Mortgage Giants Trump Plan

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, right, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, left, appear Tuesday before a Senate Banking Committee hearing on ‘Housing Finance Reform: Next Steps’ on Capitol Hill in Washington.

WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials on Tuesday defended their plan to Congress for ending government control of mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, clashing with Democratic senators on whether the change would raise home borrowing costs and neglect lower-income homeowners.

The two finance companies nearly collapsed in the financial crisis 11 years ago and were bailed out at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $190 billion.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, along with regulator Mark Calabria, director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, testified before the Senate Banking Committee on the plan for returning Fannie and Freddie to private ownership. The companies have become profitable again and have fully repaid their bailouts. Under the plan, their profits would no longer go to the Treasury but would be used to build up their capital bases as a cushion against possible future losses.

Fannie and Freddie together guarantee roughly half of the $10 trillion U.S. home loan market. They don’t make home loans. They buy them from banks and other lenders, and bundle them into securities, guarantee them against default and sell them to Wall Street investors.

Calabria said Fannie and Freddie’s capital must be bulked up “to match their risk profiles” and avoid another bailout. “In their current financial condition, the (companies) are not equipped to withstand a downturn in the housing market,” he testified, adding, “It keeps me up at night.”

The administration promises in the plan to preserve homebuyers’ access to 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages, which are the pillar of housing finance.

The plan “would preserve the long-standing government support of the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage loan,” Mnuchin said. “That support, however, should be explicitly defined, tailored and paid for.”

Mnuchin acknowledged that for prices of 30-year mortgages to remain close to current market levels, some level of government support would be needed. He said Congress should authorize an explicit, paid-for guarantee “backed by the full faith and credit of the federal government” for qualified mortgages. The guarantee also should be available to competitors of Fannie and Freddie as mortgage financers, he said.