As home prices continue their free fall and banks shy away from lending, Washington officials have increasingly relied on two giant mortgage financiers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — to keep the housing market afloat.
But with mortgage defaults and foreclosures rising, Bush administration officials, regulators and lawmakers are nervously asking whether these two companies, would-be saviors of the housing market, will soon need saving themselves.
The companies, which say fears that they might falter are baseless, have recently received broad new powers and billions of dollars of investing authority from the federal government. And as Wall Street all but abandons the mortgage business, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac now overwhelmingly dominate it, handling more than 80 percent of all mortgages bought by investors in the first quarter of this year. That is more than double their market share in 2006.
But some financial experts worry that the companies are dangerously close to the edge, especially if home prices go through another steep decline. Their combined cushion of $83 billion — the capital that their regulator requires them to hold — underpins a colossal $5 trillion in debt and other financial commitments.
The companies, which were created by Congress but are owned by investors, suffered more than $9 billion in mortgage-related losses last year, and analysts expect those losses to grow this year. Fannie Mae is to release its most recent financial results on Tuesday and Freddie Mac is to report earnings next week.
The companies are sitting on as much as $19 billion in additional losses that they have not yet fully acknowledged, analysts say. If either company stumbled, the mortgage business could lose its only lubricant, potentially causing the housing market to plummet and credit markets to freeze up completely.
And if Fannie or Freddie fail, taxpayers would probably have to bail them out at a staggering cost.
“We’ve taken tremendous risks by loosening these companies’ purse strings,” said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., a former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development.