Federal Housing Administration Commissioner David Stevens said Saturday that concerns the agency is headed for the same financial trouble that snared Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the subprime sector are unwarranted.
Stevens made the remarks during a speech at the National Association of Realtors' annual conference and expo in San Diego.
His comments come days after the agency revealed its financial reserves have fallen to a dangerously low level due to more homeowners defaulting on their loans. The FHA does not make loans, but rather offers insurance against default.
That's led to mounting concerns that it will eventually need an infusion of cash like government-controlled mortgage finance companies Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
But Stevens sought to dampen those concerns, noting that despite the most severe housing recession in decades, the agency has $31 billion in capital _ $3.5 billion more than it had a year ago.
FHA is "the only participant in home financing services in the U.S. economy that hasn't needed a bailout, hasn't needed (funds from the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program), hasn't needed special assistance and is still completely self-sustaining," Stevens said.
"Without FHA there would be no (housing) market, and this economy's recovery would be significantly slower," he said.
The FHA has insured nearly a quarter of all new loans made this year, and about 80 percent of that business is from first-time homebuyers.
The agency's dominant role in first-time home purchases has raised questions about whether it taking on too much risk. Some have drawn comparisons between FHA and the subprime market, which collapsed due to homebuyer defaults on risky loans.
Stevens rejected such comparisons, stressing that the agency has far more stringent guidelines for the loans it insures.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," he said.
FHA's losses have increased with the unemployment rate as more homeowners default on their loans. About 17 percent of FHA borrowers are at least one payment behind or in foreclosure, compared with 13 percent for all loans, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
An independent audit shows FHA's reserves have fallen to $3.6 billion, compared with $685 billion in outstanding insured loans for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30. That's a ratio of 0.53 percent and far below the 2 percent threshold required by Congress.
Stevens credited the requirement with keeping FHA on good financial footing.
"That is why we're still standing while many of others did not survive this tumultuous time," he said.