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Major U.S. Role in Mortgages Shaping Entire Market

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By Zachary A. Goldfarb and Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 7, 2009

Second in an occasional series

This Story

In the go-go years of the U.S. housing boom, virtually anybody could get a few hundred thousand dollars to buy a home, and private lenders flooded the market, aggressively pursuing borrowers no matter their means or financial history.

Now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Only one lender of consequence remains: the federal government, which undertook one of its earliest and most dramatic rescues of the financial crisis by seizing control a year ago of the two largest mortgage finance companies in the world, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

While this made it possible for many borrowers to keep getting loans and helped protect the housing market from further damage, the government's newly dominant role -- nearly 90 percent of all new home loans are funded or guaranteed by taxpayers -- has far-reaching consequences for prospective home buyers and taxpayers.

The government has the power to decide who is qualified for a loan and who is not. As a result, many borrowers among both poor and rich are frozen out of the market.

Nearly one-third of those who obtained home loans during the boom years of 2005 and 2006 couldn't get one today, according to mortgage industry analysts. Many of these borrowers were never really able to afford their homes and should not have gotten loans. But many others could, and borrowers like them are now running into tougher government standards.

At the same time, taxpayers are on the hook for most of the loans that are still being made if they go bad. And they are also on the line for any losses in the massive portfolios of old loans at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which own or back more than $5 trillion in mortgages.

There is growing evidence that many loans being guaranteed by the government have a significant risk of defaulting. Delinquencies are spiking. And the Federal Housing Administration, another source of government support for home loans, is quickly eating through its financial cushion as losses mount.

The outlay has already reached about $1 trillion over the past year and is rising. During that time, the government has pumped more money into the mortgage market than has been spent on Medicare or Social Security or the defense budget, more even than Washington has paid to bail out banks and other struggling companies.

"Absent government intervention, there would be no lending," said Nicolas P. Retsinas, director of Harvard University's center for housing studies.

Government officials generally agree that it would be better for private lenders to resume their traditional role as major providers of finance for home loans. But policymakers now face some tough choices. They must decide how to reduce support for the mortgage market without letting it collapse. And they must decide what kind of support the government should provide in the long run.


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