/ WASHINGTON — Shares of mortgage-finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac tumbled in after-hours trading Friday after a report...

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WASHINGTON — Shares of mortgage-finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac tumbled in after-hours trading Friday after a report by The Wall Street Journal that the government may soon step in to provide a financial boost to the two companies.

Details of the plan, which could be announced as early as this weekend, were still being hammered out but are expected to include executive changes at both companies, the Journal said on its Web site.

The paper also said Fannie Mae CEO Daniel Mudd and Freddie Mac CEO Richard Syron were expected to step down, and that top executives from both companies met with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson on Friday afternoon.

The report came after stock markets closed, but in after-hours trading Fannie Mae’s shares dropped $1.70, or 24 percent, to $5.34. Freddie Mac’s shares fell 95 cents, or almost 19 percent, to $4.15.

The news also followed a report by the Mortgage Bankers Association that more than 4 million U.S. homeowners with a mortgage, a record 9 percent, were either behind on their payments or in foreclosure at the end of June.

That confirmed what investors saw in Fannie and Freddie’s recent financial results: Trouble in the mortgage market has shifted to homeowners who had solid credit but took out exotic loans with little or no proof of their income and assets.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the nation’s largest buyers and backers of mortgages, lost a combined $3.1 billion between April and June. Half of their credit losses came from these types of risky loans with ballooning monthly payments.

While both companies say they have enough resources to withstand the losses, many investors think their financial cushions could wither away as defaults and foreclosures mount.

Still, many in Washington, D.C., and on Wall Street hadn’t expected Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to intervene unless the companies had trouble issuing debt to fund their operations.

This summer, Congress passed a plan to provide unlimited government loans to Fannie and Freddie and to purchase stock in the two companies if needed.

Critics say the open-ended nature of the rescue package could expose taxpayers to billions of dollars of potential losses.

Supporters, however, argue the Bush administration had little choice but to support Fannie and Freddie, which together hold or guarantee $5 trillion in mortgages — almost half the nation’s total.

Representatives of Fannie and Freddie declined to comment on the government assistance plan.

Treasury spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin said officials “have been in regular communications” with Fannie and Freddie, but refused to comment on the story saying, “We are not going to comment on rumors.”

Treasury recently signed a contract with Morgan Stanley to investigate the financial position of Fannie and Freddie, with help from the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the new regulatory body created by Congress to oversee the mortgage giants.

Asked if an announcement could come soon, McLaughlin said, “We are making progress in the work with Morgan Stanley and FHFA.” A spokeswoman for the FHFA also declined to comment.

Concern has been growing that a government rescue of Fannie and Freddie could not only wipe out common stockholders, but also be costly for scores of investment, banking and insurance companies that hold billions of dollars in their preferred shares

The two companies had nearly $36 billion in preferred shares outstanding as of June 30, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.