IT'S PERHAPS THE CRUELEST OF ironies that in the U.S. housing market's greatest hour of need, the major entity created during the Depression to bring liquidity to housing, Fannie Mae, may itself soon be in need of bailout.
Fannie, of course, occupies a curious middle ground between the public and private sector as a result of its privatization in 1968 as a Government Sponsored Enterprise, or GSE. While owned by its shareholders, Fannie is regulated by a government agency and is able to borrow money cheaply, thanks to an implicit guarantee by Uncle Sam. It uses those funds to buy and securitize home loans -- lots of them. At year end, the company owned in its portfolio or had packaged and guaranteed some $2.8 trillion of mortgages or 23% of all U.S. residential mortgage debt outstanding.
Of late, however, Fannie's prospects have darkened notably. The company (ticker: FNM) lost $2.6 billion last year as a surge of red ink in the final two quarters more than wiped out a nicely profitable first half. And by late last week, credit-market jitters had penetrated the once-unassailable hushed precincts of the market in Fannie debt.
In the wake of margin calls on collateral at the investment concern Carlyle Capital, yields on guaranteed mortgage securities issued by Fannie and its GSE sibling Freddie Mac (FRE) rose to their highest level over U.S. Treasuries in 22 years. Likewise credit default swaps, measuring market concerns over the safety of Fannie corporate debt, have ballooned out to 2% of the insured amount from 0.5% just four months ago....MORE