WASHINGTON - A federal rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could cost taxpayers $25 billion, congressional budget experts said Tuesday, as lawmakers put finishing touches on legislation that would tap the troubled mortgage giants’ profits to help save homeowners from foreclosure.
A costly rescue is just a worry, not a fact at this point. Peter R. Orszag, director of the Congressional Budget Office, predicted in a letter to lawmakers that there’s a better than even chance the government will not have to step in to prop up the companies by lending them money or buying stock.
But Congress is expected to vote as early as today on a housing measure that would give the Treasury Department authority to throw Fannie and Freddie a temporary lifeline.
It’s part of a plan to let hundreds of thousands of strapped homeowners refinance into more affordable, government-backed loans at fixed rates rather than losing their homes. Defying President Bush, the bill would send $4 billion to neighborhoods hit hardest by the housing crisis — something that has prompted the White House to threaten a veto.
The measure also would create a new regulator and tighter controls on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored companies that own or guarantee $5 trillion in U.S. mortgages — almost half the nation’s total.
And it would create a new affordable housing fund, which would be drawn from the firms’ profits and cover any losses from the foreclosure rescue plan.
Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson has been pressing to add to the bill temporary power for the government to offer unlimited sums to prop up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a backup plan he says is intended to help calm investors and stabilize financial markets.
The firms’ stocks have plummeted on fears about their financial stability in a chaotic housing market where falling home values and rising defaults have contributed to large losses at the companies.