VOL. 123 | NO. 164 | Thursday, August 21, 2008
Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac Shares Plummet
By STEPHEN BERNARD and ALAN ZIBEL | AP Business Writers
NEW YORK - Shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac lost more than a quarter of their value on Wednesday as fears mounted that the mortgage financiers will soon need government support and any bailout would hang stockholders out to dry.
Since Monday, stock in the two companies - which together hold or guarantee half the U.S. mortgage debt - have plunged more than 45 percent and are now trading at lows not seen in nearly two decades.
"There's a big negative feedback loop and there's no way out of it," Friedman, Billings & Ramsey Co. analyst Paul Miller said in an interview. "As the stock falls more and more, it's more likely the government steps in and more likely equity holders get wiped out."
Fannie Mae's chief executive sought to reassure investors that no bailout is imminent.
"They haven't offered anything and we haven't asked for anything," Fannie Mae CEO Daniel Mudd said in a public radio interview Wednesday morning. "I don't anticipate that they will do that."
Mudd said the company's financial position "remains very strong," and that he intends to remain the CEO.
Executives with McLean, Va.-based Freddie Mac met with Treasury department officials Wednesday morning, according to two sources familiar with the meeting who were not authorized to discuss its contents publicly. They described it as part of a regular series of meetings that have been occurring since last month when the Bush administration announced a plan to aid the two companies.
Armando Falcon, who served for six years as Fannie and Freddie's chief government regulator, expects a full-fledged government takeover before year-end. The companies' financial picture is far worse than they have acknowledged, he said, particularly for riskier loans they purchased as investments.
"They can't keep playing games with the accounting rules to avoid taking their losses," Falcon said.
The first intervention, he said, is likely to be government support for sales of the companies' debt. After that, he said, "everything quickly snowballs."
The two government-sponsored companies are the largest source of funding for home mortgages in the U.S. But they have struggled with soaring losses from mortgage defaults. Washington-based Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, have lost a combined $3.1 billion between April and June, and investors fear the losses will continue to grow.
Fannie Mae's stock fell $1.61 to $4.40 in afternoon trading. Shares of Freddie Mac fell $1.05 cents to $3.12, after earlier hitting a low of $2.95.
Freddie Mac, in particular, has investors and analysts fearful. The company promised earlier this year to raise $5.5 billion - more than double the company's $1.95 billion in market value Wednesday afternoon - to shore up its finances.
Fannie's market capitalization was about $4.50 billion in afternoon trading.
The precipitous slide in Fannie and Freddie's stock prices are a sign investors assume the government is on the brink of taking control of the mortgage giants.
"It could be tomorrow, it could be six months from now," Miller said.
The Bush administration on July 13 unveiled a plan to provide unlimited government loans to the two mortgage giants and to purchase stock in the two companies if needed for a period covering the next 18 months. Congress ultimately adopted those proposals as part of a broader bill that also seeks to help keep 400,000 households from losing their homes to foreclosure.
Critics charged that the open-ended nature of the support for Fannie and Freddie would expose taxpayers to billions of dollars of potential losses.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has insisted that the package needed to be structured in this way to boost financial markets' confidence as the companies deal with mounting losses from mortgages that have gone bad.
But investors started dumping shares of Fannie and Freddie this week after a Barron's article on Saturday - citing an anonymous Bush administration source - said the government is pressing the companies to raise more money to guard against losses but doesn't expect them to succeed.
The Barron's report said the government is likely to buy preferred stock in the companies, wiping out common shareholders. Paulson has declined to comment on whether a rescue is imminent.
Many observers say Paulson is not interested in shareholders and only in Fannie and Freddie's ability to provide support to the battered mortgage market. That means a government rescue might not occur until there is evidence the mortgage companies' are unable to roll over short-term debt - an indication they would no longer be able to operate normally.
Bert Ely, a banking consultant and longtime critic of the pair of mortgage companies said, "the rationale for government involvement is to maintain (Fannie and Freddie's) role in the marketplace, which comes through buying mortgages."
Recent debt sales by Freddie Mac indicate the sale of short-term debt is becoming more difficult and expensive.
A $3 billion offering of five-year notes by Freddie Mac was priced Tuesday at 1.13 percent above five-year U.S. Treasury notes. Freddie Mac's most recent sale of five-year notes, which took place in May, was priced at just 0.69 percent above Treasury notes of a similar length.
When companies issue debt, prices are often compared with those of similar-length Treasury bonds. Treasury yields are considered a benchmark because they are considered the safest investments since they are backed by the government. The wider the gap, or spread, between corporate debt and treasury yields, the riskier investors deem the corporate debt.
Two-, three- and 10-year notes issued by Freddie Mac since May all have had narrower spreads than Freddie Mac's most recent sale of five-year notes.
The current lack of action by both Fannie and Freddie to raise capital and the government's silence is freezing up liquidity in the mortgage market, Miller said. That lack of liquidity is trickling down to traditional retail banks that rely on Fannie and Freddie to purchase loans and provide cash to originate new mortgages.
Fannie and Freddie "cannot be active" in the current environment to provide the necessary liquidity for the mortgage market, Miller said. "Until they get funding, it hurts everyone," Miller added.
AP Business Writer Alan Zibel reported from Washington, and AP Business Writer Martin Crutsinger in Washington contributed to this report.
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