Directors of Federal National Mortgage Association voted yesterday to continue paying dividends at the reduced rate of 16 cents a share for at least one more quarter, a decision that was applauded by Wall Street analysts.
Because the Washington corporation is now operating at a loss -- and officers emphasized at the annual meeting yesterday that they have no idal when profitability can return -- dividends had been considered an endangered species.
"Retained earnings warrant [dividend continuation], if I was on the board, I'd pay it," said Elliot Schneider of Gruntal & Co., in New York, referring to some $800 million of retained earnings and a net worth of $1.5 billion that the company has as a cushion with which to survive the current bout of record interest rates.
"It would be a very serious blow to the stock," if dividends were eliminated, said Michael Lewis of E.F. Hutton Group, Lewis predicted before the meeting that directors "may try to muddle through another quarter and hope they see a turn in rates." If rates don't start heading lower, reducing the gap between the cost of borrowed funds to Federal National Mortgage and the return on its huge portfolio of mortgages, "I'd be hard pressed" to continue dividends after the current quarter, Lewis added.
Fannie Mae, as the firm is commonly known, is the nation's largest owner of housing mortgages with a portfolio approaching $60 billion. Virtually all of the mortgages provide interest income to Fannie Mae at rates far below the current costs of borrowed funds. The dividend approved yesterday will be distributed June 25 to owners of record June 3.
Addressing the annual meeting yesterday for the last time as chairman and chief executive, A. Oakley Hunter emphasized that an era of short-term borrowings and long-term lending had ended. "Nothing that I can say" will change the current situation that Fannie Mae faces, since "inflation has been out of control for a number of years," Hunter declared.
But the retiring Fannie Mae chairman added that he does remain optimistic about eventual recovery and growth for the company because "the American people have voted to confront inflation" and because federal regulators under the new Reagan administration have agreed to allow a system of flexible mortgage interest rates without which the "mortgage and housing markets cannot be restored to health."
Fannie Mae buys mortgages from direct lenders, thus freeing up more funds for local lending. And the company's new chairman, David O. Maxwell, spelled out yesterday a series of steps that Fannie Mae is taking to expand its markets for mortgage purchases and to increase the average yield on its existing and future portfolios.
The most fundamental change will be the addition of flexible-rate mortgages, and many in the mortgage industry are awaiting decisions by Fannie Mae on what types of flexible-rate mortgages the company will buy, and what types of indexes to chart changes in rates will be permitted. Fannie Mae officials have been working on flexible-rate mortgage planning for several years and an announcement by Fannie Mae is expected in the next few weeks on what standards it will follow.
Maxwell said he expects a high degree of uniformity in flexible-rate mortgage plans to develop ultimately.