Gary Kain spent 20 years at Freddie Mac managing as much as $800 billion of bonds before the U.S. took over the company. Since 2009, he’s used his knowledge of the home-loan market to help turn American Capital Agency Corp. into the fastest growing mortgage debt investor.

American Capital’s assets grew to $100.5 billion at the end of last year from less than $5 billion three years earlier, making the Bethesda, Md.-based real estate investment trust the largest after Annaly Capital Management Inc., in an industry that’s drawing attention from investors and the Federal Reserve for its double-digit yields and rapid expansion.

REITs bought more than $100 billion of government-backed mortgage securities in 2012, the most since at least the credit crisis, and will purchase another $60 billion in 2013, JPMorgan Chase & Co. estimated this month. Fed Gov. Jeremy Stein pointed to the expansion of mortgage REITs, which have amassed almost $400 billion of the debt, during a speech last month on risky behavior in credit markets influenced by the central bank holding borrowing costs near zero for a fifth year and investors searching for high-yielding assets.

“Agency mortgage REITs deserve attention in particular because they have exploded in size,” said John Gilbert, chief investment officer at General Re-New England Asset Management, a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. that oversees $64 billion. “We’ve been dealing with the unintended consequences of monetary policy for a long time. We have to be on the lookout for the downside.”

American Capital, along with growing the fastest, has also been one of the most successful of the mortgage REITs. Since Kain, 48, was named chief investment officer, it’s returned 258%, including reinvested dividends, almost double the returns of a 34-company index.

The firm was started by private-equity financier Malon Wilkus and went public in February 2008, just as the Fed was responding to the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s.

Wilkus, chief executive officer of investment firm American Capital Ltd., hired Kain to help “navigate the evolving mortgage landscape,” he said in a statement at the time. The original management team had left in January 2009, about four months after the government seized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, when loan losses pushed the two firms to the brink of bankruptcy.

Kain, now president of the REIT, joined the firm when it held a little more than $2 billion and the Fed was preparing to start buying government bonds to resuscitate the housing market.

He took advantage of the central bank’s buying and used cheap borrowing costs to increase leverage for the REIT’s purchases of government-backed mortgage securities. The bets paid off, with the company returning 53 percent in 2009 including reinvested dividends.

Kain oversaw an average of about $700 billion during his last few years with the company, primarily government-backed mortgages. Since these bonds don’t take credit risks, his main responsibility was hedging for changes in interest rates. The portfolio also included non-agency mortgage-backed securities, including the subprime debt that helped fuel the housing boom and contributed to the company’s losses that led to the government rescue.

“A major emphasis of the subprime AAA portfolio was around hitting affordable housing goals so it was not as pure of an investment mindset,” Kain said.

When the government seized the company and sought to shrink the portfolio and the company’s imprint on housing finance, Kain said he “knew life at Freddie Mac was going to be very different” and started considering other options.

“His background was a perfect fit for American Capital,” said Jason Arnold, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets in San Francisco. “There’s been a lot of problems at Fannie and Freddie so it’s not surprising that someone would want to go out and do something else rather than be under the umbrella of the U.S. government.”

REITs have been among the biggest winners from government policies to resuscitate housing and stimulate the economy. The Fed has made it easier and cheaper for the companies to borrow through the so-called repo market. The central bank’s buying has also pushed up the value of mortgage bonds that REITs invest in.

Dividend yields that average about 12% have also lured investors seeking alternatives to corporate and government debt paying shrinking coupons. American Capital is yielding more than 15%.

Kain has applied knowledge from his experience at Freddie Mac to buy mortgage bonds that have a lower risk of refinancing, helping the firm return 17% this year. Since the debt typically trades above 100 cents on the dollar, homeowners taking out new loans when interest rates fall can erase the value of the securities.

The resurgence of REITs has attracted the attention of Fed officials and regulators, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has said it’s examining whether the companies should be allowed to continue borrowing without restrictions.

The concerns are overstated as REITs are limited by the quality of assets or lender confidence in how they manage their businesses, according to Kain.

“Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were not regulated by the markets,” Kain said. “That was a key complaint which turned out to be very fair. There weren’t any market forces that were controlling the government sponsored enterprises. They could borrow money irrespective of their risk posture because of the implied guarantee” of the government, he said.

Kain’s team at American Capital, which includes longtime Freddie Mac colleagues Peter Federico and Christopher Kuehl, managed more in assets as of Dec. 31 than regional banks such as Keycorp and M&T Bank Corp. Kain is also chief investment officer of American Capital Mortgage Investment Corp., a separate REIT with $7.7 billion in assets that buys securities not backed by the government. The two companies have a staff of about 50 people, according to Wilkus.

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