Critics of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac turned up the heat last week at an all-day conference organized by consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
Speakers said the two agencies enjoy the advantages of implied government backing but do not do enough to assist low-income and minority borrowers.
"It's a fair question whether the government, as charter investor, has received an adequate return," said Nicolas P. Retsinas, the former housing secretary who is now director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard.
Though Fannie and Freddie have done an "exemplary" job of meeting the three current affordable housing goals outlined by the Federal Housing Enterprises Financial Safety and Soundness Act of 1992, Mr. Retsinas said, it may be time to reevaluate what the government is measuring and whether additional goals ought to be established.
Rep. James Leach, R-Iowa, chairman of the House Banking Committee and a frequent critic of Fannie and Freddie, used the event to float the idea of requiring Treasury Department representation on the two companies' boards.
The debate over whether Fannie and Freddie enjoy an undue advantage in the marketplace is hardly new. But the public airing of the issue, the first organized by Mr. Nader, came at an awkward time for Fannie and Freddie.
The two companies, which buy mortgage loans and package them for investors, are lobbying to block an initiative to expand federal loan guarantees for low- and moderate-income borrowers that could encroach on their market share. At the same time they are trying to highlight their own efforts in affordable housing.
Officials of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac denied the agencies are subsidized or enjoy an unfair advantage. They said that their charters provide the tools to provide consumers with mortgages at the lowest prices.
Ann B. Schnare, senior vice president for corporate relations at Freddie Mac, estimated that Fannie and Freddie save American homebuyers $10 billion each year.
Mr. Nader said the time was ripe for a major conference on the subject because of the huge profits being reaped by the two agencies, which he said amount to a "duopoly" in the market for loans within the agencies' $227,000 limit.
He called for hearings to eliminate the "fuzziness" that surrounds these "neither fish-nor-fowl corporations."
Fannie and Freddie are exempt from state and local income tax, have lower borrowing costs, have no deposit insurance premiums, and have half the capital requirements of banks and thrifts in terms of portfolio investments, speakers said.
Mr. Leach, citing a Congressional Budget Office study, said the perception of an implicit federal guarantee helps lower Fannie and Freddie's funding costs by $8 billion annually.
Mr. Leach pointed to the tendency of the government-sponsored entities to "take advantage of the privilege of borrowing at government rates to make investments untied to their missions."
Mr. Leach proposed that Congress require a Treasury Department representative on each of the government-sponsored entities' boards, to increase regulatory control. "The issue isn't simply safety and soundness," he said. "It is mission."