Monday, August 25, 2008

Time to Nationalize Fannie & Freddie?

Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s impact on the mortgage market can’t be understated. Both borrow huge sums of money to buy mortgages. Their demand is a major force in setting the overall rate on standard mortgages, particularly now that many other sources of financing have evaporated. And even though both companies have recently been purchasing larger amounts of mortgages, rates on mortgage loans have stayed relatively high.

If the government believes cheaper borrowing costs are central to a housing recovery, it will have to do something to get mortgage rates to decline in line with Treasury rates. One guaranteed way to lower the spread between Treasury and mortgage rates is for the government to take over Fannie and Freddie. A takeover would lower Fannie’s and Freddie’s borrowing costs, which, in turn, would lower mortgage rates.

More competition from the private sector is another, though less timely, solution. Nationalizing Fannie and Freddie would drop mortgage rates immediately, to be sure, but few private firms would be able to match Fannie’s and Freddie’s borrowing costs. That would mean less innovation and fewer mortgage options for borrowers, and that could hurt the housing and mortgage markets in the long run.

Eric P. Egeland

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