Bethany McLean

Faith-based economic theory

Bethany McLean
Jan 25, 2012 17:36 UTC

The Republican candidates for president have some major differences in their policies and their personal lives. But they have one striking thing in common—they all say the federal government is responsible for the financial crisis. Even Newt Gingrich (pilloried for having been a Freddie Mac lobbyist) says: “The fix was put in by the federal government.”

The notion that the federal government, via the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and by pushing housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to meet affordable housing goals, was responsible for the financial crisis has become Republican orthodoxy. This contention got a boost from a recent lawsuit the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed against six former executives at Fannie and Freddie, including two former CEOs. “Today’s announcement by the SEC proves what I have been saying all along—Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac played a leading role in the 2008 financial collapse that wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy,” said Congressman Scott Garrett, the New Jersey Republican who is chairman of the financial services subcommittee on capital markets and government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs).

But the SEC’s case doesn’t prove anything of the sort, and in fact, the theory that the GSEs are to blame for the crisis has been thoroughly discredited, again and again. The roots of this canard lie in an opposition—one that festered over decades—to the growing power of Fannie Mae, in particular, and its smaller sibling, Freddie Mac. This stance was both right and brave, and was mostly taken by a few Republicans and free-market economists—although even President Clinton’s Treasury Department took on Fannie and Freddie in the late 1990s. The funny thing, though, is that the complaint back then wasn’t that Fannie and Freddie were making housing too affordable. It was that their government-subsidized profits were accruing to private shareholders (correct), that they had far too much leverage (correct), that they posed a risk to taxpayers (correct), and what they did to make housing affordable didn’t justify the massive benefits they got from the government (also correct!). Indeed, in a 2004 book that recommended privatizing Fannie and Freddie, one of its authors, Peter Wallison, wrote, “Study after study has shown that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, despite full-throated claims about trillion-dollar commitments and the like, have failed to lead the private market in assisting the development and financing of affordable housing.”

When the bubble burst in the fall of 2008, Republicans immediately pinned the blame on Fannie and Freddie. John McCain, then running for president, called the companies “the match that started this forest fire.” This narrative picked up momentum when Wallison joined forces with Ed Pinto, Fannie’s chief credit officer until the late 1980s. According to Pinto’s research, at the time the market cratered, 27 million loans—half of all U.S. mortgages—were subprime. Of these, Pinto calculated that over 70 percent were touched by Fannie and Freddie—which took on that risk in order to satisfy their government-imposed affordable housing goals—or by some other government agency, or had been made by a large bank that was subject to the CRA. “Thus it is clear where the demand for these deficient mortgages came from,” Wallison wrote in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, which has enthusiastically pushed this point of view in its editorial section since the crisis erupted.

But Pinto’s numbers don’t hold up. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC)—Wallison was one of its 10 commissioners— met with Pinto and analyzed his numbers, and concluded that while Fannie and Freddie played a role in the crisis and were deeply problematic institutions, they “were not a primary cause.” (Wallison issued a dissent.) The FCIC argued that Pinto overstated the number of risky loans, and as David Min, the associate director for financial markets policy at the Center for American Progress, has noted, Pinto’s number is far bigger than that of others—the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office estimated that from 2000 to 2007, there were only 14.5 million total nonprime loans originated; by the end of 2009, there were just 4.59 million such loans outstanding.

A tale of two SEC cases

Bethany McLean
Jan 17, 2012 23:20 UTC

Juries are sometimes told that in the eyes of the law, all Americans are created equal. But if that’s the case, then why does the Securities and Exchange Commission’s treatment of former top Fannie and Freddie executives seem to be so much harsher than its treatment of Citigroup and its senior people for what appear to be similar infractions?

Recall that on Dec. 16, the SEC charged six former executives at mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with fraud for not properly disclosing the companies’ exposure to risky mortgages. In Fannie’s case, the SEC alleges that former CEO Dan Mudd and two other executives made a series of “materially false and misleading public disclosures.” The SEC says, for instance, that at the end of 2006, Fannie didn’t include $43.3 billion of so-called expanded approval mortgages in its subprime exposure and $201 billion of mortgages with reduced documentation in its Alt-A exposure. In Freddie’s case, the SEC alleges that while former CEO Dick Syron and two other executives told investors it had “basically no” subprime exposure, they weren’t including $141 billion in loans (as of the end of 2006) that they internally described as “subprime” or “subprime like.”

There are some gray areas in the SEC’s case. Start with the fact that there is no single definition of what constitutes a subprime or Alt-A loan, or as Mudd said in a speech in the fall of 2007, “the vague, prosaic titles that pass for market data — ‘subprime,’ ‘Alt A,’ ‘A minus’ — mean different things to the beholders.” In Fannie’s 2006 10(k), Mudd noted that apart from what Fannie was defining as subprime or Alt-A, the company also had “certain products and loan attributes [that] are often associated with a greater degree of credit risk,” like loans with low FICO scores or high loan-to-value ratios. And in a letter to shareholders in 2006, Mudd noted that “to provide an alternative to risky subprime products, we have purchased or guaranteed more than $53 billion in Fannie Mae loan products with low down payments, flexible amortization schedules, and other features.” These are the very holdings that the SEC says should have been disclosed as subprime exposure.

The euro zone’s self-inflicted killer

Bethany McLean
Nov 18, 2011 22:59 UTC

By Bethany McLean
The opinions expressed are her own.

There were a lot of things that were supposed to save Europe from potential financial Armageddon. Chief among them is the EFSF, or European Financial Stability Facility.

In the spring of 2010, European finance ministers announced the facility’s formation with great fanfare. In its inaugural report, Standard & Poor’s described the EFSF as the “cornerstone of the EU’s strategy to restore financial stability to the euro zone  sovereign debt market.”  The facility itself said in an October 2011 date presentation that its mission is to “safeguard financial stability in Europe.”

That of course hasn’t happened. And the evidence suggests that the EFSF may have only exacerbated the problems.

Did accounting help sink Corzine’s MF Global?

Bethany McLean
Nov 1, 2011 20:18 UTC

By Bethany McLean
The opinions expressed are her own.

On Monday morning, MF Global, the global brokerage for commodities and derivatives, filed for bankruptcy.  The firm’s roots go back over two centuries,  but in less than two years under CEO Jon Corzine, whose stellar resume includes serving as the chairman of Goldman Sachs, as New Jersey’s U.S. Senator, and as New Jersey’s governor, MF Global collapsed, after buying an enormous amount of European sovereign debt. The instant wisdom is that he made a big bet as part of his plan to transform MF Global into a firm like Goldman Sachs, which executes trades on behalf of its clients, and also puts its own money at stake. Although the size of the wager has received a great deal of scrutiny, the accounting and the disclosure surrounding it have not–and may have played a role in the firm’s demise.

In the 24 hours since the filing, more ugly questions have piled up, with the New York Times reporting that hundreds of millions of dollars of customer money have gone missing, and the AP saying that a federal official says that MF Global has admitted to using clients’ money as its problems mounted. Whether this was intentional or sloppy remains to be seen; MF Global didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.

At the root of MF Global’s current predicament was a simple problem:  the profits in its core business had declined rapidly.  That core business was straightforward, even pedestrian; what the firm calls in filings a “significant portion” of total revenue came from the interest it generated by investing the cash clients had in their accounts in higher yielding assets and capturing the spread between that return and what was paid out to clients. As interest rates declined sharply in recent years, so did MF Global’s net interest income, from $1.8 billion in its fiscal 2007 second quarter to just $113 million four years later. MF Global’s stock, which sold for over $30 a share in late 2007, couldn’t climb above $10 by 2009.