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

Who is Fannie Mae? (page 2)

Business mechanism

Fannie Mae headquarters at 3900 Wisconsin Avenue, NW in Washington, D.C.

Fannie Mae buys loans from approved mortgage sellers, either for cash or in exchange for a mortgage-backed security that comprises those loans and that, for a fee, carries Fannie Mae's guarantee of timely payment of interest and principal. The mortgage seller may hold that security or sell it. Fannie Mae may also securitize mortgages from its own loan portfolio and sell the resultant mortgage-backed security to investors in the secondary mortgage market, again with a guarantee that the stated principal and interest payments will be timely passed through to the investor. By purchasing the mortgages, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac provide banks and other financial institutions with fresh money to make new loans. This gives the United States housing and credit markets flexibility and liquidity.

In order for Fannie Mae to provide its guarantee to mortgage-backed securities it issues, it sets the guidelines for the loans that it will accept for purchase, called "conforming" loans. Mortgages that don't follow the guidelines are called "non-conforming"; typically the secondary market for non-conforming loans deals in mortgages larger (termed "jumbo") than the maximum mortgage that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will purchase. In early 2008, the decision was made to allow TBA-eligible mortgage-backed securities to include up to 10% "jumbo" mortgages.

The mortgage crisis from late 2007

Following their mission to meet federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) housing goals (HUD government goals), GSE's such as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Home Loan Banks (FHLBanks) have strived to improve home ownership of low and middle income families, underserved areas, and generally through special affordable methods such as "the ability to obtain a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage with a low down payment... and the continuous availability of mortgage credit under a wide range of economic conditions." (HUD 2002 Annual Housing Activities Report) Then in 2007, the subprime mortgage crisis began. An increasing number of borrowers, often with poor credit that were unable to pay their mortgages - particularly with adjustable rate mortgages (ARM), caused a precipitous increase in home foreclosures. As a result, home prices declined as increasing foreclosures added to the already large inventory of homes and stricter lending standards made it more and more difficult for borrowers to get mortgages. This depreciation in home prices led to growing losses for the GSEs, which back the majority of US mortgages. In July 2008, the government attempted to ease market fears by reiterating their view that "Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac play a central role in the US housing finance system". The Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve took steps to bolster confidence in the corporations, including granting both corporations access to Federal Reserve low-interest loans (at similar rates as commercial banks) and removing the prohibition on the Treasury Department to purchase the GSEs' stock. Despite these efforts, by August 2008, shares of both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had tumbled more than 90% from their one-year prior levels.

Business

One part of Fannie Mae's income is generated through the positive interest rate spread between the rate paid to fund the purchase of mortgage investments and the return it earns on those retained mortgage investments. Fannie Mae's mortgage portfolio was in excess of $700 billion as of August 2008. Fannie Mae also earns a significant portion of its income from guaranty fees it receives as compensation for assuming the credit risk on the mortgage loans underlying its single-family Fannie Mae MBS and on the single-family mortgage loans held in its retained portfolio. Investors, or purchasers of Fannie Mae MBSs, are willing to let Fannie Mae keep this fee in exchange for assuming the credit risk; that is, Fannie Mae's guarantee that the scheduled principal and interest on the underlying loan will be paid even if the borrower defaults.

Conforming loans

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have a limit on the maximum sized loan they will guarantee. This is known as the "conforming loan limit". The conforming loan limit for Fannie Mae (along with Freddie Mac) is set by Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO), the regulator of both GSEs. OFHEO annually sets the limit of the size of a conforming loan based on the October to October changes in mean home price, above which a mortgage is considered a non-conforming jumbo loan. The GSEs only buy loans that are conforming, to repackage into the secondary market, lowering the demand for non-conforming loans. By virtue of the law of supply and demand, then, it is harder for lenders to sell the loans, thus it would cost more to the consumers (typically 1/4 to 1/2 of a percent.) The conforming loan limit is 50 percent higher in Alaska and Hawaii. However, in 2008, since the demand for bonds not guaranteed by the corporations is almost non-existent, non-conforming loans are almost 1% to 1.5% higher than the conforming loans.

