In a move that could markedly lift mortgage lending, Freddie Mac is launching a program to help lenders sell home loans that are larger or shakier than industry norms.
The secondary-market agency announced that it has arranged for CWM Holdings, an affiliate of Countrywide Credit Industries, to buy "nonconforming" mortgages that lenders review with Freddie Mac software.
The plan, experts say, could go a long way toward standardizing the market for mortgages bigger than $207,000 and for "B and C" mortgages, or loans to people with blemished credit histories. Freddie Mac and its rival, Fannie Mae, do not buy those loans.
"This is a positive," said Joel A. Broatman, senior vice president at Poughkeepsie Savings Bank, Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "It will encourage banks and other mortgage lenders who avoided this kind of lending to get involved."
The market for loans not meeting the agencies' criteria already is huge. Last year, these loans accounted for more than 35% of the $636 billion of mortgages originated nationwide, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association of America.
Many mortgage lenders, however, have left nonconforming loans to large finance companies because underwriting standards have been inconsistent and pricing has been erratic.
Freddie Mac, formally the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., launched the nonconforming-loan initiative as a pilot last October, with help from Standard & Poor's Corp. The arrangement also included two companies that buy loans from lenders and repackage them as securities: Residential Funding Corp. and Innovative Mortgage Solutions.
The addition of CWM Holdings to the program moves it from a pilot to a full-scale operation. CWM's prominence and its sponsorship by Countrywide, the nation's largest independent mortgage company, adds weight to the effort.
A surge in the price and trading volume of CWM's shares before the announcement led Freddie Mac to announce the agreement Friday, sooner than it had planned. CWM followed with an identical announcement later in the day.
Word of the alliance apparently leaked out, and trading in CWM shares was extraordinarily heavy from the opening bell. Volume reached 1.3 million shares Friday, eight or 10 times typical volume.
The new program will bring clear financial benefits to Freddie Mac. The agency will get a fee of between $100 and $125 per loan, said Livia S. Asher, a financial analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co.
In addition, the alliance will broaden the reach of Freddie Mac's underwriting system, making it a "full-service system" and bringing in more volume, Ms. Asher said.
Freddie Mac's involvement also could affect pricing in the nonconforming market.
"It will drive down margins because you'll have more banks competing for the business," said Christine Clifford, an analyst at David Olson Research, Columbia, Md.
But Ms. Clifford said banks should be careful as they step into this market. Nonconforming loans are often subjectively written and may not fit into the cookie-cutter approach of automated underwriting, she said.
"Until you've seen the loan's performance using the underwriting technology, you're not going to know how good it is," she said.
Friday's movement in CWM stock was also cause for comment. The shares started the day at $15.75 and rose as high as $18.75 before settling at $17.875.
Officials at Freddie Mac and CWM said they could not account for the activity. But the movement raised eyebrows and speculation about insider trading.
Federal law generally prohibits anyone with material knowledge from buying or selling stock based on that information before it becomes public. A surge in stock activity can be a sign of insider trading, said Robert Kurucza, a law partner at Morrison & Foerster, Washington.
But Mr. Kurucza said, "It's hard to determine until all the facts are known."
A spokesman for the Securities and Exchange Commission would not comment on Friday's activity in CWM stock.