Mortgage: Everything you need to know....and more!

Who is Fannie Mae?

The Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA) (NYSE: FNM), commonly known as Fannie Mae, is a stockholder-owned corporation chartered by Congress in 1968 as a government-sponsored enterprise (GSE), but founded in 1938 during the Great Depression. The corporation's purpose is to purchase and securitize mortgages in order to ensure that funds are consistently available to the institutions that lend money to home buyers.

On September 7, 2008, James Lockhart, director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), announced that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were being placed into conservatorship of the FHFA. The action is "one of the most sweeping government interventions in private financial markets in decades". As of 2008, Fannie Mae and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) owned or guaranteed about half of the U.S.'s $12 trillion mortgage market.

History

Fannie Mae was established in 1938 as a mechanism to make mortgages more available to low-income families. It was added to the Federal Home Mortgage association, a government agency in the wake of the Great Depression in 1938, as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal in order to facilitate liquidity within the mortgage market. In 1968, the government converted Fannie Mae into a private shareholder-owned corporation in order to remove its activity from the annual balance sheet of the federal budget. Consequently, Fannie Mae ceased to be the guarantor of government-issued mortgages, and that responsibility was transferred to the new Government National Mortgage Association (Ginnie Mae). In 1970, the government created the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (FHLMC), commonly known as Freddie Mac, to compete with Fannie Mae and, thus, facilitate a more robust and efficient secondary mortgage market. Since the creation of the GSEs, there has been debate surrounding their role in the mortgage market, their relationship with the government, and whether or not they are indeed necessary. This debate gained relevance due to the collapse of the U.S. housing market and subprime mortgage crisis that began in 2007. Despite this debate, Fannie Mae, as well as Ginnie Mae and later Freddie Mac, have played an integral role in increasing home ownership rates in the U.S. to among the highest in the world.

Contributing factors and early warnings

In 1977, the Carter Administration and the United States Congress passed and signed the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, or CRA , designed to boost lending in inner cities with areas of extreme blight by forcing area banks to open new branches in these areas and to have a certain percentage of their lending portfolio of small business loans and home mortgages located in these areas. Failure to maintain this ratio would result in the banks being prevented from opening branches in other areas that were not distressed.

In 1999, Fannie Mae came under pressure from the Clinton administration to expand mortgage loans to low and moderate income borrowers by increasing the ratios of their loan portfolios in distressed inner city areas designated in the CRA of 1977. Because of the increased ratio requirements, institutions in the primary mortgage market pressed Fannie Mae to ease credit requirements on the mortgages it was willing to purchase, enabling them to make loans to subprime borrowers at interest rates higher than conventional loans. Shareholders also pressured Fannie Mae to maintain its record profits.

In 2000, because of a re-assessment of the housing market by HUD, anti-predatory lending rules were put into place that disallowed risky, high-cost loans from being credited toward affordable housing goals. In 2004, these rules were dropped and high-risk loans were again counted toward affordable housing goals.

The intent was that Fannie Mae's enforcement of the underwriting standards they maintained for standard conforming mortgages would also provide safe and stable means of lending to buyers who did not have prime credit. As Daniel Mudd, then President and CEO of Fannie Mae, testified in 2007, instead the agency's responsible underwriting requirements drove business into the arms of the private mortgage industry who marketed aggressive products without regard to future consequences: "We also set conservative underwriting standards for loans we finance to ensure the homebuyers can afford their loans over the long term. We sought to bring the standards we apply to the prime space to the subprime market with our industry partners primarily to expand our services to underserved families.

"Unfortunately, Fannie Mae-quality, safe loans in the subprime market did not become the standard, and the lending market moved away from us. Borrowers were offered a range of loans that layered teaser rates, interest-only, negative amortization and payment options and low-documentation requirements on top of floating-rate loans. In early 2005 we began sounding our concerns about this "layered-risk" lending. For example, Tom Lund, the head of our single-family mortgage business, publicly stated, "One of the things we don't feel good about right now as we look into this marketplace is more homebuyers being put into programs that have more risk. Those products are for more sophisticated buyers. Does it make sense for borrowers to take on risk they may not be aware of? Are we setting them up for failure? As a result, we gave up significant market share to our competitors. "

In 1999, The New York Times reported that with the corporation's move towards the subprime market "Fannie Mae is taking on significantly more risk, which may not pose any difficulties during flush economic times. But the government-subsidized corporation may run into trouble in an economic downturn, prompting a government rescue similar to that of the savings and loan industry in the 1980s." Alex Berenson of The New York Times reported in 2003 that Fannie Mae's risk is much larger than is commonly held. Nassim Taleb wrote in The Black Swan: "The government-sponsored institution Fannie Mae, when I look at its risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup. But not to worry: their large staff of scientists deem these events 'unlikely'".

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the Single-Family Affordable Housing Tax Credit Act. Dubbed "Renewing the Dream," the program would give nearly $2.4 billion in tax credits over the next five years to investors and builders who develop affordable single-family housing in distressed areas.

On September 11, 2003, the Bush Administration recommended the most significant regulatory overhaul in the housing finance industry since the savings and loan crisis. Under the plan, a new agency would be created within the Treasury Department to assume supervision of Fannie Mae. The new agency would have the authority, which now rests with Congress, to set capital-reserve requirements for the company and to determine whether the company is adequately managing the risks of its portfolios. The New York Times reported that the plan is an acknowledgment by the administration that oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is broken. The Times also reported Democratic opposition to Bush's plan: "These two entities -- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- are not facing any kind of financial crisis," said Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee. "The more people exaggerate these problems, the more pressure there is on these companies, the less we will see in terms of affordable housing."

On December 16, 2003, President George W. Bush signed the American Dream Downpayment Act, a new program that provided grants to help home buyers with downpayment and closing costs. The act authorized $200 million dollars per year for the program for fiscal years 2004-2007.

President Bush also tripled the funding for organizations like Habitat for Humanity that help families help themselves become homeowners through 'sweat equity' and volunteerism in their communities. Substantially increasing, by at least $440 billion, the financial commitment made by the government-sponsored enterprises involved in the secondary mortgage market specifically targeted toward the minority market.

On January 26, 2005, the Federal Housing Enterprise Regulatory Reform Act of 2005 (S.190) was first introduced in the Senate by Sen. Chuck Hagel. The Senate legislation was an effort to reform the existing GSE regulatory structure in light of the recent accounting problems and questionable management actions leading to considerable income restatements by the GSE's. After being reported favorably by the Senate's Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs in July 2005, the bill was never considered by the full Senate for a vote. Sen. John McCain's decision to become a cosponsor of S.190 almost a year later in 2006 was the last action taken regarding Sen. Hagel's bill in spite of developments since clearing the Senate Committee. Sen. McCain pointed out that Fannie Mae's regulator reported that profits were "illusions deliberately and systematically created by the company's senior management" in his floor statement giving support to S.190.

At the same time, the House also introduced similar legislation, the Federal Housing Finance Reform Act of 2005 (H.R. 1461), in the Spring of 2005. The House Financial Services Committee had crafted changes and produced a Committee Report by July 2005 to the legislation. It was passed by the House in October in spite of President Bush's statement of policy opposed to the House version. The legislation met with opposition from both Democrats and Republicans and that point and the Senate never took up the House passed version for consideration after that.