Mounting Costs

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Policy-makers and economists see the government sponsored enterprises as crucial to keeping the housing market open for business since they own or have guaranteed almost half of the $12 trillion in U.S. mortgage debt outstanding, but don't expect a fast recovery.


President George W. Bush on Wednesday dropped a threat to veto the rescue bill, seeing the need to promptly address the housing and credit crisis as more important than his earlier reservations about a provision in the bill unrelated to the GSE aid.

Removal of the presidential veto threat spurred investors on Wednesday to snap up shares and bonds of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac which are privately held companies despite their government-sponsored status.

The prospects of GSE rescue had a positive influence on stocks on Wall Street. However it contributed to a sell-off in safe-haven government bonds, causing their yields to rise.

Government bonds were also weighed down by concerns over the cost of the measures to shore up Fannie and Freddie, which could potentially amount to $25 billion, according to congressional budget analysts.

The measures would give beleaguered Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac access to an expanded credit line from the U.S. Treasury. In addition, it authorizes the Treasury to purchase equity in the two companies if necessary.

If sustained, the rise in Treasury yields could ultimately hurt the housing market, since government bonds are the benchmark for borrowing costs throughout the economy.

Interest rates will remain a key focus for the housing market's recovery. Thirty-year mortgage rates hit one-year highs last week, eroding demand for U.S. home loan applications, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association released on Wednesday.

Economists will continue watching mortgage rates but said the mild rise in Treasury yields so far was a small price to pay for the goal of financial stability that is the rationale behind the bill.

Given Treasuries' status as ultra-safe investments, it is also a good sign for the economy that their appeal is in decline, some argue.

"Anything that stabilizes the financial system at this juncture is probably a contributor to better outcomes on growth," said Neal Soss, chief economist at Credit Suisse in New York.

Still, economists caution against getting too optimistic over the legislation. The housing market has been in a steep slide for nearly three years, during which time a glut of homes for sale has swelled, ruling out any quick fixes from the current rescue plan or other sources.

"What the government does is help to draw a line in the sand and say we're not going to allow a major collapse here akin to what we saw in the Great Depression," said Brian Levitt, economist at OppenheimerFunds in New York.

"But there's simply not a lot of stimulus for the broad economy and there's not a lot of stimulus particularly for the housing market."

(Reporting by Burton Frierson )

This article was originally published on 2008-07-24
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