The news caused nary a ripple in the placid Washington scene. Perhaps that’s because many lawmakers, especially those who once assured us that Fannie and Freddie would never cost taxpayers a dime, hope that their constituents don’t notice the burgeoning money pit these mortgage monsters represent. Some $130 billion in federal money had already been larded on both companies before Freddie’s latest request.
But taxpayers should examine Freddie’s first-quarter numbers not only because the losses are our responsibility. Since they also include details on Freddie’s delinquent mortgages, the company’s sales of foreclosed properties and losses on those sales, the results provide a telling snapshot of the current state of the housing market.
That picture isn’t pretty. Serious delinquencies in Freddie’s single-family conventional loan portfolio — those more than 90 days late — came in at 4.13 percent, up from 2.41 percent for the period a year earlier. Delinquencies in the company’s Alt-A book, one step up from subprime loans, totaled 12.84 percent, while delinquencies on interest-only mortgages were 18.5 percent. Delinquencies on its small portfolio of option-adjustable rate loans totaled 19.8 percent.
The company’s inventory of foreclosed properties rose from 29,145 units at the end of March 2009 to almost 54,000 units this year. Perhaps most troubling, Freddie’s nonperforming assets almost doubled, rising to $115 billion from $62 billion.
When Freddie sells properties, either before or after foreclosure, it generates losses of 39 percent, on average.
There is a bright spot: new delinquencies were fewer in number than in the quarter ended Dec. 31.
Freddie Mac said the main reason for its disastrous quarter was an accounting change that required it to bring back onto its books $1.5 trillion in assets and liabilities that it had been keeping off of its balance sheet.
None of the grim numbers at Freddie are surprising, really, given that it and Fannie have pretty much been the only games in town of late for anyone interested in getting a mortgage. The problem for taxpayers, of course, is that the company’s future doesn’t look much different from its recent past.
Indeed, Freddie warned that its credit losses were likely to continue rising throughout 2010. Among the reasons for this dour outlook was the substantial number of borrowers in Freddie’s portfolio that currently owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.
Even as its business suffers through a sour real estate market, Freddie must pay hefty cash dividends on the preferred stock the government holds. After it receives the additional $10.6 billion it needs from taxpayers, dividends owed to Treasury will total $6.2 billion a year. This amount, the company said, “exceeds our annual historical earnings in most periods.”
In spite of these difficulties, Freddie and Fannie are nowhere to be seen in the various financial reform efforts under discussion on Capitol Hill. Timothy F. Geithner, the Treasury secretary, offered a vague comment to Congress last March, that after some unspecified reform effort someday in the future, the companies “will not exist in the same form as they did in the past.”
Fannie and Freddie, lest you’ve forgotten, have been longstanding kingpins in the housing market, buying mortgages from banks that issue them so the banks could turn around and lend even more. After both companies overindulged in the lucrative but riskier end of home loans, they nearly collapsed, prompting the federal rescue. Since then, the government has continued to use the firms as mortgage buyers of last resort, to help stabilize a housing market that is still deeply troubled.
To some, the current silence on what to do about Freddie and Fannie is deafening — as is the lack of chatter about Freddie’s disastrous report last week.
“I don’t understand why people are not talking about it,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, referring to Freddie’s losses. “It seems to me the most fundamental question is, have they on an ongoing basis been paying too much for loans even since they went into conservatorship?”