With sweeping financial reform legislation enacted, the White House and Congress now must focus on fixing the mess created by the failed housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It's a complex challenge with high stakes for taxpayers and the struggling real estate market.
On Tuesday, key administration officials conferred with about 200 industry executives, affordable housing advocates and other experts about the role the government should play in the nation's housing finance system. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner asserted that federal involvement still was needed, but he promised "fundamental change."
"It is not tenable to leave in place the system we have today," he said, adding that Fannie and Freddie will change dramatically when they emerge from government control.
Pressure is growing to remake or replace the mortgage leviathans, which were seized by the government in September 2008 after huge losses from subprime mortgages put them on the brink of bankruptcy. The bailout has cost U.S taxpayers nearly $150 billion. But lawmakers must tread carefully to keep from further damaging a housing market that Fannie and Freddie almost solely are supporting. The two companies, along with the Federal Housing Administration, collectively guarantee more than 90% of all new U.S. home loans.
"Nobody wants to mess up the mortgage market," said Douglas Elliott, an economics fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank. "And any transition with Fannie and Freddie is going to be fraught with some risk."
Tuesday's event came as the second anniversary of the government seizure of the firms approached, a bailout that left taxpayers as 80% owners. The administration faces a January deadline, added by lawmakers to the financial reform legislation, to make recommendations to end the expensive federal conservatorship of the firms.
Congress plans to ratchet up its involvement as well, with House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) saying his committee will begin hearings when members return next month.
That's not fast enough for many Republicans, signaling another bitter partisan reform fight. They have been pushing the administration for more than a year to address the mounting losses at Fannie and Freddie by getting the government out of the housing finance business.
"It is past time to rid the American taxpayer of the liabilities of these financial institutions once and for all," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said Tuesday as he blasted the Obama administration for continuing the bailouts of Fannie and Freddie begun under President Bush.
But the Obama administration has been moving slowly for fear of further harming the housing market. There was fresh evidence of problems Tuesday as Southern California home sales plunged 21.4% in July compared with a year earlier, according to research firm MDA DataQuick of San Diego.
"It's much more important to get this issue right than to do it fast," said Michael Berman, chairman-elect of the Mortgage Bankers Assn.
Shaun Donovan, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said the stakes were high not just for the financial system but also for average Americans because of the major investment in their homes.
Donovan said the federal government's involvement in the housing market needed to be reduced. And Geithner said there was a strong case for a "carefully designed" government mortgage guarantee in the future, a point echoed by panelists at the conference.
There also appeared to be consensus among the participants that any government guarantee needed to be explicit, not murky and implicit like the guarantee that stood behind Fannie and Freddie as private, government-sponsored enterprises before they were seized.
William Gross, managing director of bond fund giant Pimco, said government guarantees were crucial to the housing market, helping keep mortgage rates low.
But there still is major debate about how to structure such a guarantee and what size mortgages it should cover.
"The challenge is to make sure that any government guarantee is priced to cover the risk of losses, and structured to minimize taxpayer exposure," Geithner said.
Fannie and Freddie were created by Congress and later turned into private, government-sponsored enterprises mandated to expand homeownership with requirements to purchase a set amount of loans made to low- and moderate-income borrowers. Fannie and Freddie combined hold the credit risk on about $5 trillion of mortgages, and losses from loans made during the housing boom have continued to mount. The Treasury Department has pledged it will cover an unlimited amount of losses through 2012. As of June 30, the department had pumped $144.9 billion into the two companies.
Federal officials have stressed that the losses came from loans purchased before the government seizure and said standards at Fannie and Freddie have tightened significantly since then. And as the housing market has stabilized, the losses at Fannie and Freddie have lessened. Fannie lost $1.2 billion in the second quarter, down from $11.5 billion in the first quarter. Freddie lost $4.7 billion in the second quarter, down from $6.7 billion in the first quarter.
Still, the losses meant the two firms would need an additional $3.3 billion from the Treasury Department, bringing their bailout cost to $148.2 billion.