The chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. offered modest support Friday for a controversial plan to make Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shoulder part of the expense of the savings and loan bailout.
The comments by Ricki Helfer could add weight to a renewed effort by House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach to take on the politically powerful mortgage agencies. The agencies immediately blasted the comments.
Ms. Helfer, addressing the Community Bankers Association of Kansas, stopped short of endorsing the plan outright. But she did say the measure "deserves serious consideration."
Rep. Leach's proposal calls for Fannie and Freddie - formally the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. - to pay half the $800 million of annual interest due on Financing Corp. bonds. The government issued the bonds in the late 1980s in the first phase of the thrift bailout.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the pillars of the modern mortgage market, "could certainly afford" to pick up half the payments, Ms. Helfer said.
Told of the comments, both mortgage agencies bristled.
"The leadership of both parties and the administration have said that this kind of proposal is a tax on homeownership," said David Jeffers, a spokesman for Fannie Mae.
"Freddie and Fannie don't take deposits, and it is illogical that we - or homebuyers - should pick up the tab that depositories pledged to repay," added Mitchell Delk, Freddie Mac's vice president for governmental relations.
Rep. Leach, for his part, tried last week to enlist the backing of House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Tex., for the potentially bruising fight with the secondary market agencies.
In a hard-hitting letter to Mr. Armey, the Iowa Republican said Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's shareholders retained about $2 billion in a "governmentally granted windfall" last year and can well afford to share in the bond repayments.
Right now, interest on the so-called Fico bonds is paid from thrift deposit insurance premiums. But regulators are worried that the thrift insurance fund may shrink so much that assessment revenue would be inadequate to keep paying the interest.
The mortgage agencies have defeated several legislative attempts to get them to pay part of the tab for the Fico bonds. Banks also have balked at proposals requiring them to make most of the payments. They want Congress first to merge the bank and thrift charters and give them enhanced powers.
Ms. Helfer, echoing earlier comments by Rep. Leach, said it would be in the best interest of the government-sponsored mortgage agencies to pay. She said a bond default would weaken faith in the agencies' own bonds, which, like the Fico bonds, lack backing of the government's full faith and credit.
But Mr. Delk argued that a Fico default wouldn't hurt Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae. "People in the market can distinguish between the two obligations," he said.
Ms. Helfer's speech capped a week in which the FDIC chairman intensified her lobbying for a legislative solution to the problems of the thrift insurance fund.
Ms. Helfer said that if the Leach proposal is ignored other, more onerous solutions may be on the horizon. There is talk in Washington, she said, of merging the bank insurance fund and the thrift insurance fund without asking thrifts first to pay $5 billion to recapitalize their fund.
That approach would cause an immediate drop in the combined funds' reserve ratio. The merged fund would be "$4 billion short" of the required reserve ratio of $1.25 for each $100 of deposits, she stated.
"Assessment rates would have to be increased by 13 basis points" to cover the shortfall, Ms. Helfer warned. In addition, she said, banks would still have to pay a portion of the Fico interest.
Snigdha Prakash contributed to this report.