The Obama administration is taking baby steps to develop a system that could replace mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, amid criticism that officials are dragging their feet.
In September 2008, the government seized control of Fannie and Freddie — massive companies that purchase home loans, package them into investments and guarantee them against default. Since then, the government has pumped a combined $126 billion into the companies to keep them afloat.
Obama officials have given few details on their long-term thinking. At a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner delivered a broad outline of the administration's goals but no specific plan, infuriating Republican lawmakers.
The administration, he said, plans to seek public comment on the government's future housing policy by April 15.
"We can start that process in earnest," Geithner told lawmakers. "I don't see why this should take years."
Many experts say the government's explicit support will be needed in the future to make sure investors stay in the market. And Geithner agreed that there is "some role for a guarantee of some sort" that the government would provide to mortgage securities.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said there is consensus about the need to replace Fannie and Freddie, but little agreement on what should take their place.
"You can't really tear down the old jail until you've built the new one," said Frank, who traded barbs with Republicans about who deserved more blame for the two companies' near-collapse.
In several exchanges, Republicans displayed frustration with Geithner. Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, the committee's senior Republican, called the Obama administration's lack of action "unacceptable."
And Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, tried unsuccessfully to pin Geithner down on when the administration would detail his plans. "Is there a timetable or is there not a timetable?" he asked Geithner, who responded by saying, "We're going to do a careful, competent job."
Nevertheless, powerful lobbying groups don't want to rock the boat too hard. The National Association of Realtors is pushing to preserve Fannie and Freddie, but as nonprofit government authorities without private shareholders.
"The disruption in the marketplace by doing something too radical would be harmful" to the housing market and the economy, Vince Malta, a San Francisco Realtor who testified at Tuesday's hearing, said in an interview.
After the historic housing bust, the mortgage market has been resting on three government pillars: Fannie, Freddie and the Federal Housing Administration. Last year, the two companies backed about 70 percent of all home loans, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, a trade publication. The duo also manage the Obama administration's $75 billion loan modification program.
One key reason that so much government support has been needed is that the housing market remains shaky. That was evident Tuesday, as sales of previously occupied homes dropped 0.6 percent in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.02 million, the lowest level since July.
Fannie and Freddie, however, still occupy an awkward position. Their debt does not have the same level of government support as bonds issued by the Treasury Department. But Geithner repeatedly tried to reassure investors about its safety, reciting several variations on a theme: "We will make sure that they have the financial resources necessary to meet their obligations."
And those who want to eliminate Fannie and Freddie face another hurdle — investors are still nervous. They don't want to buy mortgage securities that don't carry a government guarantee — whether explicitly in the case of FHA or implicitly in the case of Fannie and Freddie.
In a recent speech, David Stevens, the FHA's commissioner, recalled meeting a group of international bankers who "peppered me with questions — very difficult questions" about what the U.S. government was doing to bring back their trust.
They all have been burned, he noted, after buying mortgage securities with triple-A ratings that turned out to be junk.
"We are at the point right now," Stevens said, "where no one trusts the American housing finance system."
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