The Obama administration announced on Friday plans to reform the housing finance market, including winding down government-controlled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and turning most of the market over to the private sector, as well as requiring larger down payments. The White House proposed three approaches to replacing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac rather than offering up one final plan.

The administration’s proposal is expected to reshape the way Americans buy and own homes.
Among the plans outlined in the administration’s “white paper”:

? Shrinking the size of the portfolio of mortgages held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by at least 10 percent a year.
? Creating an insurance fund for mortgages, supported by premiums paid by lenders.
? Winding down government subsidies of mortgages by raising the fees charged to cover the risk of default.
? Raising fees for borrowers and requiring larger down payments for home loans.

The administration also recommended measures to make government-backed mortgages more expensive in order to allow the private-sector to better compete in the mortgage market. For example, it called for reducing by this fall the size of mortgages Fannie and Freddie may purchase from $729,750 to $625,500.

Raising Rates?

Some critics of the proposal are concerned that the administration’s overall plan would raise mortgage rates.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that mortgage costs likely will rise in the coming years, as government support is withdrawn and the private sector takes on a bigger role. Credit Suisse has estimated that rates on a 30-year fixed mortgage may rise as much as 2 percentage points if the government withdraws its backing of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Higher borrowing costs could be a thorn for a recovering housing market, since interest rates greatly affect how much buyers can afford, experts say.

“Reducing the government’s involvement in the mortgage finance market is necessary for a healthy market, but should not be done at the expense of the economy or home buyers,” NAR President Ron Phipps said in a public statement in response to the Obama administration's plan. “Any proposal for increasing fees and borrowing costs beyond actuarially sound levels will only make it harder for working, middle-class individuals to achieve home ownership, and only the wealthy will be able to achieve the American dream.”

NAR’s economists estimate that a retreat of capital from the housing market will negatively impact the economy too. For every 1,000 home sales, 500 jobs are created for the country, NAR notes.

Geithner estimates that reducing the government’s role in the mortgage market may take five to seven years for the transition.

“Most people in Congress understand that this is a very political, contentious issue,” says David Berson, a former Fannie Mae chief economist. “It’s going to be a very volatile ride as we move toward what ultimately will be the future of Fannie and Freddie. It’s hard to know what that’s going to be.”

Source: “NAR: Secondary Mortgage Market Needs Improvement, National Association of REALTORS® (Feb. 11, 2011); “Winners and Losers in the Obama Housing Plan,” Reuters News (Feb. 11, 2011); “White House Wants Fannie, Freddie to Go,” MSNBC (Feb. 11, 2011); and “Obama Report on Fannie, Freddie Plan May Boost Mortgage Rates,” Washington Post (Feb. 11, 2011)