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Fannie and Freddie: How the Fallout Could Affect You

The stock market swoon over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac this week has left many consumers scratching their heads, wondering if buying a home is a worse idea than it was seven days ago or whether to take down the “for sale” sign in the yard.

So now is a good time to step back and assess the landscape.

Thus far, the biggest damage has been mostly to Fannie’s and Freddie’s investors, though the overall stock market has recoiled as the companies stumbled. In the housing market, consumers are still moving into new homes, and people continued to close on new loans Friday.

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But if you are shopping for a home or a mortgage or considering selling a home, you may wonder what will happen next if things get worse for Fannie and Freddie. Will mortgage rates rise, and home prices fall further? Could the troubles affect the rates you are charged for other loans? Answering these questions starts with a brief (I promise) primer on what the two entities do and why they’re important.

In the beginning, there’s a mortgage lender. It can lend you money it has taken in from deposits on checking accounts and certificates of deposit if it wants. But many lenders choose to sell most or all of their home loans once they make them, and then use the proceeds of the sale to make even more loans.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are the buyers for many of these loans, which makes them crucial to the continued ability of companies to lend money to you and me for a house. Freddie likens itself to a wholesaler supplying a retail store: the retail store is a bank selling money.

Once Fannie and Freddie have bought enough loans, they turn many of them into bonds and sell those bonds to investors. Your mutual funds may hold many of them, something many consumers may just be noticing, after letting out a sigh of relief because they were not planning to buy or sell a home anytime soon.

The mortgage financing system hums along until Fannie and Freddie have trouble raising money to buy loans, or it costs them more to raise the money. And that’s what is happening now. “That increased cost must be passed along; it’s the nature of the beast,” says Keith T. Gumbinger, vice president of the financial publisher HSH Associates, where he has tracked mortgage rates for more than two decades.

The question then is how, if at all, any of these higher costs will be passed along through the mortgage lenders to consumers.

As of Friday, not much had changed, and mortgage bankers were putting on a brave face. “It is business as usual, and rates have held steady for the past two days,” said David G. Kittle, chairman elect of the Mortgage Bankers Association and chief executive of Principle Wholesale Lending in Louisville, Ky. He said the company locked in rates for one buyer and two people who were refinancing on Friday morning, as the stocks plummeted, and that the hand-wringing over Fannie and Freddie amounts to a “media feeding frenzy.”

Karen Shaw Petrou, managing partner of policy consultant Federal Financial Analytics, sees a remote possibility that mortgage rates could in fact fall. If the federal government took control of Fannie and Freddie, a possibility that the Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., seemed to discount in a statement Friday, the companies’ financing costs would probably drop some because government control suggests a government guarantee. Until now, the government has provided credit lines to the companies but stopped short of such a promise.

Many mortgage experts, however, expect rates to rise a quarter percentage point to half a point in the coming weeks. The average rate on Thursday for a prime 30-year fixed-rate nonjumbo mortgage was about 6.45 percent for someone not paying special fees known as points to lower the rate, according to HSH Associates data. That kind of spike wouldn’t be too unusual at a time when rates often rise and fall by at least that much over a period of weeks, for any number of reasons.

Over the longer term, a dysfunctional Freddie and Fannie could send mortgage rates higher than they would have been otherwise, relative to key market rates like Treasury securities.

For now, if you’re considering buying a house or refinancing a mortgage, and that rate rise is enough to make a difference, then maybe the deal is not affordable. “If someone is so tight that a quarter point kills a deal, they probably ought to be rethinking what they’re doing,” says Bert Ely, a banking consultant in Alexandria, Va.

For mortgage shoppers comfortable with loans at today’s prices, now is the time to lock in, or guarantee, an interest rate with the lender, which can effectively set the rate over the life of a fixed-rate loan. Given the current uncertainty, there’s always the possibility that lenders will be less willing to offer rate locks in the coming weeks.

Outside the mortgage industry, there is some concern that a further crippled Fannie and Freddie could make it harder for consumers to borrow in all forms. “There is a contagion effect. If investors in various kinds of loans get concerned about one kind of capital market, it can spread to other markets,” said Mark Kantrowitz, who runs the college financing site FinAid.org and saw this firsthand in student loans over the past year or so. “They tend to pull back from everything, not just their initial area of concern.”

All the consternation this week only highlights how much rests on the value of our homes and shows that loan pricing and availability can keep the value from falling further. “The implications run everywhere, through to consumer spending and state and local governments,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Economy.com. “Anything that exacerbates the problem is very bad news. It’s just sticking a finger into an already deep and festering wound.”

Mr. Zandi said he thought the federal government would step in to stabilize the situation if mortgage rates rose much more than that quarter or half point.

The government might take any number of steps to buck up the two ailing entities. The bonds that Fannie and Freddie sell are held all over the world, by mutual funds and foreign governments. Any hint that those securities are in peril could further undermine faith in the United States economy, given that Fannie and Freddie were created and chartered by the American government.

In an election year, meanwhile, with the housing market already lousy in most places, the federal government will almost certainly do everything in its power to make sure that banks have continued access to Fannie and Freddie funds for loans to creditworthy home buyers.

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