The running debate over the privileged status of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae took a new turn last week when Rep. James A. Leach, who heads the House Banking Committee, roundly attacked Freddie because of its purchase last week of $125 million in Phillip Morris bonds.

Freddie had sold $125 million of its own bonds of the same maturity earlier in the week. The rate on the Freddie Mac bonds was 6.99%, reflecting its near-agency status in the credit markets. The Phillip Morris bonds yield 7.68%.

That adds up to a neat piece of financial management. Anticipate your future credit needs, jump on a favorable interest rate when it becomes available, then park the proceeds in a higher-yielding security with a matching duration until you need the money.

The maneuver nets a profit of $862,500 a year-if Freddie holds the Phillip Morris bonds that long.

But Rep. Leach believes he has caught Freddie with a smoking gun: subsidized support for the pariah tobacco industry. "Even if the investments in Phillip Morris securities turn out to be technically legal, they are clearly inappropriate," he said in a press release. Freddie's special status, he said, was intended to promote homeownership, not tobacco sales.

Rep. Leach's complaint raises some tricky questions. One could argue that Freddie Mac is already making tons of money, and the kind of maneuver involving the Phillip Morris debt simply enriches shareholders while putting the government at risk. Rep. Leach wrote, "It is a free lunch for Freddie Mac's shareholders."

But one could also argue that Freddie should not be shackled from doing the best possible job of financial management and protecting the interests of all concerned in the process.

Rep. Leach, meanwhile, has asked the General Accounting Office to investigate Freddie's investment practices. He asked the office to determine whether Freddie Mac's arbitrage operations are extensive, whether it has legal authority to invest in the securities of private companies, and other questions.

A Freddie Mac spokeswoman, responding to Rep. Leach's comments, said Freddie "routinely deploys capital in a range of sound mortgage and nonmortgage securities that provide a good return and liquidity."

She added that such procedures help support homeownership and that Freddie "fully intends" to explain its investment policies if called upon to do so.

One thing that's indisputable is that Freddie Mac has been doing well by its shareholders. The company reported Tuesday that its earnings per share rose 10% in the first quarter to a record 44 cents. Net income climbed 9.3% to $329 million.

Commenting on the results, Leland C. Brendsel, chairman and chief executive, said, "Our sound business strategies, capital deployment discipline, effective risk management, and leadership ... position us well for strong performance in 1997 and beyond."

David Glenn, president, said that growth in its retained portfolio remained strong in the quarter despite tight financing spreads. The amount of mortgages in the portfolio declined by 1.3% from the level a year earlier but holdings of guaranteed mortgage securities surged by 38%. As a result, the net portfolio grew by about 23%.

Credit-related expenses-loss provisions plus the cost of maintaining foreclosed property-dropped by 8% in the quarter from the level a year earlier.

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