President Barack Obama is proposing an option to create an insurance fund for mortgage-backed securities, similar to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation that protects Americans savings accounts. The proposal consists of three legislative options for making long-term changes to the housing finance system, while taking short-term moves to gradually reduce the government’s role in the mortgage market now dominated by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Obama administration is asking the private sector to play the leading role in the residential mortgage market and is expected to unveil several scenarios detailing how that might come about.
More than 85 percent of residential mortgages are now backed by the federal government. Republicans want to slash that to zero, though they acknowledge that a transition so extreme cannot be achieved overnight. At its core, the debate over what to do about Fannie and Freddie is an ideological one: How much should the government pay to sustain the housing market? House Republicans, who want to abolish the government backing altogether, contend that the private market can more accurately price the risk of home mortgages. By contrast, Democrats believe that government backing is necessary to assure that mortgages are accessible to middle-class Americans. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said the impact would be approximately one percent. “Regardless of what policymakers say, global investors will almost surely continue to believe the U.S. government would backstop a badly foundering mortgage finance system,” said Zandi, who has proposed a hybrid system that charges for the guarantee.
Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has warned against acting too quickly or making rash changes. “Given Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s current role in the mortgage market, we must proceed carefully with reform to ensure government support is withdrawn at a pace that does not undermine economic recovery,” he said. “We believe there is sufficient funding to ensure the orderly and deliberate wind down of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as described in our plan.
Geithner has proposed three options, all of which favor seeing the government eventually wind down Fannie and Freddie, whose survival has required more than $150 billion from the Treasury Department since the government seized them in September of 2008. The first option would privatize mortgage finance and limit the government’s role to narrowly targeted subsidies, like Federal Housing Authority (FHA), USDA and Department of Veterans’ Affairs financing. The second option adds a layer of government support that could be implemented to ensure access to credit during a housing crisis. The third option, the one that bears the closest resemblance to the current system, would allow the government to guarantee mortgages but under stringent capital and oversight requirements, termed “catastrophic reinsurance behind significant private capital.”
The probable winners from replacing Fannie and Freddie are mortgage lenders and insurers, analysts at Goldman Sachs said. “While higher rates could decrease origination volumes, growth should still outpace balance-sheet availability,” the Goldman analysts said. In addition to lenders, mortgage insurers are also potential beneficiaries. “The stated goal of returning the (Federal Housing Authority) to its traditional role as a targeted lender of affordable mortgages supports the view for better-than-expected private market top-line growth.”
Despite the uncertainty about what entity will ultimately replace Fannie and Freddie, the Obama administration remains upbeat about the cost of winding down the embattled agencies. The administration expects its losses from Fannie and Freddie to ultimately be cut nearly in half. However, the Treasury Department estimates that after receiving dividends from the GSEs (government-sponsored enterprises) for that assistance, the total losses could shrink to $73 billion by 2021 — 45 percent less than current levels.
An outspoken critic of the Obama plan is Mike Colpitts, who writes for The Housing Predictor. According to Colpitts, “Like a solider standing alone in the battlefield, the Obama administration’s housing finance reform proposal offers the U.S. a way of ridding itself of the most troubled mortgage giants, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae in the real estate collapse. But it stops short of offering any concrete long term solutions with a housing plan for the nation like a lone soldier Missing In Action. Realtors, mortgage professionals, new homebuilders and the lending industry compose many of the most fractured industries in the current U.S. economy as a result of the real estate collapse. They deserve a plan on which they can rest their futures with the rest of America to benefit the entire nation, and for once provide concrete change towards a real economic recovery.”