updated 12/24/2009 4:55:11 PM ET 2009-12-24T21:55:11

The government has handed its ATM card to beleaguered mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The Treasury Department said Thursday it removed the $400 billion financial cap on the money it will provide to keep the companies afloat. Already, taxpayers have shelled out $111 billion to the pair, and a senior Treasury official said losses are not expected to exceed the government's estimate this summer of $170 billion over 10 years.

Treasury Department officials said it will now use a flexible formula to ensure the two agencies can stand behind the billions of dollars in mortgage-backed securities they sell to investors. Under the formula, financial support would increase according to how much each firm loses in a quarter. The cap in place at the end of 2012 would apply thereafter.

By making the change before year-end, Treasury sidestepped the need for an OK from a bailout-weary Congress.

While most analysts say the companies are unlikely to use the full $400 billion, Treasury officials said they decided to lift the caps to eliminate any uncertainty among investors about the government's commitments. But the timing of the announcement on a traditionally slow news day raised eyebrows.

"The companies are nowhere close to using the $400 billion they had before, so why do this now?" said Bert Ely, a banking consultant in Alexandria, Va. "It's possible we may see some horrendous numbers for the fourth quarter and, thus 2009, and Treasury wants to calm the markets."

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac provide vital liquidity to the mortgage industry by purchasing home loans from lenders and selling them to investors. Together, they own or guarantee almost 31 million home loans worth about $5.5 trillion, or about half of all mortgages. Without government aid, the firms would have gone broke, leaving millions of people unable to get a mortgage.

The biggest headwind facing the housing recovery has been the rise in foreclosures as unemployment remains high. Treasury said its latest move could allow Fannie and Freddie to play a bigger role in restructuring mortgages for troubled borrowers.

Treasury officials will provide an updated estimate for Fannie and Freddie losses in February when President Barack Obama sends his 2011 budget to Congress. Though the administration has yet to disclose its long-term plans for the two companies, they are unlikely to return to their former power and influence.

The news followed an announcement Thursday that the CEOs of Fannie and Freddie could get paid as much as $6 million for 2009, despite the companies' dismal performances this year.

Fannie's CEO, Michael Williams, and Freddie CEO Charles "Ed" Haldeman Jr. each will receive $900,000 in salary, $3.1 million in deferred payments next year and another $2 million if they meet certain performance goals, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The pay packages were approved by the Treasury Department and the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which regulates Fannie and Freddie.

That pay is far less than what their predecessors earned. Former Fannie CEO Daniel Mudd received $10.2 million in 2008 and former Freddie CEO Richard Syron pocketed $13.1 million. Both execs were ousted when federal regulators seized the companies in September 2008. The federal government blocked exit packages for the pair worth up to $24 million.

The chief executives' pay could spark new criticism about the government's numerous bailouts, but that may be unfounded, said Mark Borges, principal with management consulting firm Compensia.

Haldeman and Williams each could command between $5 million and $10 million in a similar position in the private sector, Borges estimated, and without the notable challenges and public scrutiny they face at these companies.

"I doubt too many people would look at these jobs and say, 'Gosh, I would love to go there for my next career move,'" Borges said. "The government is getting top notch executives to solve problems that are not easy to solve."

The bulk of their pay is also not guaranteed, Borges said, so these executives can't pocket and run and must meet certain long-term goals or risk giving some of it back.

Freddie Mac's board sets the performance goals for the chief executive, which won't be disclosed until next year. Fannie Mae's filing outlined its corporate goals including "being a recognized leader in the housing recovery," "protecting taxpayers," and "managing risk more effectively."

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac declined to offer further details on CEO performance goals.

Public anger over Wall Street pay boiled over earlier this year. In response, the Obama administration imposed pay curbs on banks that received government bailouts. All the major banks have since repaid their federal money, largely to escape caps on executive pay.

Former Bank of America Corp. CEO Ken Lewis, for example, agreed to forgo his salary and bonus this year under pressure from the government. Last year, he pocketed more than $9 million in total compensation. Bank of America received $45 billion in government assistance, which it has since repaid.

Freddie Mac hired Haldeman, a former mutual fund executive, in July. At the time, the company disclosed his annual salary of $900,000 but did not disclose other incentive payments. In September, the company hired a new chief financial officer, Ross Kari, and said his pay package would be worth up to $5.5 million.

Williams, formerly Fannie Mae's chief operating officer, took over as CEO in April after the first government-appointed CEO, Herbert Allison, took a job at the Treasury Department. Williams earned a base salary of $676,000 last year, plus a retention award of $260,000.

Washington-based Fannie Mae was created in 1938 in the aftermath of the Great Depression. It was privatized 30 years later to limit budget deficits during the Vietnam War. In 1970, the government formed its sibling and competitor McLean, Va.-based Freddie Mac.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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