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Friday, July 11, 2008

GAME OVER SON - Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac: The $5 trillion mess - Jul. 11, 2008

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- They own or guarantee $5 trillion worth of mortgages­ - nearly half of all the country's outstanding home loan debt-and they're crashing. Big time.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are struggling with an investor loss of confidence so great that, while they're unlikely to go under, they could conceivably see their ability to function impaired. That would wreak yet more havoc on an already wrecked housing market- making loans tougher to come by and possibly pushing hundreds of billions of dollars in cost onto U.S. taxpayers.

How could the companies end up in such awful straits? Given the way they were created and run, a better question might be: how could they not?

The two companies are so-called government-sponsored enterprises, created by Congress in 1938 (Fannie) and 1970 (Freddie) to help more Americans buy houses.

Their mandate is to maintain a market for mortgages - buying loans from banks, repackaging them as bonds, and selling those securities to investors with a guarantee that they will be paid. This makes lending more tempting for banks because Fannie and Freddie take on risks like missed payments, defaults and swings in interest rates.

But the companies are also publicly traded, with the usual mandate of trying to maximize profits for shareholders.

That effort, of course, involves risk, but as quasi-government programs, they've long carried an implicit guarantee that the feds wouldn't let them fail.

Their hybrid nature created both the opportunity and the temptation for the enterprises to take on more risk and to make themselves ever larger, more important and thus more profitable players in the mortgage market.

Very special treatment

The market and ratings agencies have treated Fannie and Freddie as bulletproof, even though the actual business of dealing with interest sensitive loans is very risky. This is in large part because of the very special perks granted to the mortgage giants, but to no one else.

Each may borrow up to $2.25 billion direct from the Treasury. They are exempt from state and local income taxes and from Securities and Exchange Commission registration requirements and fees. And they can use the Federal Reserve as their bank.

One result of all this special treatment was AAA credit ratings. That means Fannie and Freddie could borrow at super-low rates, a benefit they used to purchase - and hold -high-yielding mortgage loans. The spread between the two provided an irresistible earnings stream and the companies just kept getting bigger.

The mortgages they hold on their books alone total about $1.4 trillion, said Mike Stathis, managing Principal of Apex Venture Advisors, a research and advisory firm.

In the meantime, the companies were allowed to operate in this manner, piling on risk after risk, with virtually no capital cushion (Wall Street speak for the rainy-day piggybank financial companies keep should one of their investments blow up.) As the company's loan portfolio loses value and the mortgage market continues to crumble, it's easy to see why this was a fatal misstep.

Some saw the crisis coming before this week. For example, Alan Greenspan famously warned in 2004 that Fannie and Freddie's rapid growth needed to be curbed because their expansion threatened the financial markets.

Still, the cocktail of high credit ratings, domination of the mortgage securities market, and preferential government treatment led to the sort of shenanigans that go hand in hand with excessive privilege.

Fannie overstated its earnings by $10.6 billion from 1998 through 2004, and its chief executive Franklin Raines lost his job. Freddie Mac had understated its profit by nearly $5 billion from 2000 through 2002. Both companies missed earnings filings while their overhauled their books.

"If Fannie and Freddie had been created in the private sector, they wouldn't look like this," says Christopher Whalen, head of research firm Institutional Risk Analytics. "They have a public sector mission to expand housing and run what is essentially an insurance company. But they also have a conduit to securitize and sell loans, which is what broker-dealers like Lehman do; and they have an interest arbitrage piece (making money on the spread between interest rates) that looks like a hedge fund."

Robert Rodriguez, the founder of First Pacific Advisors, hasn't bought Fannie for Freddie bonds for over two years. "With the recent issuance of their financials, we were still uncomfortable with their leverage," Rodriguez says. "We believed there was considerable balance sheet risk in both of these companies.

Now the dwindling pool of mortgages, higher foreclosure risk, and a shaky interest rate environment have the companies on the ropes; and investors are beginning to lose faith in Fannie and Freddie.

Both firms told Fortune that they have enough capital to weather the storm and continue to support the nation's housing market.

And yet, Fannie has fallen 32% this week and 65% since the beginning of the year. Freddie plunged 47% so far this week and is down 75% since January.

Investors have lost faith that the companies can operate in their current incarnation without running into major problems.

If investors abandon these companies, what do we learn from this odd Frankenstein of a business model?

