WASHINGTON — Home prices are up. Foreclosures are down. Construction is up. And now comes the latest sign of the U.S. home market's revival: Fannie Mae, the mortgage giant that nearly collapsed five years ago, has earned its biggest yearly profit ever.
Fannie Mae earned $17.2 billion last year and said Tuesday that it expects to stay profitable for "the foreseeable future." It also paid $11.6 billion in dividends to the U.S. Treasury in 2012. Fannie earned $7.6 billion in the October-December quarter, a quarterly record for the company.
And last year was Fannie's first since its takeover by the government in 2008 that it asked for no federal aid. As recently as 2011, Fannie lost nearly $17 billion and requested and received nearly $26 billion in aid.
The speed of Fannie's resurgence is a testament to a much healthier U.S. mortgage market.
Fannie's "profit recovery has come at a faster pace than I thought it would," said Bert Ely, a banking industry consultant.
Once symbols of the reckless risk-taking that fed the housing bubble, Fannie and the smaller firm Freddie Mac were seized by the government in 2008 after they were buried by bad mortgages. Taxpayers have spent $188 billion to rescue the two — collectively the costliest bailout of the financial crisis.
Fannie still has a long way to go to repay taxpayers. It received $116 billion in aid. So far, it has repaid $35.6 billion.
Fannie and Freddie don't actually make loans. Rather, they buy mortgages from lenders, package them as bonds, guarantee them against default and sell them to investors. In doing so, they help make loans available and exert influence over the housing market.
Together, Fannie and Freddie own or guarantee about half of U.S. mortgages — nearly 31 million home loans worth $5 trillion. And along with other federal agencies, they back about 90 percent of new mortgages.
The two companies nearly folded during the financial crisis because of huge losses on risky mortgages they bought. Fannie and Freddie bore some responsibility for those losses. Like banks, they relaxed their standards on the loans they bought or guaranteed during the boom and failed to thoroughly check incomes and assets. High-interest loans, some with low "teaser" rates, were given to risky borrowers.
Fannie and Freddie grew spectacularly as demand for mortgages exploded. The two firms, championed by powerful Washington lawmakers, rushed to compete with big banks for dominance in the home-loan market. In doing so, they bought or guaranteed mortgages they once would have deemed too risky.
Now, the two companies are benefiting from the home market's steady recovery. Previously occupied homes are being sold each month at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of nearly 5 million, compared with a recession low below 4 million. Nationally, prices have risen nearly 9 percent since bottoming in March 2012. The number of homes repossessed by lenders has reached its lowest point since September 2007, according to RealtyTrac, a foreclosure listing firm.
Ely, the industry analyst, thinks their financial improvement also reflects higher fees that Fannie and Freddie now charge banks to guarantee their mortgages.