Guarantees and subsidies

Speculation that the U.S. government would bail out an insolvent Fannie Mae is a hypothesis that had never been tested until recently, when the subprime mortgage crisis hit the U.S.

On July 11, 2008, the New York Times reported that U.S. government officials were considering a plan for the U.S. government to take over Fannie Mae and/or Freddie Mac should their financial situations worsen due to the U.S. housing crisis. The government officials also stated that the government had also considered calling for explicit government guarantee through legislation of $5 trillion on debt owned or guaranteed by the two companies.

Shares in U.S. mortgage finance firms Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac plunged on Friday, July 11, 2008, and market speculation mounted that the government was set to take them over to resolve their funding problems.

Shares continued to plummet as investors became unsure about the adequacy of the capital held by FNMA. U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson as well as the White House went on the air to defend the financial soundness of Fannie Mae.

Fannie Mae and smaller Freddie Mac own or guarantee almost half of all home loans in the United States. They face billions of dollars in potential losses, and may need to raise additional, potentially substantial, amounts of new capital as the current downturn in the U.S. housing market continues.

Markets assume that the taxpayer will if necessary take on the burden of all their mortgages because they underpin the whole U.S. mortgage market. If they were to collapse, mortgages would be harder to obtain and much more expensive. U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has said the government's primary focus is in supporting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in their current form.

No actual guarantees

Fannie Mae receives no direct government funding or backing; Fannie Mae securities carry no government guarantee of being repaid. This is explicitly stated in the law that authorizes GSEs, on the securities themselves, and in many public communications issued by Fannie Mae.

Neither the certificates nor payments of principal and interest on the certificates are guaranteed by the United States government. The certificates do not constitute a debt or obligation of the United States or any of its agencies or instrumentalities other than Fannie Mae.

The perception of government guarantees has allowed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to save billions in borrowing costs. Estimates by the Congressional Budget Office and the Treasury Department put the figure at about $2 billion per year.

Assumed guarantees

There is a wide belief that FNMA securities are backed by some sort of implied federal guarantee, and a majority of investors believe that the government would prevent a disastrous default. Vernon L. Smith, 2002 Nobel Laureate in economics, has called FHLMC and FNMA "implicitly taxpayer-backed agencies". The Economist has referred to "[t]he implicit government guarantee" of FHLMC and FNMA. In testimony before the House and Senate Banking Committee in 2004, Alan Greenspan expressed the belief that Fannie Mae's (weak) financial position was the result of markets believing that the U.S. Government would never allow Fannie Mae (or Freddie Mac) to fail.

Federal subsidies

The FNMA receives no direct federal government aid. However, the corporation and the securities it issues are widely believed to be implicitly backed by the U.S. government. In 1996, the Congressional Budget Office wrote "there have been no federal appropriations for cash payments or guarantee subsidies. But in the place of federal funds the government provides considerable unpriced benefits to the enterprises... Government-sponsored enterprises are costly to the government and taxpayers... the benefit is currently worth $6.5 billion annually.". Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are allowed to hold less capital than normal financial institutions: e.g., it is allowed to sell mortgage-backed securities with only half as much capital backing them up as would be required of other financial institutions. Specifically, regulations exist through the FDIC Bank Holding Company Act that govern the solvency of financial institutions. The regulations require normal financial institutions to maintain a capital/asset ratio greater than or equal to 3%. The GSEs, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are exempt from this capital/asset ratio requirement and can, and often do, maintain a capital/asset ratio less than 3%. The additional leverage allows for greater returns in good times, but put the companies at greater risk in bad times, such as during the current subprime mortgage crisis. FNMA is also exempt from state and local taxes. In addition, FNMA and FHLMC are exempt from SEC filing requirements; however, both GSEs voluntarily file their SEC 10-K and 10-Q.

