4, one day after the bailout became law, America’ leading left-liberal paper, in a long article on Fannie Mae, finally
the “minority” aspect of the financial crisis. A commenter calls it a “breakthrough article showing the immense pressure from The White House and Congress on banks, loan originators and Fannie Mae to approve high risk loans to people who had no chance to pay them back.”
Pressured to Take More Risk, Fannie Hit a Tipping Point
By Charles Duhigg, October 4, 2008
When the mortgage giant Fannie Mae recruited Daniel H. Mudd, he told a friend he wanted to work for an altruistic business. Already a decorated marine and a successful executive, he wanted to be a role model to his four children—just as his father, the television journalist Roger Mudd, had been to him.
Fannie, a government-sponsored company, had long helped Americans get cheaper home loans by serving as a powerful middleman, buying mortgages from lenders and banks and then holding or reselling them to Wall Street investors. This allowed banks to make even more loans—expanding the pool of homeowners and permitting Fannie to ring up handsome profits along the way.
But by the time Mr. Mudd became Fannie’s chief executive in 2004, his company was under siege. Competitors were snatching lucrative parts of its business. Congress was demanding that Mr. Mudd help steer more loans to low-income borrowers. Lenders were threatening to sell directly to Wall Street unless Fannie bought a bigger chunk of their riskiest loans.
So Mr. Mudd made a fateful choice. Disregarding warnings from his managers that lenders were making too many loans that would never be repaid, he steered Fannie into more treacherous corners of the mortgage market, according to executives.
For a time, that decision proved profitable. In the end, it nearly destroyed the company and threatened to drag down the housing market and the economy.
Dozens of interviews, most from people who requested anonymity to avoid legal repercussions, offer an inside account of the critical juncture when Fannie Mae’s new chief executive, under pressure from Wall Street firms, Congress and company shareholders, took additional risks that pushed his company, and, in turn, a large part of the nation’s financial health, to the brink.
Between 2005 and 2008, Fannie purchased or guaranteed at least $270 billion in loans to risky borrowers—more than three times as much as in all its earlier years combined, according to company filings and industry data.
“We didn’t really know what we were buying,” said Marc Gott, a former director in Fannie’s loan servicing department. “This system was designed for plain vanilla loans, and we were trying to push chocolate sundaes through the gears.”
Last month, the White House was forced to orchestrate a $200 billion rescue of Fannie and its corporate cousin, Freddie Mac. On Sept. 26, the companies disclosed that federal prosecutors and the Securities and Exchange Commission were investigating potential accounting and governance problems.
Mr. Mudd said in an interview that he responded as best he could given the company’s challenges, and worked to balance risks prudently.
“Fannie Mae faced the danger that the market would pass us by,” he said. “We were afraid that lenders would be selling products we weren’t buying and Congress would feel like we weren’t fulfilling our mission. The market was changing, and it’s our job to buy loans, so we had to change as well.”
Dealing With Risk
When Mr. Mudd arrived at Fannie eight years ago, it was beginning a dramatic expansion that, at its peak, had it buying 40 percent of all domestic mortgages.
Just two decades earlier, Fannie had been on the brink of bankruptcy. But chief executives like Franklin D. Raines and the chief financial officer J. Timothy Howard built it into a financial juggernaut by aiming at new markets.
Fannie never actually made loans. It was essentially a mortgage insurance company, buying mortgages, keeping some but reselling most to investors and, for a fee, promising to pay off a loan if the borrower defaulted. The only real danger was that the company might guarantee questionable mortgages and lose out when large numbers of borrowers walked away from their obligations.
So Fannie constructed a vast network of computer programs and mathematical formulas that analyzed its millions of daily transactions and ranked borrowers according to their risk.
Those computer programs seemingly turned Fannie into a divining rod, capable of separating pools of similar-seeming borrowers into safe and risky bets. The riskier the loan, the more Fannie charged to handle it. In theory, those high fees would offset any losses.
With that self-assurance, the company announced in 2000 that it would buy $2 trillion in loans from low-income, minority and risky borrowers by 2010.
All this helped supercharge Fannie’s stock price and rewarded top executives with tens of millions of dollars. Mr. Raines received about $90 million between 1998 and 2004, while Mr. Howard was paid about $30.8 million, according to regulators. Mr. Mudd collected more than $10 million in his first four years at Fannie.
[LA comments: I still don’t get it. How can executives in a government sponsored and backed company be getting compensation like this?]
Whenever competitors asked Congress to rein in the company, lawmakers were besieged with letters and phone calls from angry constituents, some orchestrated by Fannie itself. One automated phone call warned voters: “Your congressman is trying to make mortgages more expensive. Ask him why he opposes the American dream of home ownership.”
The ripple effect of Fannie’s plunge into riskier lending was profound. Fannie’s stamp of approval made shunned borrowers and complex loans more acceptable to other lenders, particularly small and less sophisticated banks.
Between 2001 and 2004, the overall subprime mortgage market—loans to the riskiest borrowers—grew from $160 billion to $540 billion, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, a trade publication. Communities were inundated with billboards and fliers from subprime companies offering to help almost anyone buy a home.
Within a few years of Mr. Mudd’s arrival, Fannie was the most powerful mortgage company on earth.
Then it began to crumble.
Regulators, spurred by the revelation of a wide-ranging accounting fraud at Freddie, began scrutinizing Fannie’s books. In 2004 they accused Fannie of fraudulently concealing expenses to make its profits look bigger.
Mr. Howard and Mr. Raines resigned. Mr. Mudd was quickly promoted to the top spot.
But the company he inherited was becoming a shadow of its former self.
(The article continues. Here is the entire article at the Times.)
A. Zarkov writes:
John B. writes: