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Fannie Mae And Freddie Mac Takeover: What Does It Mean?

Sep 10, 2008
So on Friday it was leaked that the government is taking over Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. On Sunday it was official. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae have now been taken over by the federal government. But what does it mean for the real estate market, mortgage interest rates, and the US economy.

First let's look at what it means for mortgage rates. I would expect that the government takeover will result in lower mortgage rates, possibly a full point lower. Why? Basically the Fed has been struggling to lower mortgage rates for the last year in an attempt to assist the troubled real estate market. The Fed has lowered prime rates several times in an attempt to pull down mortgage interest rates, with mixed success. Now with full control of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae (which provides insurance for most mortgages in the US) they will have much more control over the mortgage market and mortgage rates. As long as their objective stays the same, we can expect lower rates.

What does the takeover say about the current situation in the real estate market? This should have been obvious from all the events that preceded this but the takeover shows that the real estate market is in serious serious trouble. The federal government doesn't just take over large companies on a whim, especially an administration with a Republican president that believes strongly in free markets. This is not simply a government takeover. This is the largest takeover in US history. Basically the takeover happened because it was believed if nothing was done we were headed for economic catastrophe.

How is this going to effect the real estate market? Although the takeover is a bad sign about our current situation it should have a positive effect on the real estate markets moving forward. First lowering mortgage interest rates should be quite a boon for the real estate market. Lowering rates lowers the effective cost of a house. And historically lowering rates has a positive effect on real estate values.

Additionally, if the Fed is smart they will reduce some of the mortgage restrictions Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae have created in the last year. While I would not like to see the mortgage market return to the free-wheeling lending of a few years ago, some of the current rules are bizarrely restrictive. The lending environment typically works like a pendulum moving from one extreme to another. Currently lending restrictions are not just stricter than what we saw during the real estate boom a few years ago but they are more restrictive than anything we have seen in the last 15 - 20 years. Hopefully a federally controlled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac can help return us to normal as far as lending restrictions.

Lastly the government takeover could put taxpayers in the lurch for billions in loan losses. In the short term the government is going to have to infuse money into Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. They have been losing money for quite some time and that is not going to change overnight. If the market improves over the next year or two, which was likely before, and the takeover improves the outlook for the real estate market, the government will have to infuse maybe a total of 20 to 30 billion into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to get them back to financial solvency. That sounds like a lot but to put the number in context, the cost of the Iraq War has been running at about 100 billion a year for the last 7 years. So a 20 billion dollar expense is an unpleasant but manageable expense. But if real estate market gets a lot worse over the next two years, I can't think of the adjective to describe how expensive things could get.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac provide insurance for 5 trillion in loans or about half of the residential loans in the United States. Because of the takeover, the federal government now provides insurance for 5 trillion in loans. If we are just on the cusp of severe real estate problem that means that the federal government is on the hook for 5 trillion in loans. That's more than double the entire federal budget for 2007 and 10 times what the US has spent on the Iraq War. So as taxpayers we should hope things improve soon because if the rate of foreclosures skyrockets over the next 2 or 3 years, we are basically going to be paying for it.

Does this mean the federal government is insane? It depends on how you look at the issue. This was certainly a risky move. But on the other hand allowing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to fail would have devastated the US economy and likely lead to a severe depression. So doing nothing was equally risky. And while taking over Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae was a risky move for taxpayers, in a depression those that keep their jobs have to make up for all the lost tax revenues for the large number of people that lose their jobs. So in summary the federal government found itself in a tight spot and decided to bet the farm they can fix the real estate market and for our sakes, let's hope they are right.
About the Author
Ki lives and works in central Texas. He provides a search of the Austin MLS on his site along with current information on the Austin real estate market. His site also provides a tool that show current trends for mortgage interest rates.
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