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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Fannie and Freddie make changes...

From CNN comes this story - The good news: Mortgage giant Fannie Mae is taking steps to shore up its finances. The bad news: You're going to pay for it when you take out a mortgage.

Fannie plays a central role in the market for home mortgages by purchasing loans, securitizing them and selling them to investors. In announcing announcing a $2.3 billion loss on Friday, it also said it would make major changes that could have a significant effect on mortgage liquidity and pricing.

The company said it will increase its fees, stop buying certain high-risk loans and charge a higher risk premium for buying loans in the declining market.

"[These actions] have raised the costs of mortgage credit and reduced its availability," said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's "Policy makers had been hoping they would move forward to provide more credit and now they're just hoping they don't pull back."

Fannie increased fees for some loans by a quarter of a percentage point, based on borrowers' credit scores and the amount of their down payments. It will charge, for example, 1% (up from 0.75%) for a buyer with a credit score of 680 paying 20% down.

And Fannie (FNM, Fortune 500) doubled its "adverse market delivery charge" to 0.5%. That is an across-the-board fee assessed against every loan Fannie buys, according to a Fannie spokeswoman. Fannie first instituted the charge this spring.

"It's very negative," said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors. "Any time there's an additional imposition of fees in obtaining a mortgage, it knocks some potential buyers out of the market."

Fannie's smaller cousin, Freddie Mac (FRE, Fortune 500), which also announced a big loss this week, has been taking similar steps to shore up in finances and reduce its exposure to risky loans.

The additional fees imposed by Fannie will hit newcomers particularly hard, according to Yun. First-time buyers are usually most on the margins and struggling to afford a home purchase. The added fees will be passed on to borrowers and could mean quarter-point increases in interest rates.

Reducing the number of first-time buyers can have a domino effect on the market. Existing homeowners looking to trade up to bigger, more expensive homes may postpone doing so because they can't sell their present home.

Fannie will also eliminate buying Alt-A loans by the end of 2008. Alt-A loans, a category between prime and subprime, accounted for about 11% of the company's loans during the last years of the boom. They have been used mostly by people who couldn't or wouldn't document their incomes, their assets or both. These buyers will find it harder to obtain financing once Fannie stops buying the loans.

According to Yun, however, the cutback in Alt-A will hurt people buying second homes to rent out or resell, rather than first time homeowners.

"These are people who often rely on their good credit to buy investment properties putting little or no money down," he said.

But removing some of them from the market will decrease demand in a market already struggling with high inventory.

Fannie and Freddie, as private companies created and sponsored by the government, have to foster home ownership while satisfying their shareholders. They have to maintain profitability or risk triggering a government rescue.

"They were created to provide liquidity in times of crisis," said Yun. "If they don't do that, what's the point of having Fannie and Freddie in the first place?"

Indeed, many people wonder the same thing. Fannie and Freddie have always been a bit of mystery to the common people who don’t deal directly with either one. We’ve always known they were back there somewhere, doing something that wasn’t quite clear, but apparently was important, since they get a lot of press. So, now the things that they’re doing back there will have a negative impact on all homebuyers. Great! Maybe George W. can stand over their shoulders and say “You’re doin’ a great job Fannie Fred.”

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