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Obama administration plan phases out roles of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Friday released its long-awaited proposal for overhauling the mortgage market, calling for gradually shutting down bailed-out mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and reducing the government's now-huge role in housing finance.

The 32-page plan calls for phasing in an increase in the down payment requirement for loans guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie to 10 percent, while reducing the maximum size of mortgages they can back — a move that would affect areas with high property values.

During the financial crisis, Congress boosted the limit on such loans to as much as $729,750. The administration said it supports letting the limit drop back to $625,500 as scheduled Oct. 1.

The plan also calls for increasing mortgage fees to encourage more private investment while winding down the huge investment portfolios of Fannie and Freddie — whose bailouts have cost $150 billion so far — by at least 10 percent a year as the entities are slowly put out of business.

Fannie and Freddie own or guarantee more than half of all U.S. mortgages and have become vital players in the $11 trillion mortgage market.

But demonstrating the complexity of pulling back government support from a still-fragile housing market, the plan drafted by the Treasury and Housing and Urban Development departments offers Congress three options for long-term restructuring.

The three options are:

• Scaling back the government's role but continuing a limited government guarantee mechanism for mortgages.

• A greater pullback that would have the government step in with guarantees largely only during a recession, providing an "emergency backstop" to mortgages to keep the housing market from collapsing.

• Limiting the government's role in the market to supporting only low-income buyers through the Federal Housing Administration.

"All three of those options would amount to a fundamental change in the way our housing finance markets operate, and they would all have the virtue of not leaving us vulnerable to the kind of risks we faced in this housing crisis," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said.

But the report is unlikely to satisfy many Republicans, who blame Fannie and Freddie for creating the housing bubble that triggered the financial crisis, and have criticized the Obama administration for not moving quicker to end the bailouts of the firms.

"For too long, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been allowed to run wild at great financial expense to American taxpayers," said Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., who heads the House subcommittee overseeing the entities. "Already on the hook for $150 billion and counting, the American people are fed up with the ongoing bailout of these failed institutions."

But many in the banking and housing industry said the government needs to maintain some role in housing finance, particularly during times of crisis when lenders wouldn't want to issue any new mortgages. The report specifically rules out a complete government pullout from the market.

"This is a clear and comprehensive plan … that would ensure that Americans continue to have access to a reasonably priced, stable source of financing while reducing taxpayer risk and the risk of a crisis," HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said.

Obama administration plan phases out roles of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac 02/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 11, 2011 9:51pm]
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