"Nobody every believed that Fannie and Freddie were truly private and they never should have been," says Whalen. "Now we will all have to pay for a company that has gone astray."
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QuakeCon 2008 Details [Id Software]

Going to QuakeCon 2008? The 13th annual event is being held at the Anatole Hotel in Dallas (my hometown!) from July 31st to August 3rd. Organizers are expecting 6,000 folks to be in attendance over the four day extravaganza. This year's QuakeCon will see the debut of QUAKE LIVE as well as an Enemy Territory: QUAKE Wars console tourney, a QuakeCon first. Hit the jump for a full rundown and more details.

The Intel QUAKE LIVE Championships

QuakeCon 2008 will mark the debut of the first-ever Intel QUAKE LIVE Championships pro tournament. QUAKE LIVE is id Software’s new game created to deliver the excitement and energy of a first-person multiplayer game to a broader audience through a free and easily accessible browser-based experience. The Intel QUAKE LIVE Championships will feature a classic $12,500 One Versus One tournament along with a $12,500 Capture the Flag Team Tournament.

The Activision Enemy Territory: QUAKE Wars Team Championships

Enemy Territory: QUAKE Wars™ makes its second annual tournament appearance with the Activision Enemy Territory: QUAKE Wars Team Championships. Featuring competitions on both PC and for the first time on Xbox 360, the tournament contests will enlist six-person teams to battle it out in double-elimination bracket-style competitive play, in which each squad will have the chance to attack and defend. On the Windows PC side, 16 teams will compete for $15,000 in prize money and in the Xbox 360 competition, eight teams will vie for $10,000 in prizes.

The Alienware Quick-Draw Challenge

For anyone who’s dreamed of competing for prize money on the QuakeCon main stage, the Alienware Quick-Draw Challenge offers $10,000 in prize money to randomly selected attendees competing in special QUAKE LIVE competitions throughout the course of the event.

In addition to their prize money, the top 2 finalists and teams in each of the above competitive tournament events will also be given tickets to the previously announced “QuakeCon Ultimate Power Up” raffle contest, sponsored by Ventrilo, for the brand new 2008 Corvette. Additional raffle tickets and eligibility will be subject to contest rules.

“QuakeCon 2008 will be the grand slam of competitive gaming with the best games and an amazing prize list,” said Todd Hollenshead, CEO, id Software. “We’ve partnered with our sponsors this year to bring the top competitive players what they want most: skill based games, top money prizes, the most enthusiastic fans and audience and the world’s best Finals party!”

More information, including map names, prize money distribution, detailed format and rules, and sign-ups for both tournaments will be available soon at www.quakecon.org.

QuakeCon Ultimate Power Up Rules:

QuakeCon 2008 registered attendees who are 18 years of age and older AND are legal residents of the United States, its territories and possessions and the District of Columbia are eligible to participate. No purchase necessary. 250 raffle tickets will be distributed throughout the event. Additional information about contest rules, eligibility and requirements will be available at www.quakecon.org.


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Wii Fit Gets Sweaty Japanese Porn Homage [Maximum Risky]

Well! If Brain Age gets a naughty movie, then one would correctly assume that Wii Fit must get one as well. Japanese adult video maker Gekidan Carnival has just released Geki Fit, which features the tagline "Fitness Is Erotic!" Geki Fit features 115 minutes of young ladies in various stretching and yoga poses against an all-white background. While there are no Wii-motes, Wiis or Balance Boards, the movie does feature font and packaging "homages." (Gekidan Carnival probably doesn't want to get sued back to the stone age by Nintendo!)

Hit the jump for the cover. The distasteful sweat might be NSFW.

And below, the Japanese Wii Fit box art.

GekiFit [NSFW via Hatimaki]

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The Market Is Finally Ready For Wii Remote Dildo Peripherals [Kotaku After Dark]

They're to be sold by a company by the name of oioo. No idea what games could ever support this. They come in his & her's varieties. Or her's and her's. Or his and...look, we're still a little unsure about the one on the left. It looks like it will cause injuries. And not the type that break a television. The type that makes medical textbooks, the type nurses and paramedics will joke about for years to come.

ooio [via Gizmodo]

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British Industry Group Not Impressed With The R4 [Piracy]

Enjoying your R4 carts, Britain? I bet you are. Designed as they are to run code on a DS, many use them for homebrew, but some, obviously, also use them to pirate legitimate DS games. And it's those folks attracting the attention of the authorities, spoiling it for everybody else. The ELSPA (Britain's industry body) reckon that the sale of R4 (and other, similar) carts "is an infringement and an offence under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 and the Trade Marks Act 1994", and from here on they'll be investigating any and all retailers stocking the units. It's important to note that at this stage this is more of a warning than a direct threat, as they haven't come out and called for an immediate, blanket ban, but I imagine a stern warning is all it will take for many small retailers to quit stocking them anyway.

DS: The Shocking Truth [MCV]

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