Q: What are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? A: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are the largest purchasers and insurers of mortgages in the country...

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Q: What are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?

A: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are the largest purchasers and insurers of mortgages in the country.

Q: What do they do?

A: They buy and guarantee mortgages from banks. Some of the mortgage debt bought by Fannie and Freddie is pooled and sold to investors as bonds. In this case, Fannie and Freddie essentially act as middlemen between banks and investors. Fannie and Freddie hold or back more than $5 trillion in mortgages, about half the outstanding mortgage debt in the United States.

Q: Why were they created?

A: To provide low- and middle-income Americans the opportunity to purchase houses with a reasonable interest rate by adding to the available cash banks can lend people. The money they provide is also supposed to help stabilize the mortgage market in times of stress. Fannie Mae was created in 1938 by the government, while Freddie Mac was established in 1970.

Q: So they are owned by the government?

A: No. Both Fannie and Freddie are now publicly owned and their stock traded on the open market.

Q: What problems do they currently face?

A: Over the past year, mortgages have defaulted at a faster rate, and companies have had to take billions of dollars in losses. Fannie and Freddie are required by their government regulator to have a financial cushion — cash or securities to fall back on. With losses rising, that cushion has been dwindling. That has forced them to raise new money during a time when it has been expensive and difficult to do so.

Most of the mortgages Fannie and Freddie insure or own are traditional prime mortgages that are among the safest in the market. The pair backed very few of the exotic subprime mortgages that have caused the most problems over the past year.

Q: What happens in a government bailout?

A: In a bailout scenario, called a conservatorship, Fannie and Freddie’s regulator — the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight — would take control of the companies and oversee their operations. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson says the government wants to keep the companies operating in their current form without a government takeover.

Q: What has the Federal Reserve done to help?

A: Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said the Federal Reserve was considering opening up its discount borrowing window to Fannie or Freddie. He cited conversations with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Paulson.

But a Fed spokeswoman said the central bank had not talked with Fannie and Freddie about the emergency-lending program. The spokeswoman declined to discuss any other options being considered.

Q: Can they fail?

A: If they did, said Brad Neigel, a senior analyst at Aite Group, a financial-services research firm, “it would be the collapse of the entire mortgage industry as we know it.”

A government takeover would be the last option of choice, Neigel added.

Q: How do Fannie and Freddie’s problems affect borrowers?

A: If the government were to step in to help the pair, it would likely lead to lower interest rates on mortgages because investors would be assured of repayment, said Dan Green, a certified mortgage-planning specialist and author of TheMortgageReports.com.

But those declines in rates would probably be offset by an increase in fees, Green added.