The Bush administration seized control Sunday of troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, aiming to stabilize the housing market turmoil that is threatening financial markets and the overall economy.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is betting that providing fresh capital to the two firms will eventually lead to lower mortgage rates, spur homebuying demand and slow the plunge in home prices that has ravaged many areas of the country.
The huge potential liabilities facing each company, as a result of soaring mortgage defaults, could cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, but Paulson stressed that the financial impacts if the two companies had been allowed to fail would be far more serious.
“A failure would affect the ability of Americans to get home loans, auto loans and other consumer credit and business finance,” Paulson said.
But more importantly, “Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are so large and so interwoven in our financial system that a failure of either of them would cause great turmoil in our financial markets here at home and around the globe,” he added in a televised announcement.
The companies, which together own or guarantee about $5 trillion in home loans, about half the nation’s total, have lost $14 billion in the last year and are likely to pile up billions more in losses until the housing market begins to recover.
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama issued a statement agreeing that some form of intervention was necessary, and promised, “I will be reviewing the details of the Treasury plan and monitoring its impact to determine whether it achieves the key benchmarks I believe are necessary to address this crisis.”
On Saturday, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said Fannie and Freddie “have gotten too big and too expensive to the taxpayers. The McCain-Palin administration will make them smaller and smarter and more effective for homeowners who need help.”
Both companies were placed into a government conservatorship that will be run by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the new agency created by Congress this summer to regulate Fannie and Freddie.
The executives and board of directors of both institutions are being replaced.