STEPHEN LABATON and STEVEN R. WEISMAN
Friday, July 11, 2008
WASHINGTON — Alarmed by the growing financial stress at the nation’s two largest mortgage finance companies, senior Bush administration officials are considering a plan to have the government take over one or both of the companies and place them in a conservatorship if their problems worsen, people briefed about the plan said on Thursday.
The companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, have been hit hard by the mortgage foreclosure crisis. Their shares are plummeting and their borrowing costs are rising as investors worry that the companies will suffer losses far larger than the $11 billion they have already lost in recent months. Now, as housing prices decline further and foreclosures grow, the markets are worried that Fannie and Freddie themselves may default on their debt.
Under a conservatorship, the shares of Fannie and Freddie would be worth little or nothing, and any losses on mortgages they own or guarantee — which could be staggering — would be paid by taxpayers.
The government officials said that the administration had also considered calling for legislation that would offer an explicit government guarantee on the $5 trillion of debt owned or guaranteed by the companies. But that is a far less attractive option, they said, because it would effectively double the size of the public debt.
The officials also said that such a step would be ineffective because the markets already widely accept that the government stands behind the companies.