What does lending giants’ buyout mean to Maine?

Posted Sept. 08, 2008, at 8:33 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Mortgage lenders across eastern Maine said Monday that it’s unlikely the recent federal takeover of two lending giants will directly affect the local market, at least in the short term.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced Sunday that the government would seize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the nation’s largest mortgage buyers, in an effort to improve a slumping housing economy. The move essentially means that the federal government now stands behind and insures the two companies’ mortgage loans, which account for 50 percent of the nation’s mortgages.

Yellow Light Breen, senior vice president of Bangor Savings Bank, predicted that the effects would be minimal for customers here.

“I think there will be relatively little impact on us directly, but certainly there would be a bigger impact on the overall market,” he said, referring specifically to lower mortgage rates and price stabilization.

Bill Lucy, president of Merrill Bank, agreed.

“What it will mean for Maine lenders is probably what it will mean nationally,” he said. “My impressions are all positive from a consumer standpoint. It basically puts the government in control of loans, which creates an added safety.”

Lucy said the most immediate impact could be a drop in interest rates, which he hopes will lead to more refinancing of loans if not an increase in new home sales. Some national experts have predicted that the average rate for a 30-year fixed loan could drop from 6.35 percent to 5.5 percent or less.

Scott Whitney, senior vice president for retail lending at Machias Savings Bank, which sells some of its mortgage loans to Fannie Mae, said for Maine customers who are looking to do something, now’s the time.

“I do think we’ll see more of an increase in refinancing,” he said. There are a lot of folks that got some [Fannie Mae] mortgages that would like to revisit them.”

The Maine Association of Mortgage Brokers threw its support behind the federal government’s bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The group’s legislative chairman, Dick Morin, said Monday that the bailout would benefit consumers by making home ownership more affordable through lower mortgage rates.

Morin said the government’s action should restore confidence in and bring stability to an uncertain housing market.

Even if the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac provides a short-term fix in reducing mortgage rates, the long-term picture is less clear. Richard Borgman, a professor of finance at the University of Maine, said it’s important to remember that the two national giants don’t make mortgages; they buy them.

“These companies make it possible for banks to create mortgages,” he said. “If they weren’t around, loans would be a lot less available and a lot more expensive.”

Many Maine lenders, including Bangor Savings, offer customers the choice over whether their loans will be sold to secondary lenders such as Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae. Breen said that option helps local banks provide more stability.

“As some national players have to narrow down lending, people are turning to more traditional banks like ours,” he said.

Lucy at Merrill Bank said the Maine market generally has never been as volatile as the national trends.

“Our chairman is fond of saying ‘We don’t see the high highs and the low lows,’ and I think there is some truth to that,” he said.

The biggest concern with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac moving toward a government conservatorship is that it could end up costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

Borgman doesn’t buy it.

“If the market steadies, the government losses are not going to be extraordinary, but you just don’t know at this point,” he said.

The alternative, the finance professor said, would be allowing the companies to fold and that would create a monumentally larger cost.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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