By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 9, 2009
Fannie Mae reported yesterday that it lost $23.2 billion in the first three months of the year as mortgage defaults increasingly spread from risky loans to the far-larger portfolio of loans to borrowers who have been considered safe.
The massive loss prompts a $19 billion investment from the government to keep the firm solvent, on top of a $15 billion investment of taxpayer money earlier this year.
The sobering earnings report was a reminder of the far-reaching implications of the government's takeover in September of Fannie Mae and the smaller Freddie Mac. Losses have proved unrelenting; the firms' appetite for tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer aid hasn't subsided; and taxpayer money invested in the companies, analysts said, is probably lost forever because the prospects for repayment are slim.
But the government remains committed to keeping the companies afloat, because it is relying on them to help reverse the continuing slide in the housing market and keep mortgage rates low.
Even as the government bailout of banks appears to be leveling off, the federal rescue of Fannie and Freddie is rapidly growing more expensive. Fannie Mae said that the losses will continue through at least much of the year and that it "therefore will be required to obtain additional funding from the Treasury." Analysts are estimating that the company could need at least $110 billion.
Freddie Mac, which has been in worse financial shape than Fannie Mae and has obtained $45 billion in taxpayer funding, will report earnings in coming days.
Fannie's most recent loss compares with a $2.2 billion loss in the first quarter last year, before the government takeover.
Fannie Mae, of the District, and Freddie Mac, of McLean, have been growing ever more dependent on federal largesse. The Federal Reserve has bought $366 billion of their mortgage investments and $70 billion of their debt, and has pledged to buy hundreds of billions of dollars more of both. The Treasury has pledged $200 billion to each company to keep them solvent and already bought $124 billion of their mortgage investments.
In total, the government has committed about $2 trillion to supporting Fannie and Freddie and buying the securities they issue.
Over the next 10 years, the government's rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is expected to cost $389 billion, exceeding the cost of investments in banks and other financial firms by the government's Troubled Assets Relief Program, according to a recent study by Subsidyscope, a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. The group based its calculations on Congressional Budget Office figures.
The federal government seized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac last September out of concern that they would collapse and threaten the entire financial system. Since then, the companies have been called on to carry out large parts of the government's plan to spur a housing recovery by modifying mortgages and taking anti-foreclosure steps.
Fannie Mae said these programs are likely to have "a material adverse effect on our business, results of operations and financial condition, including our net worth." But, it said, the program could yield long-term benefits. "If, however, the program is successful in reducing foreclosures and keeping borrowers in their homes, it may benefit the overall housing market and help in reducing our long-term credit losses."
But in a filing, Fannie Mae said, "We expect that we will not operate profitably for the foreseeable future." The plight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac contrasts with the findings of federal "stress tests" done on the country's largest banks. The government announced Thursday that the tests showed that only one bank, GMAC, required additional public aid, with the tab at $9.1 billion. Fannie Mae's earnings results also contrast with reports in recent weeks by the biggest banks that they are returning to profitability.
Even the ailing insurer American International Group said Thursday that it may not need more taxpayer dollars.
Many banks that have received bailout funds said they will try to pay the government back. But that doesn't hold true for Fannie and Freddie. Their financial situation is so weak that they may have to borrow government money to pay dividends due to the government on money borrowed previously. Yet even if the companies were profitable, they might not be able to pay back the money because the dividend payments are so onerous.
"The scenario where these guys can earn money to pay that back is remote," said Bose George, an analyst a New York investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.
Jim Vogel, an analyst at FTN Financial, said the amount of taxpayer money that must flow to Fannie and Freddie will be clear in the coming months. He said it will depend on whether government efforts to keep people in their homes can make significant headway even as rising unemployment makes it more difficult for many to afford their loans.
"We need more to pass to see how people react to all the different plans to help people with mortgages and how people react to a prolonged period of unemployment," Vogel said.
According to analysts, Fannie Mae's financial assumptions aren't as bleak as those embodied in the government's stress tests of major banks. For the tests, the government assumed that the percentage of loans going bad in a portfolio would range from 1.5 percent to 4 percent. Fannie Mae assumes that only 1.45 percent of loans will be bad, suggesting that the company would have to come up with much more money to cover losses if a worse scenario comes to pass.
A major reason for concern about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is the size of their exposure to the mortgage market, analysts said. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac own $5.4 trillion in assets, and all of those are mortgages, the worst-performing kind of loan. By comparison, the total assets -- from mortgages to credit card loans -- held by the 19 big banks that underwent stress tests was $7.8 trillion.