Freddie Mac has kicked off - through a $350 million deal it expects to place with investors by Wednesday - a program under which it would bypass Wall Street and package its own mortgage securities.
The move is the first by Freddie Mac- working through its trading unit- to take on the key tasks of structuring, pricing, and distributing sophisticated investments known as real estate mortgage investment conduits, or Remics. The government-sponsored enterprise hopes to boost fee income and provide new options to lenders and investors.
Investment banks have handled these deals and reaped the fee income they generate since the mortgage securities market's inception in the mid-1980s.
"We've looked at the marketplace, the lay of the land, and concluded that this is a good business" to be in, said Charles Foster, acting director of the securities sales and trading group, the Freddie Mac unit handling the deal.
"This may be an advantageous way to distribute collateral we own," Mr. Foster said. He also said Freddie Mac's efforts as a Remic underwriter would be modest, although he declined to say what kind of volume the company might do.
A spokesman for Freddie Mac declined to estimate possible earnings from the new activity, but did say that fee income would be nowhere near the hundreds of millions of dollars it earns through its large holding of mortgage loans and securities.
Late last year, a consultant working with Freddie Mac estimated that underwriters get $450,000 for every $1 billion of loans they package into Remics, making the business potentially lucrative for a company with the necessary systems and staff.
This year, underwriters are on track to top the $50 billion of Remics that were generated in 1996. Indeed, demand for the products has snapped back sharply after unexpected interest rate fluctuations burned investors in 1994 and 1995.
Underwriters create Remics by packaging whole loans and plain-vanilla mortgage securities and slicing them into sections, or tranches, that carry different maturities and market risks. The goal in assembling a Remic is for its parts to sell for more than the loans and mortgage securities would bring individually, generating a fee for the underwriter.
Freddie Mac had been considering crafting its own Remics for more than a year. Last month, it came up with a deal it felt was worthwhile to the company, investors, and mortgage companies whose loans serve as collateral for the securities. Mr. Foster declined to offer details, saying information about the lenders and the buyer or buyers is confidential.
He did say that Freddie Mac will craft more Remics, although the company plans to be a smaller player. "We do not have a strategy to dominate the new-issue Remic market," Mr. Foster said.
Still, Freddie's activities figure to cut into the traditional business of major mortgage underwriters like Lehman Brothers Inc., PaineWebber Inc., and Salomon Brothers Inc.
These and other Wall Street firms "are not going to be happy" that Freddie Mac is underwriting Remics, said Steven Eisman, mortgage analyst at Oppenheimer & Co.
"You can be sure this is something that will be closely watched," said an executive at a large investment bank.
Still, Wall Street executives stopped short of being openly critical because of all the business they still receive from Freddie Mac.
Others are playing down any impact the move may have. "It may not be terrible after all," said a veteran mortgage underwriter. He said the structuring and distribution operations that Freddie Mac operates from its McLean, Va., headquarters are a lot smaller than those managed by Wall Street firms.