By Margaret Chadbourn
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the country's two largest mortgage finance providers, are expected to gradually increase the fees they charge lenders in the next year, their federal regulator said on Monday.
The "guarantee fees" that the two government-owned companies charge would be increased in order to lessen the companies' long-term exposure to risk, said Edward DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
The two firms, which were seized by the government three years ago amid fears they were at risk of failing, do not directly make loans. They provide financing to banks and lenders by purchasing mortgages and either keeping them on their books or packaging them for sale to investors. Those investors pay Fannie and Freddie a "guarantee fee" when they buy mortgages.
An increase in fees would be in line with their regulator's "mandate as conservator and in terms of moving toward something that better reflects a fully private model," DeMarco told reporters after addressing a mortgage conference sponsored by the North Carolina Mortgage Bankers Association.
He said Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which have so far cost taxpayers more than $140 billion, should begin "the gradual process of increasing guarantee fees" in 2012.
The White House has backed increasing the guarantee fees as part of way to lessen the government's footprint in the U.S. housing finance system and attract more private capital to the mortgage market.
As part of a new plan to cut budget deficits, President Barack Obama on Monday recommended a 10 basis point increase in the guarantee fees, which would produce projected savings of $28 billion over 10 years.
DeMarco said the changes in guarantee fees that Fannie and Freddie could charge in the coming year may include increased costs for riskier loans and for mortgages in states with more stringent foreclosure laws.
"The loss given default on a mortgage is determined in part on where that mortgage is located in the country," he said.
In October, the first step to lessen the government's backstop for housing will come when the size of the loans Fannie, Freddie and the Federal Housing Administration can purchase fall back to pre-financial crisis levels.
The so-called conforming loan limit caps are set to decline from $729,500 in the highest-priced real estate markets to $625,500 on October 1.
Some fear the new rules could crimp the housing market at a time when it needs help.
"What we don't need right now from Fannie and Freddie is higher fees, what we need from them is to make loans," said Lewis Ranieri, founder and president of Philadelphia-based Ranieri & Co.
"This is when you actually want to be in business, with the lowest rates in history," said Ranieri, who helped develop the model for the private mortgage-backed securities market.
Average rates for 30-year fixed mortgages fell to a record low 4.09 percent last week, according to Freddie Mac data. But with the U.S. jobless rate hovering over 9 percent and consumer confidence slumping, demand for new home loans remains weak.
DeMarco also said the FHFA was still working on making changes to a two-year-old program that allows borrowers to refinance mortgages already owned by Fannie and Freddie. Only 830,000 homeowners have refinanced under the initiative, far fewer than the 5 million the program aimed to reach.
"We're going back through the mechanics about how this works to see whether there are adjustments that can be made," DeMarco said. "This is something that we are looking at."
DeMarco said he is also working with the Obama administration to find the best way to structure a program that would convert foreclosed properties held by Fannie and Freddie into rental homes. The goal is to shrink a glut of foreclosed properties held by the two mortgage finance giants that are weighing down the housing market and hurting home prices.
James Parrott, a senior adviser on the White House National Economic Council, told the conference that it is a "critical time for housing" and the administration needs to continue to work with regulators and the industry "to push in the same direction" on implementing rules that shape mortgage finance.