THE hefty financial overhaul that Barack Obama signed into law on July 21st (pictured) left behind one big piece of unfinished business. In 2008 Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, mortally wounded from losses on loans acquired during the bubble, were placed in “conservatorship”, a halfway house between bankruptcy and outright nationalisation. There they remain, their losses duly covered with new injections of capital by the Treasury—$145 billion so far. Tim Geithner, the treasury secretary, has promised to address the matter of Fannie and Freddie by early next year but so far he has no answers, only questions (literally so: in April he asked the public to comment on seven of them).
The hesitancy is understandable. Millstones though they are, the two firms remain critical to the economy. In the first quarter they and Ginnie Mae (which unlike Fannie and Freddie has always enjoyed the explicit backing of the state) guaranteed 96.5% of all newly originated mortgages, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, a newsletter.
这种顾虑也是可以理解的。解决两房问题固然具有里程碑的意义，两房对经济仍然有关键性作用。根据通讯社Inside Mortgage Finance数据，在第一季度两房和吉利美（跟两房不同，吉利美一直有明确的政府担保）担保了所有新增按揭贷款中的96.5%。
It is almost certain that the companies will no longer be allowed to hold a substantial in-house portfolio of securities. Yet the Treasury must still decide what to do with the $5 trillion in mortgages the companies guarantee. It could continue to pump money into the companies to cover losses on the loans as they mature; it could take explicit responsibility for them, inflating the national debt; or it could sell them to private investors.
The cost is apt to be high, regardless. Most of the losses of Fannie and Freddie result from mortgages originated before 2008. Mortgages originated in 2006 and 2007 account for 24% of Fannie’s business but 67% of its credit losses.
In 2008 both firms began tightening their underwriting criteria and raising the fees they charge to guarantee mortgage-backed securities (MBS). Between 2007 and 2009 the proportion of their loans with a loan-to-value ratio of 70% or less rose from 31% to 49%, while the share with a loan-to-value ratio above 95% fell from 10% to 1%, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency, their regulator. At Freddie Mac 3.9% of mortgages originated in 2008 were at least 90 days delinquent at the end of March 2010. For mortgages originated in 2009, the equivalent figure was barely 0.1%, although renewed signs of weakness in the housing market may yet cause that figure to worsen. “We’ll be paying for the sins of the past for a long time, even though the current book of business is generating positive economic value,” says one official.
If Fannie and Freddie are making money now that they are pricing their insurance differently, this suggests that the private sector could do their job. (Ginnie Mae would continue to back loans to low-income families.) Michael Lea of San Diego State University notes in a recent paper that most other countries get by with far less government backing of mortgage finance, yet their home-ownership rates are not appreciably lower and none suffered as bad a housing crash (see table).
如果现在两房靠改变他们原来的保险定价就能赚钱，这也意味着私营企业也同样能过做到。（吉利美仍将继续为低收入家庭担保贷款）。圣地亚哥州立大学（San Diego State University）的Michael Lea在最近的一份文件中提到绝大多数其他国家靠着比美国少得多的政府对房贷的担保就能维持，然而那些国家的房屋拥有率并没有比美国显著地低多少，而且他们中一个也没有向美国这样饱受房贷崩盘之苦。
Most reform proposals to date, however, still envisage a permanent federal backstop. Donald Marron and Phillip Swagel, two economists who served in the administration of George Bush, say the federal government should sell an explicit guarantee at a rate designed to recoup future losses to Fannie, Freddie or a purely private competitor. Wayne Passmore and Diana Hancock, economists at the Federal Reserve, similarly propose a government insurance fund that would sell guarantees for any asset-backed security. The Mortgage Bankers Association, a trade group, proposes that the government charter a new set of purely private mortgage insurers who would then have to buy backup federal insurance.
然而到目前为止的所有改革提案都仍然假设政府会永久性地托盘。小布什总统任上的两位经济学家Donald Marron和Phillip Swagel认为联邦政府应该按照一个设定好的能够从两房或者其他纯粹的私营竞争者那里回收预期损失的价格来出售政府公开担保。美联储的经济学家Wayne Passmore和Diana Hancock也类似地提出建立一个政府保险基金以出售所有的对资产抵押贷款证券的担保。抵押贷款银行家协会（Mortgage Bankers Association）作为一个交易商协会提出由政府出面给一系列纯私营抵押贷款保险公司颁发许可证，然后让这些保险公司购买政府担保。
In America 60% of mortgages are securitised rather than kept on banks’ balance-sheets. That partly reflects Americans’ preference for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages that can be pre-paid without penalty—a difficult sort of asset for banks to hedge. The securitisation rate is more than twice as much as that in Canada, Spain and Britain, the next-highest countries. Defenders of a federal backstop say this leaves the American system uniquely vulnerable during a crisis, when investors will refuse to buy any MBS that lacks a government guarantee. Mr Swagel and Mr Marron argue that investors will, probably correctly, assume that the government will always intervene, so it makes sense to charge for that guarantee explicitly.
Ruling out a private-sector solution may be premature. Guy Cecala of Inside Mortgage Finance says the government could start to revive the private-label MBS market by gradually rolling back expanded limits on the size of loans it will guarantee. Other changes to the mortgage market, such as better underwriting, greater use of covered bonds and more adjustable-rate mortgages, would help reduce the need for a guarantee. That said, the private sector is too weak to do much right now. However unnecessary in the long run, the government’s dominance of the mortgage market will not end soon.
完全排除私营机构的解决方法未免有点草率。Inside Mortgage Finance的Guy Cecala认为政府可以通过降低已经提高了的政府愿意担保的贷款的额度下限来激活私营房贷证券市场。对房贷市场的其他改革诸如更严格的放贷政策、更多地使用有资产担保证券和可调利率抵押贷款也会降低对政府担保的需求。即便如此，私营机构目前也太弱做不了很多。尽管长期看来不是很有必要，但是政府在抵押贷款市场的垄断性地位短期内不会结束。