By Brendan Murray and Dawn Kopecki
July 13 (Bloomberg) -- Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson swung the weight of the federal government behind Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the beleaguered companies that buy or finance almost half of the $12 trillion of U.S. mortgages.
Paulson, speaking on the steps of the Treasury facing the White House, asked Congress for authority to buy unlimited stakes in and lend to the companies, aiming to stem a collapse in confidence. The Federal Reserve separately authorized the firms to borrow directly from the central bank.
The announcement followed crisis talks between the firms, government officials, lawmakers and regulators, after Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac lost about half their value last week. Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke are trying to prevent a collapse in the companies that would exacerbate the worst housing recession in 25 years and deepen the economic slowdown.
Paulson's proposal, which the Treasury anticipates will be incorporated into an existing congressional bill and approved this week, signals a shift toward an explicit guarantee of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt. The two shareholder-owned companies are government-sponsored enterprises, giving investors the indication of an implicit federal backing.