Opinion

The Great Debate

Fannie and Freddie are more complicated than that

This article was written in response to “How Ralph Nader learned to love Fannie and Freddie” (February 18) by Bethany McLean.

Bethany McLean’s article deserves a number of clarifying responses.

McLean injects an air of complexity and confusion with regard to my positions on a number of separate issues in what seems to be an attempt to imply a more interesting narrative for her article than exists in reality. Some clarifications are in order:

In the 1990s and early 2000s I opposed corruption in the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs). I was clear about my admonition of the government subsidies they received in the form of an implicit government guarantee without meeting their obligations to advance affordable housing. I was clear that their drive for profits could tempt them deeper into murky legal waters. My opposition to their management compensation packages and questionable accounting practices were made plain.

Now I am advocating for the GSEs’ shareholders’ rights. This is an issue separate from the previous transgressions and corruption.

In its conservatorship of the GSEs, the federal government has used and abused GSE shareholders. It has unfairly treated the GSEs differently than other bailed-out corporations that were equally — or more — at fault for the financial crisis.

from Bethany McLean:

How Ralph Nader learned to love Fannie and Freddie

Corrects story issued February 18 in third-to-last paragraph regarding efforts to contact Ralph  Nader.

“It is time for [government-sponsored enterprises] to give up ties to the federal government that have made them poster children for corporate welfare. Most of all, Congress needs to look more to the protection of the taxpayers and less to the hyperbole of the GSE lobbyists. –Ralph Nader, testimony before the House Committee on Banking and Financial Services, June 15, 2000

“Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should be relisted on the NYSE and their conservatorships should, over time, be terminated. –Ralph Nader, letter to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, May 23, 2013

Correcting three myths about the housing market

The U.S. Senate should move quickly to confirm Mel Watt as the new head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), but not for any of the political or procedural reasons usually discussed. A quick confirmation is required because we need new leadership on U.S. housing policy — a policy that on some crucial points is headed in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons.

In the years since the collapse of the housing bubble, major Wall Street firms have prospered while millions of homeowners are still dealing with the wreckage of a damaged housing market. That’s in part because nothing as large as a national housing market turns quickly. But it’s also because persistent myths about the market are obscuring the data and driving policy in the wrong direction.

Here are three such myths, and the right way to think about them:

1.    The foreclosure crisis is over.

Most news stories today focus on overall foreclosure numbers dropping and home prices rising, but the truth is more nuanced. Prices are indeed up in some wealthier neighborhoods, and foreclosures are dropping in many communities.

Helping America’s renters

We shouldn’t have to sue to get Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to follow their congressional mandate and put some of the billions they are generating into affordable housing for the millions of families who need it. But that’s what is has come to for housing advocates, who are frustrated that the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) is still refusing to fund the National Housing Trust Fund.

In 2008, before the housing market collapsed, a bipartisan promise was made to millions of working families, when President George W. Bush signed the National Housing Trust Fund into law. The fund, capitalized from the operating profits of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, was to be a downpayment on affordable apartments, which are desperately needed by the millions of Americans who rent.

Yet when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac crashed along with house prices, and were put into conservatorship, the Federal Housing Finance Agency decided to delay funding the Housing Trust until the mortgage giants got back on their feet. For nearly five years, the promise Congress made to America’s renters has remained unfulfilled.

Surprise — we might actually begin meaningful housing reform this year

Last week, I spotlighted three ominous trends in consumer banking. The last one spotlighted a brewing war “between the private bank sector and the government over who exactly controls the allocation of consumer credit in this country.”

By far, the most important front in this battle is over the future of housing finance. Today, the government is underwriting or assuming 100 percent of the credit risk on practically every new mortgage that’s originated. With regard to outstanding mortgages, the government is responsible for 100 percent of the default risk on about $6 trillion of the roughly $10 trillion market.

