Uncle Sam Bails Out Freddie & Fannie

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac sound like an aging aunt and uncle, but these are both “government-sponsored enterprises”. This means that they are privately owned, but receive support from the Federal Governement, and assume some public responsibilities. The recent mortgage crisis and fallout from sub-prime lending has gotten both Freddie & Fannie in dangerous waters and verging on bankrupcy called for the assistance or bail-out to speak candidly from the Federal government. Both of course are two gigantic government-sponsored enterprises that rank among our 10 largest financial institutions in the United States. Combined Freddie and Fannie provide over three quarters of all home mortgages and cumulatively hold about $5.5 trillion in mortgages and mortgage guarantees. So you can only imagine what type of impact their bankrupcies would have on the US Economy.

Subsequently, they btoh became public companies, and their board and management ran them as such. But because they were created by Congress, bond investors came to believe that Congress would always honor the debt they’d issued. This implicit government guarantee means they’ve been able to borrow money for less even than AAA rates—despite the fact that their balance sheets would justify a much lower credit rating and thus higher interest charges. The relatively lower cost of their debt is passed through to borrowers in the form of lower interest rates. But about one third of that credit advantage, or about $10 billion a year, is retained for the benefit of the companies’ stockholders.

Fannie and Freddie have an equity cushion of slightly over $80 billion. It sounds like a lot, but not when compared with the roughly $5.5 trillion of mortgages they either own or guarantee. Even a small decline—say, 2 percent—of the value of those assets would be $110 billion and would wipe out the equity.

Is Fannie and Freddie to be blamed for our current mortgage crisis? No, not really as it is the subprime lenders that have triggered the crisis; the F&F guidelines require substantial higher down payments and carefully documented borrower income statements. It’s their balance sheet that’s the problem. The belief that the government would implicitly back their bonds enabled them to get by with too little equity capital to deal with a downturn. Now, a further loss of confidence in either Fannie or Freddie—that is, a belief that the government wouldn’t back them—would collapse their creditworthiness. Neither would be able to come up with anything like their current share of U.S. mortgages. Anybody with a room-temperature financial IQ knows these companies would be unable to raise the capital they need, either to cover their losses or to rebuild. Indeed, under all scenarios, there is a risk that they will be unable to roll over even the $463 billion of short-term debt they have on their books.

While most analyst still don’t see a true mortgage rebound occuring until early 2009, this Federal relief package should help stabilize the Texas home market and prevent further sliding of house prices across the state.  The long of the short of the Federal bailout is that it is a temporary fix that will only expand the life of this recession. To describe one economist opinion “It’s like giving a heroin addict a fix instead of rehabilitating him. It solves the short term problems, but does nothing to address the long term.”

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