WASHINGTON The White House said Monday that the federal takeover of troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could have been prevented if Congress had only acted on its recommendations for changing the system, but housing experts say it's more complicated than that.
"It is exactly the kind of event we warned about and tried to prevent over the years," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "Remember that we have highlighted the systemic risk posed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac because of the very large role they play in housing markets and because of their business practices."
She said the White House has asked Congress "for years" to establish a strong independent regulator to oversee the institutions.
Fannie and Freddie were created by Congress to pump money into the mortgage market, and thus keep interest rates low and make home ownership affordable for low- and moderate-income people, by buying home loans from lenders that frees them to make more loans. The companies have grown to the point that they together own or guarantee about $5 trillion in home mortgages, about half the nation's total.
It is true that the Bush administration had repeatedly pressed Congress for wholesale changes in the government-sponsored entities, long before the current housing crisis unfolded.
In 2003, for instance, Bush asked Congress for a stronger government hand over them, in the form of a regulator with the ability to control the companies' activities and oversee their accounting practices. The administration also has wanted the companies' massive mortgage portfolios reduced to lessen the risk of any problems affecting the overall system. Other points of criticism have been the fact that the companies, by virtue of their special status, can keep smaller capital reserves on hand than other financial institutions.
"We prefer for Congress to take care of its own business," Perino said. "Unfortunately, Congress didn't act on that. ... This was allowed to get out of control."
However, the administration's message on the companies has been mixed. As recently as July, the administration's regulator of the two mortgage giants said they had adequate capital.
And most housing experts believe that the problems that brought down Fannie and Freddie went far beyond the type of regulation that Bush had proposed, much of which was finally imposed on the two organizations this summer. While tighter regulation, enacted earlier, perhaps would have kept the two institutions from engaging in some of their riskier practices, they also were functioning in a highly unstable housing environment.
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, a Republican re-appointed by Bush, contributed to this by keeping interest rates too low for too long, triggering a housing bubble that sent prices soaring to unsustainable levels. In addition, Greenspan blocked efforts to impose stronger controls on subprime mortgage lending. It has been surging defaults in this riskiest category of lending that have been a major contributor to the mortgage crisis.
The government is placing both Fannie and Freddie in a government conservatorship.
Perino highlighted that the takeover will allow time for Congress and the next administration to determine the appropriate future role for the companies. She said their primary mission should be to increase the availability and affordability of home mortgages something many critics think the companies have moved away from.
"Whatever eventual longtime solution is decided for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac," Perino said, "it is crucial that there are reforms so they do not pose similar risks to our economy or the financial system again."
President Bush, meanwhile, said he is pleased with the action and believes "it will stabilize the markets."
"I wouldn't call it a bailout," he said in an interview conducted Sunday with Fox News Channel's "Fox & Friends" show, and set to air Tuesday. "I'd call it a stabilization."
Perino said the nation's "economy will not return to strong job growth until the housing correction is behind us."
Perino was pressed repeatedly about how Bush a fiscal conservative could champion such a historic government takeover and intervention in markets.
"This is not action that we wanted to take. It's action that we needed to take," she replied.
Analysts were split on how much the takeover could eventually cost taxpayers although they all agreed the upfront costs will be substantial, possibly hitting $100 billion as the Treasury is called upon to bolster the capital cushions at both institutions. Perino said the administration is moving "to make sure that the taxpayers would be paid back first."
"The goal is to prevent additional risk to the taxpayers," she said.
Associated Press writers Marty Crutsinger and Jeanine Aversa contributed to this story.