Freddie Mac’s big bet against homeowners

at 11:21 AM ET, 01/30/2012

ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger and NPR’s Chris Arnold have discovered that Freddie Mac has used a complex derivative transaction to place large bets that rely on millions of American homeowners remaining in overpriced mortgages to pay off. The bets in Freddie’s investment portfolio — which totaled $3.4 billion in 2010 and 2011 — directly contradict the housing giant’s stated mission to provide affordable mortgages to Americans.

Freddie’s bet against refinancing — known as an “inverse floater,” which depends on mortgages interest payments — underscores a central tension between the White House and the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which gained conservatorship of Fannie and Freddie after the crisis. When Freddie and Fannie’s huge investment portfolios profit, it helps reduce the potential burden on taxpayers. That’s been a priority for FHFA under Edward DeMarco’s leadership. At the same time, Fannie and Freddie could, by easing the way for homeowners to lower their payments, help heal the housing market. That’s the priority for the White House. As such, Freddie Mae made “a direct bet against the administration’s public policy effort,” Christopher Mayer, professor of housing finance at Columbia University, tells me.

When it comes to refinancing, “there’s always been this lingering question — why aren’t the GSEs doing more? Everyone says it’s because of their portfolio, ” said Mayer, who’s been a proponent of mass refinancing through Fannie and Freddie. He points out that Freddie, in recent months, had tighter rules for refinancing than its counterpart Freddie. “Now we know why,” Mayer says.

In recent months, DeMarco and the White House have come to an agreement on rules, though they don’t go quite as far as the administration would like. In the State of the Union, President Obama promised to propose his own mass refinancing program that would include Fannie and Freddie and has tried to ramp up a lagging TARP-backed housing finance program.

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