WHILE Congress toiled on the financial overhaul last spring, precious little was said about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance companies that collapsed spectacularly two years ago. Indeed, these wards of the state got just two mentions in the 1,500-page law known as Dodd-Frank: first, when it ordered the Treasury to produce a study on ending the taxpayer-owned status of the companies and, second, in a “sense of the Congress” passage stating that efforts to improve the nation’s mortgage credit system “would be incomplete without enactment of meaningful structural reforms” of Fannie and Freddie.
With midterm elections near, though, there will be talk aplenty about dealing with the companies precisely because Dodd-Frank didn’t address them. Unfortunately, if past is prologue, this talk is likely to be more political than practical.
Fannie and Freddie amplified the housing boom by buying mortgages from lenders, allowing them to originate even more loans. They grew into behemoths because they lobbied aggressively and played the Washington political game to a T. But after both companies bought boatloads of risky mortgages, they required a federal rescue.
The Treasury’s study on Fannie, Freddie and housing finance must be delivered to Congress by the end of January 2011. In a speech last week, Timothy F. Geithner, the Treasury secretary, told a New York audience that resolving the companies isn’t “rocket science.”
But attaining genuine remedies for our housing finance system could actually be harder than rocket science. That’s because it would require an honest dialogue about the role the federal government should play in housing. It also requires a candid conversation about whether promoting homeownership through tax policy and other federal efforts remains a good idea, given the economic disaster we’ve just lived through.
Alas, honest dialogues on third-rail topics like housing have proved to be a bridge too far for many in Washington. So, what we may hear instead about Fannie and Freddie before the elections is a lot of sound and fury signifying a stealthy return to the status quo.
This would be unfortunate, not only because the financial crisis presents a rare opportunity to reassess the supposed benefits of homeownership but also because there was a lot not to like about the way these companies operated and the ways their friends in Congress enabled that behavior.
Outwardly, Fannie and Freddie wrapped themselves in the American flag and the dream of homeownership. But internally, they were relentless in their pursuit of profits from partners in the mortgage boom. One of their biggest and most steadfast collaborators was Countrywide, the subprime lending machine run by Angelo R. Mozilo.
Countrywide was the biggest supplier of loans to Fannie during the mania; in 2004, it sold 26 percent of the loans Fannie bought. Three years later, it was selling 28 percent. What Countrywide got out of the relationship was clear — a buyer for its dubious loans. Now the taxpayer is on the hook for those losses.
But what was in it for Fannie?
An internal Fannie document from 2004 obtained by The New York Times sheds light on this question. A “Customer Engagement Plan” for Countrywide, it shows how assiduously Fannie pursued Mr. Mozilo and 14 of his lieutenants to make sure the company continued to shovel loans its way.
Nine bullet points fall under the heading “Fannie Mae’s Top Strategic Business Objectives With Lender.” The first: “Deepen relationship at all levels throughout CHL and Fannie Mae to foster alignment and collaboration between our companies at every opportunity.” (CHL refers to Countrywide Home Loans.) No. 2: “Create barriers to exit partnership.” Next: “Disciplined Risk/Servicing Management” and “Achieve Fannie Mae Profitability Goals.”
(Later in 2004, by the way, the Securities and Exchange Commission found that Fannie had used improper accounting and ordered it to restate its earnings for the previous four years. Some $6.3 billion in profit was wiped out.)
The engagement plan also recommends ways that Fannie executives should mingle with Countrywide’s top management, because “fostering more direct senior level engagements with key influencers throughout their organization will be beneficial in ensuring strategic alignment and building organizational loyalty.”
RECOMMENDATIONS included conferring with Mr. Mozilo at Habitat for Humanity golf tournaments and Mortgage Bankers Association conventions. Franklin D. Raines, then Fannie’s C.E.O., and Daniel H. Mudd, then its chief operating officer, were advised to see Mr. Mozilo twice a year. “We will be successful when Angelo influences the industry or his organization on our behalf,” the document says. Mr. Raines didn’t respond to e-mails requesting comment last Friday; he left Fannie in December 2004.
The memo advised pursuing other Countrywide executives: “Deep Rapport” should be the goal with David E. Sambol, the lender’s president, but because he did not “heavily attend outside events” Fannie executives should “look for opportunities for meetings” at Countrywide headquarters.
“We will be successful if we can foster ongoing communication channels that allow us to understand and leverage Sambol’s priorities and demonstrate our commitment to making him successful,” the memo stated. Mr. Sambol and Mr. Mozilo could not be reached for comment.
For his part, Mr. Mudd, now the chief executive of the Fortress Investment Group, said Fannie’s courting of Countrywide was not unusual. “We tried to build a program that was based on having multiple strong relationships with our main customers,” he said. “You want to be sure that the first call is not the last call, that a customer is not doing business with you anymore.”
But Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican and ranking member on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, says he has concerns about such mating dances.
“Lost in the debate over how best to legislate the aftermath of the financial crisis has been the necessity to conduct an inward examination of the too-cozy relationship between government enterprises and private industry,” Mr. Issa said. “The true nature of this strategic partnership between Countrywide and Fannie-Freddie should be exposed so we can measure the extent to which it fostered the conditions leading to the financial meltdown.”
Understanding how these companies operated is crucial if we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of our recent past. So, when you hear about Fannie and Freddie reform this fall, remember that we still don’t know the half of it.
Photo by Isma'il ibn Bilal