Sunday, July 13, 2008

Paulson Seeks Authority to Shore Up Fannie, Freddie

(Bloomberg) -- Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson put the weight of the federal government behind Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the beleaguered companies that buy or finance almost half of the $12 trillion of U.S. mortgages.

Paulson, speaking on the steps of the Treasury facing the White House, asked Congress for authority to buy unlimited stakes in and lend to the companies, aiming to stem a collapse in confidence. The Federal Reserve separately authorized the firms to borrow directly from the central bank.

The announcements followed weekend talks between the firms, government officials, lawmakers and regulators, after Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac lost about half their value last week. Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke are trying to prevent a collapse that would exacerbate the worst housing recession in 25 years and deepen the economic slowdown.

Paulson's proposal, which the Treasury anticipates will be incorporated into an existing congressional bill and approved this week, signals a shift toward an explicit guarantee of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt. The shareholder-owned companies are government-sponsored enterprises, giving investors the indication of an implicit federal backing.

Making `Explicit'

``It is time to recognize that the GSEs were always dependent upon government support and now we must make the implicit explicit,'' said Christopher Whalen, co-founder of independent research firm Institutional Risk Analytics in Torrance, California.

Paulson proposed that Congress give the Treasury temporary authority to buy equity in the firms ``if needed,'' and to increase their lines of credit with the department from $2.25 billion each. The temporary authority may be for 18 months, a Treasury official told reporters on a conference call on condition of anonymity.

As lenders retreated from the housing market, Washington- based Fannie Mae and McLean, Virginia-based Freddie Mac grew to account for more than 80 percent of the home loans packaged into securities.

Freddie Mac is scheduled to sell $3 billion in short-term notes tomorrow, and Paulson's comments indicate a concern about a collapse in private investors' willingness to fund the firms. The companies issue debt to raise money for their purchases of mortgage securities.

Bond Sale

``This will shore up that debt offering,'' said Paul Miller, an equity analyst at Friedman Billings Ramsey & Co. in Arlington, Virginia. ``They couldn't risk waking up tomorrow and having that offering go poorly.''

The dollar advanced following Paulson's statement, after dropping last week. Against the euro, the U.S. currency was at $1.5910 at 8:57 a.m. in Tokyo, from an earlier low of $1.5971 and $1.5938 late in New York July 11. It also rose versus the yen.

President George W. Bush said in a statement that ``it is crucial that Congress quickly works to enact this legislation.'' The Treasury official said he didn't recall any time in the past when the government has taken an equity stake in either company.

Paulson said use of the Treasury's credit line or any stock investment ``would carry terms and conditions necessary to protect the taxpayer.''

Home Loan Banks

The Treasury also proposed temporary access to a bigger credit line for the Federal Home Loan Banks, the dozen regional lenders that extend credit to customers including commercial banks, thrifts, insurance companies and credit unions.

Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York who chairs the congressional Joint Economic Committee, expressed support, saying the plan ``will maximize confidence in Fannie and Freddie while minimizing potential costs to U.S. taxpayers.''

The heads of the companies indicated the steps would help them keep access to private capital.

``Given the market turmoil, having options to access provisional sources of liquidity if needed will help to strengthen overall confidence in the market,'' Fannie Mae Chief Executive Officer Daniel Mudd said in a statement. ``We continue to hold more than adequate capital reserves.''

`Reassuring' Markets

Freddie Mac CEO Richard Syron said ``We are heartened by today's announcement,'' which should ``go a long way toward reassuring world markets that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae will continue to support America's homebuyers and renters.''

Some investors may still rebuff the mortgage giants because of concern about the U.S. housing market, where prices and sales continue to decline.

``We are concerned about the U.S. housing market, so we don't have any agency debt,'' said Hiromasa Nakamura, a senior investor at Mizuho Asset Management Co. in Tokyo, which oversees the equivalent of $37.5 billion as part of Japan's second- largest bank. Nakamura predicted the July 14 Freddie Mac bond sale ``will be a difficult auction.''

Paulson also proposed that the Fed get a ``consultative role'' overseeing the companies' capital requirements. The Fed board separately gave its New York district bank the power to make direct loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac at the discount rate, currently 2.25 percent, charged to commercial banks.

Echoes of Rubin

The last Treasury secretary to make an emergency statement from the department's main building was Robert Rubin, who sought to calm investors after the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 554 points on Oct. 27, 1997.

Freddie Mac shares tumbled 47 percent in New York Stock Exchange composite trading last week and Fannie Mae lost 45 percent of its value, forcing Paulson July 11 to issue a statement of support for the companies in their ``current form.'' Trading of Fannie Mae that day amounted to 41 percent of its total shares outstanding, with a 61 percent figure for Freddie Mac.

Preferred securities tumbled as investors questioned if Freddie and Fannie will be able to continue to pay dividends. Freddie Mac's 5.57 percent preferred lost 39 percent this year and Fannie Mae's 5.5 percent preferred dropped 31 percent.

Today's announcement may not offer much help for shareholders, said Andrew Parmentier, a senior policy analyst at Friedman Billings Ramsey & Co. in Arlington, Virginia.

Shareholder Impact

``Any capital infusion of any nature is going to be dilutive to shareholders,'' Parmentier said.

The companies have already raised $20 billion to cover losses amid the highest delinquency rates in at least 29 years. Freddie Mac said earlier this month it planned to sell $5.5 billion of equity after it reports earnings next month.

The cost to protect against a default on the companies' subordinated debt jumped last week. Credit-default swaps linked to Freddie's bonds rose to 251 basis points, while contracts on Fannie's increased to 246 basis points, according to CMA Datavision. On July 4, both were at 177 basis point and they started the year at 77. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.

Credit-default swaps are financial instruments based on bonds and loans that are used to speculate on a company's ability to repay debt.

Senior debt of both companies trades as if they were rated A3 instead of Aaa by Moody's Investors Service, according to data from the rankings firm's credit strategy group.

Five years ago, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac paid about 45 basis points more than yields on 10-year Treasuries to borrow, while other corporations paid an average of 119 basis points, the Merrill Lynch & Co. U.S. Corporate Master index shows. Last week, the yield on Freddie Mac's $1 billion of 4.5 percent notes maturing in 2013 rose as high as 102 basis points more than Treasuries, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

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