Might the 30-year mortgage disappear?

An article suggests that the 30 year mortgage might “fade away.” As both Republicans and Democrats think about eliminating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it is unclear whether a purely private mortgage industry would retain features like a 30-year payment period:

Life without Fannie and Freddie is the rare goal shared by the Obama administration and House Republicans, although it will not happen soon. Congress must agree on a plan, which could take years, and then the market must be weaned slowly from dependence on the companies and the financial backing they provide.The reasons by now are well understood. Fannie and Freddie, created to increase the availability of mortgage loans, misused the government’s support to enrich shareholders and executives by backing millions of shoddy loans. Taxpayers so far have spent more than $135 billion on the cleanup.

The much more divisive question is whether the government should preserve the benefits that the companies provide to middle-class borrowers, including lower interest rates, lenient terms and the ability to get a mortgage even when banks are not making other kinds of loans…

Hanging in the balance are the basic features of a mortgage loan: the interest rate and repayment period.

Fannie and Freddie allow people to borrow at lower rates because investors are so eager to pump money into the two companies that they accept relatively modest returns. The key to that success is the guarantee that investors will be repaid even if borrowers default — a promise ultimately backed by taxpayers.

A long line of studies has found that the benefit to borrowers is relatively modest, less than one percentage point. But that was before the flood. Fannie, Freddie and other federal programs now support roughly 90 percent of new mortgage loans because lenders cannot raise money for mortgages that do not carry government guarantees.

The issue of a 30-year mortgage would be up for debate within a broader restructuring of an important industry. Both organizations, Fannie Mae founded in 1938 and Freddie Mac created in 1970,  were intended to help Americans become homeowners. Fannie Mae, along with several other government programs, particularly helped to boost homeownership rates after World War II. During this postwar housing boom, government programs helped lower down payments and lengthened the years in a mortgage. If I remember correctly, mortgages prior to this postwar period were 15 or 20 years at most, required much larger down payments, and were available from mortgage lenders or savings and loans associations.

Where this article needs to go next is to ask whether this means fewer Americans will have access to mortgages and homeownership. If the industry is indeed restructured in the coming years, will the homeownership rate continue to drop? If politicians from both sides of the aisle are interested eliminating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, does this mean the federal government is pulling away from more explicit endorsements of homeownership? It is intriguing to note that all of this might take place because of a large economic crisis (though both of these programs have had their critics for decades) while Fannie Mae was instituted in response to an earlier crisis.