Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are federally backed home mortgage companies created by the United States Congress. Neither institution originates or services its own mortgages. Instead, they buy and guarantee mortgages issued through lenders in the secondary mortgage market.

The two entities virtually monopolized the secondary mortgage market until the 1990s. That's when growing federal regulation and new legislation that allowed banks and other financial companies to merge sparked more competition from conventional companies. Still, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac continue to dominate the secondary mortgage market in the U.S. today, despite concerns about being two of the largest too big to fail companies.

Together, these agencies make the mortgage market more liquid, stable, and affordable by providing liquidity and guarantees to thousands of banks, savings and loans, and mortgage companies in the U.S. Here's a look at how the two work, their roles in the 2008 financial crisis, and what they're doing today to help homeowners and renters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Takeaways

  • Fannie Mae was first chartered by the U.S. government in 1938 to help boost the mortgage market while Congress chartered Freddie Mac in 1970 as a private company.
  • Neither organization originates or services loans but buys mortgages from lenders to hold or repackage as mortgage-backed securities that can be sold.
  • Lenders use the money from selling mortgages to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to originate more loans, which helps individuals, families, and investors access a stable supply of mortgage money.
  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac issued a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions that was to run through March 31, 2021, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The Biden administration extended the deadline for the moratorium on foreclosures and evictions during the pandemic.

What Is Fannie Mae?

In the early 20th century, homeownership was out of reach for many people in the United States. Unless you could pay cash for an entire home (which few people could), you were looking at a prohibitively large down payment and a short-term loan that would culminate in a big balloon payment.

During the Great Depression, nearly one in four homeowners lost their homes to foreclosure, the banks didn't have any money to lend, and the nation faced a real housing crisis. Congress responded in 1938 by creating the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA), better known as Fannie Mae, to provide reliable, steady funding for housing. It brought a new type of mortgage to the market: the long-term, fixed-rate loan with an option to refinance at any time.

For decades, Fannie Mae was the dominant buyer and seller of government-insured mortgages. Congress eventually did two things to boost competition in the secondary mortgage market:

  1. It privatized Fannie Mae in 1968, making it a shareholder-owned company funded entirely with private capital.
  2. It created Freddie Mac in 1970.

History of Fannie Mae

Fannie Mae was created as a federal government agency in 1938 as part of an amendment to the National Housing Act. Fannie Mae initially bought mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and later added loans guaranteed by the Veterans Administration (VA) to the mix.

Fannie Mae was converted into a public-private, mixed-ownership corporation in 1954 under the Federal National Mortgage Association Charter Act. It became privately owned in 1968 and two years later became authorized to buy conventional mortgages in addition to FHA and VA loans.

The agency started to issue mortgage-backed securities (MBS) in the 1980s to provide more liquidity in the mortgage investment market. It gets the money to buy mortgage-related assets by issuing assorted debt securities in the U.S. and international capital markets.

What Is Freddie Mac?

Freddie Mac is the unofficial name of the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation. It was established in 1970 under the Emergency Home Finance Act to expand the secondary mortgage market and reduce interest rate risk for banks. In 1989, it was reorganized and turned into a shareholder-owned company as part of the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act (FIRREA).

Freddie Mac's charter is quite similar to Fannie Mae's in that it expands the secondary market for mortgages and MBSs by buying loans made by banks, savings and loans, and other lending institutions. But unlike Fannie Mae, which buys mortgages from major retail and commercial banks, Freddie Mac buys its loans from smaller banks, such as thrift banks, that focus on providing banking services to communities.

What Do Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Do?

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have similar charters, mandates, and regulatory structures. Each buys mortgages from lenders to either hold in their portfolios or repackage as MBSs that can be sold. In turn, lenders use the money they get from selling mortgages to originate more loans. This helps individuals, families, and investors access a continuous and stable supply of mortgage funding.

According to their charters, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac "establish secondary market facilities for residential mortgages [and] provide that the operations thereof shall be financed by private capital to the maximum extent feasible." Both entities are mandated to do the following:

  • Maintain stability in the secondary market for residential mortgages
  • Respond appropriately to the private capital market
  • Offer ongoing support to the secondary market for residential mortgages by increasing the liquidity of mortgage investments and making more money available for residential mortgage financing
  • Promote access to mortgage credit by increasing the liquidity of mortgage investments and making more money available for residential mortgage financing

Fannie Mae has one additional responsibility according to its charter: to manage and liquidate federally-owned mortgage portfolios to minimize any adverse effects on the residential mortgage market and minimize losses to the federal government.

Who Regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?

According to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's congressional charters, which gave them government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) status, they operate with certain ties to the U.S. federal government that provide a financial backstop. For instance, in September 2008, during the height of the financial crisis, they were placed under the direct supervision of the federal government.

During normal times, the government ties remain a bit more hidden, but nonetheless important. According to their congressional charters:

  • The president of the United States appoints five of the 18 members of the organizations' boards of directors.
  • The secretary of the Treasury is authorized to buy up to $2.25 billion of securities from each company to support its liquidity.
  • Both companies are exempt from state and local taxes.
  • Both companies are regulated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA).

The FHFA regulates, enforces, and monitors Fannie and Freddie's capital standards and limits the size of their mortgage investment portfolios. HUD is responsible for Fannie and Freddie's general housing missions.

Mortgage lending discrimination is illegal. If you think you've been discriminated against based on race, religion, sex, marital status, use of public assistance, national origin, disability, or age, there are steps you can take. One such step is to file a report with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or with HUD.

An Implicit Guarantee

Fannie and Freddie's GSE status has created certain perceptions in the marketplace of safety. One was that the federal government would step in and bail out these organizations if either firm ever ran into financial trouble, as was seen in the lead-up to the Great Recession. This is known as an implicit guarantee.

