In another sign that their priorities have shifted since their government takeover, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae canceled fee hikes that had been scheduled to go into effect next month.
Fannie announced after the market closed Thursday that it would not double its 25-basis-point "adverse market delivery charge," as it had said it would in August.
Freddie announced a similar about-face Friday morning, saying it was holding its equivalent fee steady "to help stimulate the market."
The two government-sponsored enterprises began charging the fees, which supplement their usual guarantee fees, in March.
Freddie also gave preliminary details on other pricing and underwriting changes, some of which reflect "the continuing performance deterioration of certain mortgages originated in early 2008," and on guidelines for the larger loan amounts authorized by legislation enacted this summer.
The changes and the guidelines will apply to loans sold to Freddie beginning Jan. 2.
Since the GSEs were put into conservatorship last month, "you would expect that certain of the policies that they have put into play over the last couple of months might not be fully executed," said Keith Gumbinger, a vice president at the research firm HSH Associates. "Frankly, you're not protecting the private shareholders any longer. So to deter access to credit in markets where borrowers so desperately need it all because you've made changes to … [loan-to-value] ratios or price or what have you, you don't have to do that anymore."
He expects Fannie and Freddie to relax their policies further over time. "I think you are going to see some loosening and some changes in certain of the tighter underwriting criteria that had come in."
In testimony on Capitol Hill last week, James Lockhart, the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the conservator for Fannie and Freddie, said he had told their newly installed chief executives "to examine the underwriting standards" and pricing structures. "They have begun to do so, and I expect any changes to reflect both safe and sound business strategy and attentiveness" to the mission of supporting the housing market.
Herbert Allison, Fannie's CEO, told lawmakers last week that in light of these goals, his GSE has been purchasing more mortgage bonds, focusing on loan modifications, and "examining our underwriting and pricing standards to assure that the appropriate balance is struck between expanding our activities and safeguarding the interests of taxpayers."
He acknowledged that these steps "may entail risks and costs in the short-run," but said they will help to "staunch the flow of foreclosures" and to "put a floor under home prices."
Market watchers have said they have noticed an increased willingness by Fannie and Freddie to work with troubled borrowers since the takeover.
Mr. Gumbinger said the restrictive policies and fees put in place over the last year are far less significant to mortgage rates than conditions in capital markets. Wide spreads between mortgage and benchmark rates are "really more a reflection of the ongoing buyer's strike … rather than the specific composition of the price for Fannie or Freddie."
The GSEs' price hikes and restrictions had "some minor effect on where spreads have been," he said. "More properly, they are reflective of the stressors that are still in the marketplace."