WASHINGTON A federal rescue of troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could cost taxpayers as much as $25 billion, Congress' top budget analyst said Tuesday.
But Peter R. Orszag, director of the Congressional Budget Office, predicted in a letter to lawmakers that there's a better than 50 percent chance the government will not have to step in to prop up the companies by lending them money or buying stock.
Congress is expected to vote this week on a housing measure that would give the Treasury Department authority to throw Fannie and Freddie a temporary lifeline.
Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, who has been pressing for the power, says it's intended as a backup plan to help calm investors and stabilize financial markets.
Paulson said in a New York speech Tuesday that Congress needs to quickly approve a support package for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac which guarantee or own almost half of the home mortgages in the country to make sure they maintain their critically important role in housing finance. He said their continued operations were "central to the speed with which we emerge from this housing correction."
Treasury officials confirmed that bank examiners from both the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller are currently inspecting the books at both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Paulson said in an interview published Tuesday in the New York Times that he believed the results of those examinations would provide an important signal of confidence for the markets.
After a period of market turbulence in which fears grew about the fiscal soundness of both institutions, the administration on July 13 unveiled a plan to provide unlimited government loans to the two mortgage giants and also to purchase stock in the two companies if needed. Paulson has stressed that the proposal is a backup effort that would be in effect for 18 months as a way to calm investor fears.
Critics have charged that the open-ended offer of support exposes taxpayers to billions of dollars of losses.
Paulson said that Fannie and Freddie have issued $5 trillion in debt and mortgage backed securities. Of that amount more than $3 trillion is held by U.S. financial institutions and over $1.5 trillion is held by foreign institutions, making the stabilization of the two companies essential to the global economy.
"Because of their size and scope, Fannie and Freddie's stability is critical to financial market stability," Paulson told an audience at the New York Public Library. "Investors in our nation and around the world need to know that we understand how important these institutions are to our capital markets broadly and to the U.S. economy."
During a question and answer period, Paulson said that housing was at the "heart of our nation's economy." He added that a key to turning the housing market around was bringing home buyers back into the market, an area where he said Fannie and Freddie needed to play a critical role to provide mortgage financing.The effort to provide support to the two mortgage giants follows the government's involvement in dealing with the near-collapse of Bear Stearns in March when the Federal Reserve provided a $30 billion loan to facilitate the sale of Bear Stearns to JPMorgan.
AP reporters Candice Choi in New York and Jeannine Aversa in Washington contributed to this report.