WASHINGTON — The Treasury Department is still working on a plan to use Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to lower mortgage rates to 4.5%, but their regulator says rates may soon drop to that level — or below — on their own.
In an interview Thursday, James Lockhart, the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, also said that the federal government does not need to explicitly back the debt of the two government-sponsored enterprises, and that the Federal Home Loan banks will have to accept accounting issues that have sparked losses.
The Treasury is expected to unveil a plan soon that would call on Fannie and Freddie to purchase mortgage-backed securities to lower mortgage rates for new home purchases. But Mr. Lockhart said that lower funding costs at the GSEs may cause rates to decrease on their own.
"If mortgage spreads to Treasuries return to lower, more reasonable levels — say, the levels of a year and a half or two years ago — you'd actually see at this point mortgage rates probably below 4.5% or even 4%," he said. "Part of it is restoring the confidence in the system and getting those giant spreads out, and so we're seeing very low borrowing rates by Fannie and Freddie. … Hopefully, those will be passed on in the natural course of things."
Mr. Lockhart stopped short of saying the Treasury plan was unnecessary, but he did say Fannie's ability to issue debt this week with five-year maturities at a relatively low rate of 2.875% was a good sign.
The lower costs have not translated into cheaper mortgages. The national average rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage climbed 6 basis points from a week earlier, to 5.64% as of Thursday, according to Bankrate Inc.
But in the interview, Mr. Lockhart was generally optimistic about the mortgage market and said putting the GSEs into conservatorship in September was the right thing to do.
"The conservatorship helped," he said. "It has not been a straight line down, but I think progress has been made."
One of the more unusual effects of the government seizure of Fannie and Freddie has been the continued debate over whether their debt is backed by the government. Bank debt is now explicitly backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., but Mr. Lockhart has said the GSEs have only an "effective" guarantee.
That has forced Fannie and Freddie to pay more for their debt, but Mr. Lockhart appeared content with the status quo. He said a plan announced last month by the Federal Reserve Board to buy up to $100 billion of GSE debt eliminates the need for Congress to guarantee Fannie and Freddie debt explicitly.
"I don't think it's necessary," he said. "I think the facility is working … and I think we're going to see rates come down."
Mr. Lockhart also said the FDIC guarantee has not made GSE debt more expensive. "That's not what I'm seeing in the marketplace," he said. "GSE debt does have what I've called the effective guarantee."
The distinction between an "effective" and "explicit" guarantee has puzzled observers. Some say the government does not want to guarantee GSE debt explicitly because that would involve taking the debt on to the government's balance sheet.
"It's hilarious that we're still dancing around this issue," said Joshua Rosner, a managing director at the research firm Graham Fisher & Co. "And we're dancing around this issue more from a government budget perspective than anything else. We've only increased the expectation of an explicit guarantee."
Mr. Lockhart rejected the notion that regulators have responded to the financial crisis in a disjointed fashion, with the FDIC guarantee ultimately requiring the Fed to step in with its purchase agreement to assist the GSEs.
"When you take bold steps, there can be unintended consequences," he said.
He also said that under the auspices of the Finance Agency, Fannie and Freddie will make significant strides in furthering loan modifications. A program scheduled to go live Monday will require Fannie and Freddie to agree to modifications from servicers that lower borrowers' mortgage debt-to-income ratio to 38% for mortgages with a loan-to-value ratio of at least 90%.
Servicers also could alter loan terms and principal while lowering interest rates to as low as 3% and reamortizing the mortgages over 40 years.
"This will be a significant step forward on modifications," he said.
Recent data has cast doubt on the effectiveness of modifications. Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan said Monday that many of the loans that have been modified over the past year have defaulted again within six months.
But Mr. Lockhart said that the defaults reflect the poor quality of modifications conducted to date, and that his program would be more effective, because it would involve more dramatic changes to troubled loans.
"A lot of the modifications … don't do much about lowering interest rates significantly," he said.
FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair has said the GSE modification program will not be broad enough, and she has suggested that the debt-to-income ratio go as low as 31%. Though Mr. Lockhart did not rule out lowering the ratio, he did say that the 38% level outlined in his plan is a compromise designed to keep both investors and troubled borrowers happy.
"We felt that 38% was a good compromise and still had a significant impact," he said. "It's a trade-off to the investor or the bank holding the mortgage. Do you need to go to that level to keep people in that house?"
Though much of the Finance Agency's attention is on managing Fannie and Freddie in conservatorship, Mr. Lockhart said he is aware of the toll private-label mortgage-backed securities are taking on the Home Loan banks. The Atlanta, Chicago, and Seattle banks recorded other-than-temporary impairments related to writedowns of private-label securities during the third quarter. And the Boston bank said Monday that it could face an impairment on its private-label holdings in the future.
The banks have blamed mark-to-market accounting for their losses, and some in the Federal Home Loan Bank System have been hopeful that the Finance Agency would weigh in to help them. But Mr. Lockhart said he is uninterested in broad accounting changes.
"My view on fair value is I think it provides useful information and is important to have," he said. "If an asset is impaired, it should be written down."
He said his opinion is not affected by the fact that most Home Loan banks hold their private-label holdings to maturity, with the presumption that their value might be regained over time.
"Impairment means at maturity it still won't have 100% value," Mr. Lockhart said.