WASHINGTON - Rural bankers, who put up $10 million seven years ago to help get Farmer Mac started, are hoping Congress will protect their investment.

The House Agriculture Committee is set to vote today on legislation to ease capital standards and other restrictions on the Federal Agriculture Mortgage Corp. - Farmer Mac.

Farmer Mac officials, along with representatives from the American Bankers Association and the Independent Bankers Association of America, argue that the legislation is needed to save the money-losing government- sponsored enterprise, which securitizes farm mortgages.

The House Agriculture Committee is expected to approve the bill. The Senate Agriculture Committee endorsed it in July. Backers then will push to get the measure approved by the full House and Senate before the end of the year.

"The capital markets are watching the progress of HR 2130, and unless it is enacted this year, they may conclude that Congress is indifferent to Farmer Mac's plight," Farmer Mac Chairman C. Eugene Branstool told House Agriculture members last week. "As a consequence, Farmer Mac's access to the capital markets would be seriously compromised."

The urgency is due to a 1991 law that requires a sharp increase in Farmer Mac capital requirements by December 1996. Without changes in the law, Farmer Mac would be forced out of business.

The reform legislation would defer the capital standards for three years. It also would allow Farmer Mac to pool loans itself, instead of just guaranteeing loan pools assembled by others, and remove the mandatory 10% cash reserve or subordinated participation interest now required with every loan pool.

The hope is that the changes will help Farmer Mac loan business grow to the $1.6 billion needed to make a profit. As of Sept. 30, loan volume was $507 million.

Some critics have questioned whether, even with the changes, Farmer Mac can ever generate enough business to turn a profit. But there is no organized opposition to the reform bill.

The Farm Credit System, though it owns almost half of Farmer Mac's stock, has long seen the organization more as a competitor than an ally. But by agreeing not to oppose a Farm Credit regulatory relief bill also set to be voted on today by House Agriculture, the ABA and IBAA persuaded the Farm Credit Council not to oppose Farmer Mac reform.

"Bankers want to give Farmer Mac its best shot to function," said ABA lobbyist Josh Tenuta. "They felt the original structure didn't work for them."

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