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Stakes are high as government plans exit from mortgage markets

"The basic goal is to implement a gradual process where the government's role in the economy goes down," Barr said. "It has to be consistent with the basic goal of stability, but it is appropriate."

Administration and Fed officials expressed confidence that rates will rise only modestly -- perhaps a quarter of a percentage point. They attribute their optimism to the lengthy notice they have given the market. The markets already should have anticipated the government's exit by adjusting interest rates higher. Yet mortgage rates have been falling slightly the past few weeks.

The optimism at the White House and the Fed, however, is not shared across the government. A few senior policymakers at the central bank view the economic recovery as still too fragile, suggesting that purchases perhaps should expand further. These dissenters also warn that mortgage rates could shoot up, perhaps to 6 percent or higher, because private investors buying securities would demand a greater rate of return than the Fed. To reach it, lenders may have to raise rates for consumers.

"Presumably, there is pent-up demand from the private sector, but the question is: At what rate are they going to be interested?" said Eric S. Rosengren, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, who has indicated that he supports expanding the Fed's mortgage securities purchase program.

There also could be unintended consequences to the government's pull-out. Last year, big investors such as Pimco sold their mortgage-backed securities to the government and used that money to buy bonds and stocks. That extra cash, which propped up stock prices, could drain away after federal support ends.

Real estate and mortgage finance officials said the timing of the government's exit seems especially ill-conceived, since the Fed's support would end just a month before a homebuyer tax credit program, which the real estate industry has credited with jump-starting home sales.

Given the importance of the housing market, some industry officials doubt whether the government will follow through with its pledge to exit the mortgage market in March. Fannie and Freddie officials say that the companies together can buy about $300 billion of mortgage securities by the end of the year before they hit their federally mandated limits. Though it appears reluctant to do so, the administration could use that buying power to cushion the blow after the Fed's program ends, the industry officials said.

"I believe they do want to end it in March, but it's like all new year's resolutions," said Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities. "The Fed's New Year resolution is to go on a diet, go to the gym, give up drinking and clean the garage. They might be able to do one of those things, but to do all four is tricky. They have to drain all the liquidity they added to the financial market so we don't see a resurgence in inflation, but do it in a way so that the economy does not slip into recession."


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