Reshaping Fannie and Freddie
Congress took its first step last month on a mission that could totally reshape the American mortgage market.
A House financial services subcommittee held the first hearing on what to do with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- the failed, trillion-dollar mortgage giants that are now operating under direct federal control.
The ultimate answers are likely to determine the types of loans and interest rates that home buyers will have in the future. That's because Fannie and Freddie have dominated the real estate market for decades, writing the rulebook on everything from loan sizes, credit requirements, downpayments and underwriting standards.
Among the idea floated at last week's Capitol Hill hearing were a "utility" concept, where Fannie and Freddie might be merged into a single, privately-owned, federally-regulated superstore for mortgage money.
The model would be along the lines of the water, power and sewage utilities we see all over the country, but there'd just be one mega-utility to fund mortgages. The utility concept was first proposed last year by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. The Obama Administration has not spoken out publicly on it yet.
Another idea floated at the hearing was to broaden the mortgage menus of whatever agency or agencies replace Fannie and Freddie to include types of mortgages they currently can't touch -- especially jumbo home loans and commercial real estate mortgages.
Frances Martinez Myers, representing the National Association of Realtors, said jumbos and commercial real estate loans are suffering in the credit crunch and need more support. Commercial and investment property owners in particular, said Myers, find themselves unable to refinance because there is neither a private nor public secondary market for their loans at the moment.
The Mortgage Bankers Association came to the hearing with a white paper listing various alternative futures for Fannie and Freddie, including turning them into a government-owned version of the FHA and Ginnie Mae, but targeted on conventional mortgages.
Without endorsing any particular alternative, the MBA also suggested consideration be given to a private "cooperative" model, in which banks and other mortgage industry players would pool their assets and provide secondary market services in addition to mortgage originations.
Under this scenario, the federal government would provide back-up insurance against "catastrophic losses" that exceed the private cooperative's capital and pledged assets.
Where's the debate over Fannie and Freddie headed? Look for Congress to hold more exploratory hearings this year. Then, maybe as early as next year if the recession is over and the market is healthier , the Obama administration might begin drafting its preferred solution - which almost certainly will not involve total privatization.
Written by Kenneth R. Harney
Wondering What Your Home Is Worth? -- Let me show you.