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Paulson: Redo Fannie, Freddie

January 08, 2009 | “The Wall Street Journal"

WASHINGTON -- Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson suggested that Congress should consider replacing government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with companies that would guarantee mortgages but not hold them as investments.

Mr. Paulson, who completes his term as head of the Treasury Department when the Obama administration takes over Jan. 20, gave his parting thoughts on government support for the mortgage market in a speech Wednesday to the Economic Club of Washington.

In early September, the regulator of Fannie and Freddie took over their management under a legal process known as conservatorship to shore them up in the face of huge losses from mortgage defaults. The two companies own or guarantee nearly half of the U.S. residential mortgages outstanding. Treasury has agreed to provide as much capital as needed to keep the companies operating and already has injected $13.8 billion into Freddie.

The conservatorship is a temporary solution, though it could last for years. Congress, which originally chartered Fannie and Freddie to support the housing market, eventually will have to decide their long-term roles and structures. The Obama administration hasn't announced a policy on the companies.

Mr. Paulson said a public-utility model "could be the best way to resolve the inherent conflict" between the companies' public purpose and the desire of their private shareholders for profits. He suggested that a regulatory commission could set a targeted rate of return for one or two shareholder-owned entities that would be created out of the existing Fannie and Freddie. The new firm or firms would purchase mortgages and bundle them into securities with a credit guarantee backed by the federal government. But they wouldn't hold large amounts of mortgages and related securities as investments, as Fannie and Freddie do.

As an alternative, Mr. Paulson said Fannie and Freddie could be fully nationalized and perhaps combined with the Federal Housing Administration, a U.S. agency that insures mortgages against default risk. But he said that would mean losing the private sector's role in evaluating mortgage credit risk and in mortgage-market innovation. The companies also could be shorn of their links to the government and turned into purely private entities, but Mr. Paulson questioned whether that would be a viable model.

Separately, Fannie and Freddie are expected to announce soon that they will extend for several more weeks a moratorium on foreclosure sales or evictions for some borrowers.

By JAMES R. HAGERTY

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