Because the market believed in this implicit guarantee, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were allowed to borrow money in the bond market at lower yields than other financial institutions could.

The yield on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's corporate debt, known as agency debt, has historically been about 35 basis points higher than U.S. Treasury bonds. AAA-rated financial firm debt, by comparison, has historically yielded about 70 basis points more than U.S. Treasury bonds. Thirty-five basis points may not seem like much, but it made a huge difference because of the trillions of dollars involved.

Role in the Financial Crisis of 2008

With a funding advantage over their Wall Street rivals, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac made sizable profits for more than two decades throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Over this time period, there was a frequent debate about Fannie and Freddie among economists, financial market professionals, and government officials.

Did the implied government backing of Fannie and Freddie actually benefit U.S. homeowners? Or was the government just helping the companies and their investors while creating a moral hazard?

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were given a government-sponsored monopoly in a large segment of the U.S. secondary mortgage market. This monopoly—combined with the government's implicit guarantee to keep these firms afloat—would later contribute to the mortgage market's collapse.

In 2007, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac began to experience large losses on their retained portfolios, especially on their Alt-A and subprime investments. In 2008, the sheer size of their retained portfolios and mortgage guarantees led the FHFA to conclude that they would soon be insolvent.

On March 19 of that year, federal regulators allowed the two firms to take on another $200 billion in debt in the hopes of stabilizing the economy. However, by Sept. 6, 2008, it was clear that the market believed the firms were in financial trouble, and the FHFA put the companies into conservatorship. They received $190 billion in bailout funding and have since paid it back but are still in conservatorship.

Of course, a long list of missteps led to the Great Recession. However, critics say Fannie and Freddie created an enormous amount of debt and credit guarantees in the years leading up to 2007, and that Congress should have recognized the systematic risks to the global financial system that these firms posed.

In September 2019, the Treasury and FHFA announced that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could start keeping their earnings to shore up capital reserves of $25 billion and $20 billion, respectively. The move was a step toward transitioning the two out of conservatorship.

Role in the COVID-19 Pandemic

If you have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have concerns about paying your mortgage or rent.

The CARES Act offered protections for homeowners with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgages. Under the CARES Act, lenders and loan services were prohibited from starting a judicial or nonjudicial foreclosure against you—or finalizing a foreclosure judgment or sale until March 31, 2021. The deadline was extended several times throughout the pandemic and finally expired on July 31, 2021.

You can request a mortgage forbearance for up to 180 days (and potentially extend it another 180 days) if you have a financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, the FHFA also put into place more flexible lending and appraisal standards to make sure that homebuyers can close on loans during the pandemic and that all parties involved can maintain social distancing throughout the process.

The federal government provided assistance for individuals who became unemployed as a result of the pandemic. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, and the American Rescue Plan all boosted unemployment insurance benefits temporarily through three programs:

These three unemployment-related programs expired on Sept. 5, 2021. Unemployed individuals may still qualify for benefits as long as they are within the first 26 weeks of their benefits.

Mortgage Relief Program

If you have a Fannie Mae mortgage and can't make your payment due to a COVID-19-related job loss, income reduction, or illness, your mortgage servicer can help with mortgage relief options, including:

  • A forbearance plan that lowers or suspends your mortgage payments for up to 12 months
  • No late fees during the forbearance period
  • Repayment options after the forbearance period, which include a repayment plan to catch up gradually or a loan modification plan to maintain or lower your monthly payment
  • Foreclosure and eviction relief

Fannie Mae has another program, which is called the Disaster Response Network, that can help with the broader financial implications of the COVID-19 emergency. The Disaster Response Network provides access to HUD-approved housing counselors for homeowners with Fannie Mae-owned loans and renters in Fannie Mae-financed properties. The counselors can create personalized plans, provide financial coaching and budgeting, and support you for up to 18 months.

If you're worried about making your mortgage payments, call your mortgage servicer—the company listed on your monthly statement—to ask for help.

Freddie Mac Mortgage Forbearance

If you have a Freddie Mac-owned mortgage, you may be eligible for help if you have been directly or indirectly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are currently several mortgage relief options if you can't make your mortgage payment due to a loss or decline in income, including:

  • Up to 12 months of mortgage forbearance
  • Waived penalties and late fees
  • Halt on all evictions until Sept. 30, 2021
  • Loan modification options to lower payments or keep payments the same after the forbearance period.

Forbearance is not forgiveness. Ask your mortgage servicer about your post-forbearance options. Be wary if the option is a balloon payment rather than simply adding the unpaid months to the end of your mortgage.

More Flexible Lending and Appraisal Standards

The easing of lending and appraisal standards for homebuyers applying for a Fannie Mae- and Freddie Mac-backed mortgage during the pandemic was extended by the FHFA to July 31, 2021, as the final deadline. They allowed:

  • Alternative appraisals on purchase and refinance loans (conducting drive-by and online appraisals versus on-site)
  • Alternative methods for documenting income and verifying employment before loan closing (for example, employment verification via email)
  • Expanding the use of powers of attorney (POA) to assist with loan closings (for example, e-signatures)

The Bottom Line

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are charged with keeping the U.S. mortgage market running smoothly. Both companies buy mortgages from various lenders, which helps maintain a steady and reliable source of mortgage funding for individuals, families, and investors.

The housing industry has kept a watchful eye on how the COVID-19 situation has impacted Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, not to mention the 28 million homeowners with mortgages backed by these agencies. The FHFA anticipated the pandemic would lead to billions in additional expenses to be shouldered by both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac because of the pandemic—at least until the moratorium expired. This was, of course, on top of the $6 billion in costs already incurred by the two. The full extent will only be known when the agencies release details at the end of the fiscal year.