Among the nightmares lurking around the corner for the already battered housing and credit markets would be a meltdown at mortgage financing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Although few are predicting an imminent need for a bailout just yet, credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s recently placed an estimated price tag on this worst case scenario — $420 billion to $1.1 trillion of taxpayer’s money.
This dwarfs how much it cost to help banks during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. That cost taxpayers about $250 billion in today’s dollars.
S&P added that saving Fannie (FNM) and Freddie (FRE, Fortune 500) might cost so much that the federal government’s AAA credit rating, the top possible rating, might even be at risk. If that was lost, then all federal government borrowing would become more expensive.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac both help the mortgage market function by purchasing pools of loans and packaging them into securities.
So it is crucial for the mortgage industry for the two agencies to continue functioning smoothly.
The two companies are known as government-sponsored entities because they have Congressional charters, which implies that the federal government is behind them.
Fannie did not comment about the S&P report. According to a statement from Freddie, the firm said the S&P report was just “a scenario analysis, not a prediction” and added that “Freddie Mac remains a well capitalized company.”
Victoria Wagner, a S&P credit analyst who worked on the report, said S&P isn’t predicting that Fannie and Freddie would necessarily need a bailout at this time.
But she and other analysts are concerned about the impact more problems could have on the mortgage market since the two companies have become increasingly important to the health of the industry. Both companies are forecast to report more losses this year due to declining home prices and rising mortgage defaults.
Wagner pointed out that at the end of January, 82% of all mortgages in the U.S. were backed by one of the firms, up from only 46% in the second quarter of 2007.
Fannie and Freddie primarily back so-called conforming loans, those made to borrowers with good credit and large down payments. But even limited exposure to subprime loans hasn’t stopped them from running up huge losses as home prices tumbled and foreclosures soared.
And Fannie and Freddie’s role in the mortgage and real estate markets is likely to grow, as Congress recently allowed them to back larger mortgages, up to $729,750, up from the previous limit of $417,000.
The Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO), which regulates both firms, also recently lowered the capital requirements for Fannie and Freddie in an effort to pump $200 billion more into the credit markets.