Accounting

FNMA is a financial corporation which uses derivatives to "hedge" its cash flow. Derivative products it uses include interest rate swaps and options to enter interest rate swaps ("pay-fixed swaps", "receive-fixed swaps", "basis swaps", "interest rate caps and swaptions", "forward starting swaps").

Duration gap is a financial and accounting term for the difference between the duration of assets and liabilities, and is typically used by banks, pension funds, or other financial institutions to measure their risk due to changes in the interest rate

"The company said that in April its average duration gap widened to plus 3 months in April from zero in March." "The Washington-based company aims to keep its duration gap between minus 6 months to plus 6 months. From September 2003 to March, the gap has run between plus to minus one month."

Conservatorship

On September 7, 2008, Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) Director James B. Lockhart III announced pursuant to the financial analysis, assessments and statutory authority of the FHFA, he had placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac under the conservatorship of the FHFA. FHFA has stated that there are no plans to liquidate the company. The announcement followed reports two days earlier that the Federal government was planning to take over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and had met with their CEOs on short notice. Under plan announced September 7, 2008, the federal government, via the Federal Housing Finance Agency, placed the two firms into conservatorship, dismissed the firms' chief executive officers and boards of directors, and caused the issuance to the Treasury new senior preferred stock and common stock warrants amounting to 79.9% of each GSE. The value of the common stock and preferred stock to pre-conservatorship holders was greatly diminished by the suspension of future dividends on previously outstanding stock, in the effort to maintain the value of company debt and of mortgage-backed securities. The authority of the U.S. Treasury to advance funds for the purpose of stabilizing Fannie Mae, or Freddie Mac is limited only by the amount of debt that the entire federal government is permitted by law to commit to. The July 30, 2008 law enabling expanded regulatory authority over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac increased the national debt ceiling US$ 800 billion, to a total of US$ 10.7 Trillion in anticipation of the potential need for the Treasury to have the flexibility to support the federal home loan banks.

Scandals

Accounting scandal

In late 2004, Fannie Mae was under investigation for its accounting practices. The Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight released a report on September 20, 2004, alleging widespread accounting errors.

Fannie Mae was expected to spend more than $1 billion in 2006 alone to complete its internal audit and bring it closer to compliance. The necessary restatement was expected to cost $10.8 billion, but was completed at a total cost of $6.3 billion in restated earnings as listed in Fannie Mae's Annual Report on Form 10-K.

Concerns with business and accounting practices at Fannie Mae predate the scandal itself. On June 15, 2000, the House Banking Subcommittee On Capital Markets, Securities And Government-Sponsored Enterprises held hearings on Fannie Mae.

On December 18, 2006, U.S. regulators filed 101 civil charges against chief executive Franklin Raines; chief financial officer J. Timothy Howard; and the former controller Leanne G. Spencer. The three are accused of manipulating Fannie Mae earnings to maximize their bonuses. The lawsuit sought to recoup more than $115 million in bonus payments, collectively accrued by the trio from 1998–2004, and about $100 million in penalties for their involvement in the accounting scandal.

Conflict of interest

In June 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported that two former CEOs of Fannie Mae, James A. Johnson and Franklin Raines had received loans below market rate from Countrywide Financial. Fannie Mae was the biggest buyer of Countrywide's mortgages.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have given contributions to lawmakers currently sitting on committees that primarily regulate their industry: The House Financial Services Committee; the Senate Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs Committee; or the Senate Finance Committee. The others have seats on the powerful. Appropriations or Ways & Means committees, are members of the congressional leadership or have run for president.

Leadership

Canadian equivalent

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) is a Crown corporation owned by the Government of Canada. The Corporation was founded after World War II to provide housing for returning soldiers. It later built and/or funded urban renewal projects in Canada's cities. Today, its main function is providing mortgage insurance of residential mortgage loans to Canadian home buyers. This insurance protects mortgage lenders against mortgage defaults on mortgages of less than 20% down. Since 1954, one in three Canadian home buyers have made use of the insurance.