backed securities could lead to “sharply higher” mortgage rates, Swaminathan said.

The draft legislation calls for the dismantling of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over five years, which could be extended to prevent market disruptions, such as spikes in borrowing costs, according to a statement yesterday.

Jeffrey Gundlach, chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based DoubleLine Capital LP, said the 10 percent rule would result in lenders further limiting risk.

“When you’re asking or hoping for private money to take the loss risk, they’re going to understandably want tighter underwriting or else the rate would have to be really high,” said Gundlach, whose $32 billion DoubleLine Total Return Bond Fund invests in mortgage-backed securities. “At this point, tighter underwriting is more attractive than much higher mortgage rates.”

The share of Americans who own their homes was 65.2 percent in the fourth quarter, down from a peak of 69.2 percent in 2004, according to the Census Bureau. Minority groups were heavily impacted by the housing crash: the homeownership rate for blacks fell to 43.2 percent in the quarter from 44.5 percent a year earlier and are down from 50 percent before the housing meltdown.

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