The government-sponsored enterprises that finance a fourth of the nation's single-family homes are vulnerable to an economic downturn, according to a Bush administration study.
Three trends during the 1980s have so far insulated Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from a slowdown in the economy, said the 480-page study.These are rapid inflation of housing prices, an ample supply of first-time home buyers from the baby boom generation and fast growth in the packaging of mortgages into securities.
However, all three trends are ending, the study said, noting that for Fannie Mae the "biggest credit risk is a regional or national economic slowdown."
Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association) and Freddie Mac (the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp.) are congressionally chartered but shareholder-owned enterprises. Together, they finance one of every four single-family home sales by purchasing mortgages, holding some and repackaging most into securities for resale to investors.
In last year's savings and loan law, Congress ordered the Treasury Department to evaluate the risks posed to taxpayers from a default by Fan-nie Mae, Freddie Mac and seven other similar government-sponsored enterprises that back loans to home-buyers, students and farmers.
The Treasury Department for-warded its recommendations for improving federal oversight of the enterprises to Congress two weeks ago, but Thursday's report provided the first look at the Bush administration's evaluation of individual organizations.
"None of the (government-sponsored enterprises) are in imminent danger, but obviously some are stronger and some are weaker," Treasury Undersecretary Robert Glauber said.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac account for about three-quarters of the $863 billion in government-backed debt outstanding at the end of last year.
In general, Freddie Mac received the more favorable evaluation. The report said Fannie Mae needed a bigger cushion of capital from its shareholders to insulate taxpayers from risk. It said it had concerns in the long run with Freddie Mac because its capital standard does not discourage risk-taking.
It said Fannie Mae was more vulnerable to swings in interest rates and that a change of 4 or 5 percentage points could wipe out Fannie Mae's net worth if it were forced to mark its holdings to market value.
Both enterprises maintain they are well-positioned to withstand an economic downturn, but the Treasury Department criticized the "stress tests" the two devised. It said the tests, intended to show how the enterprises would fare during a recession, depend too heavily on statistical assumptions that may not prove true.
The Treasury Department also noted that Fannie Mae has concentrated slightly more than half of its activity in just five states - California, New York, Florida, New Jersey and Texas.
David Jeffers, Fannie Mae vice president, said his organization has already launched a program to bolster its capital, but he rejected the notion that it needed to change its operations radically. He said Fannie Mae was well-diversified geographically.
"We have demonstrated our ability to manage (our) business in a prudent and profitable way. We don't see any need to change the course we're on," he said.
Freddie Mac President Leland Brendsel said in a statement: "Our capital base will remain strong in the long run."
The other enterprises included in the study are the Federal Home Loan Bank System, Farm Credit Banks, Banks for Cooperatives, Farm Credit System Financial Assistance Corp., Federal Agricultural Mortgage Association (Farmer Mac), Student Loan Marketing Association (Sallie Mae) and College Construction Loan Insurance Association (Connie Lee).
In its previous suggestions for reform, the Treasury Department called for raising more private capital to back the enterprises, requiring the enterprises to obtain a triple-A rating from private credit-rating agencies and designating a separate federal office to monitor the safety and soundness of the enterprises.