WASHINGTON - Freddie Mac is asking for $10.6 billion in additional federal aid after posting a big loss in the first three months of the year. It's another sign that the taxpayer bill for stabilizing the housing market will keep mounting.
The McLean, Va.-based mortgage-finance company has been effectively owned by the government after nearly collapsing in September 2008. The new request will bring the total tab for rescuing Freddie Mac to $61.3 billion.
But the company's CEO, Charles Haldeman, said, "We are seeing some signs of stabilization in the housing market, including house prices and sales in some key geographic areas."
Freddie Mac set aside $5.4 billion to cover credit losses from bad mortgages, down from $7 billion in the final three months of last year.
Haldeman cautioned, however, that the housing market "remains fragile with historically high delinquency and foreclosure levels" and high unemployment.
Created by Congress, Freddie Mac and sibling company Fannie Mae buy mortgages from lenders and package them into bonds that are resold to global investors. As the housing bubble burst, they were unable to raise enough money to stay afloat, and the government effectively nationalized them.
Since then, Uncle Sam's share of the mortgage business has kept getting bigger. Government institutions - mainly Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Federal Housing Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs - backed nearly 97 percent of home loans in the first quarter of 2010, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, a trade publication.
Late last year, the Obama administration pledged to cover unlimited losses through 2012 for Freddie and Fannie. Freddie's new request will bring the total taxpayer tab for both companies to about $136.5 billion.
Fannie Mae is expected to release earnings soon and may also request additional financial aid.
With the housing market still on shaky ground, Obama administration officials argue that it is still too early to draft any proposals to revamp the two companies or the broader housing finance system.
But Republicans argue that the sweeping financial overhaul currently before Congress is incomplete without a plan for Fannie and Freddie. Senate Republicans propose transforming Fannie and Freddie into private companies with no government subsidies, or to shut them down completely.
"The events of the past two years have made it clear that never again can we allow the taxpayer to be responsible for poorly managed financial entities who gambled away billions of dollars," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a prepared statement.
"The time has come to end Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's taxpayer-backed slush fund and require them to operate on a level playing field."
But Barry Zigas, director of housing policy at the Consumer Federation of America and a former Fannie Mae executive, said Obama officials are right to take their time.
"They are providing most of the mortgage credit that's making it possible for Americans to buy homes and refinance their mortgages," Zigas said. "They're vital to the housing recovery that everyone is hoping is getting started."
But the hangover from bad loans made during the boom years still hurts.
Freddie Mac said Wednesday that it lost $8 billion, or $2.45 a share, in the January-March period. That takes into account $1.3 billion in dividends paid to the Treasury Department. It compares with a loss of $10.4 billion, or $3.18 a share, in the first quarter of last year.
The company, however, cautioned that new accounting standards make it difficult to compare the most recent quarter with the year-ago period. In the first quarter of this year, Freddie Mac was forced to bring $1.5 trillion in assets and liabilities onto its balance sheet, causing the company's net worth to plunge by $11.7 billion.