Thankfully, there is some real hope that a somewhat clandestine reform effort is about to commence that would start to shift a portion of this credit risk back to the private sector. The leader of this effort is the much-maligned regulator of the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. After Fannie and Freddie were bailed out and then taken over by the government in 2008, Edward DeMarco was named acting head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) and conservator of the GSEs. He was tasked with a nearly impossible balancing act or mission:

from Stories I’d like to see:

Crash winners, the litigation world series, and Defense budget boondoggles

1. Crash Winners

Here’s a new entry for the lists of winners and losers that get published this time of year: The ten lawyers, bankers, consultants or accountants who reaped the most from the financial disaster of the last three years.

The poster-boy would likely be Irving Picard, a partner at the Cleveland-based international law firm of Baker & Hostetler. Picard is the court-appointed trustee responsible for recovering money for Bernie Madoff’s victims. From the sketchy clips I’ve seen, it appears that Picard and his firm have already received more than $200 million in fees for their work from the court overseeing the cases. Is that true?

Then there are the lawyers involved in bringing and defending all those multi-hundred million-dollar and billion-dollar claims against the banks that packaged and re-sold troubled mortgages and other securities. Or the accountants, lawyers and bankers sorting out the assets and liabilities in the wake of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and and other implosions.

All of Washington lives in Newt’s swamp

By Jack Abramoff
The opinions expressed are his own.

Last week, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich romanced the Tea Party activists, who demand that the corrupt swamp of Washington be drained. His intrepid spokesman, R.C. Hammond, had a more arduous task: convincing the world that the former Speaker was not swimming in that same swamp. As facts emerged revealing that Gingrich took almost $2 million in “consulting” fees from the beleaguered Freddie Mac, Hammond delivered proof that the Gingrich operation was master of the inside-the-Washington-beltway game. Spinning Gingrich’s perfidious (yet legal) trip through the infamous revolving door to post public service riches, Hammond posited that taking millions in consulting fees was actually a positive: since Newt now understood “why the system is broken,” he now knew “how it could be fixed.” In other words, now that he had participated in legal corruption, he was more qualified to be our President.

By that metric, I should be announcing my cabinet choices any day now. After all, in 2004, my lobbying activities became the basis for the biggest corruption scandal to hit Washington since Watergate. Gingrich’s candidacy may or may not survive these revelations, but there is a bigger issue to consider than whether this late-night-talk show hosts’ dream politician makes it to the Oval Office.

America is sick of its political leaders raking in millions of dollars in fees from special interests. At a time when the average American can barely afford enough gasoline to get to work, our politicians are converting their elected positions into major paydays. Newt is not the first and won’t be the last to do this. He just has the bad luck to be surging in the polls. But the problem with this latest round of “shoot the leading Republican candidate” is that it deflects attention from the need to change the system. Every time one of these “gotcha” attacks becomes personal, it loses its capacity to engender real reform.

Everyone’s housing market profits were fictitious

By Maureen Tkacik
The opinions expressed are her own.

Also read part one of this series, How Ed DeMarco finally cried fraud.

A big clue something had become dysfunctional at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac came in the first week of 2011, when the government mortgage market makers announced the terms of a settlement agreement they’d reached with Bank of America, and were immediately pilloried for extending the bank another “backdoor bailout” by the likes of Maxine Waters and the American Enterprise Institute.

By the end of January an internal investigation had convened, all other settlement negotiations had been suspended, and Edward J. DeMarco, the acting Fannie/Freddie overseer pending the confirmation of his replacement, found himself suddenly faced with the challenge of replacing himself as congressional Republicans vowed to stonewall Obama’s pick. Part one of this series traced DeMarco’s unlikely conversion in 2011 from coddler of banks to unyielding litigator of bank fraud. It’s a rare shift in Washington, where “corruption” is a process that’s practically synonymous with “aging.” What’s often forgotten when bureaucrats fail as spectacularly as they have at Fannie and Freddie is the critical roles played by cluelessness, incuriosity, faulty reasoning and fraudulent economic logic as well.

Consider what the inspector general learned about the corporate procedures for pursuing “putback” claims in place at Freddie Mac. While purchase contracts entitle the GSEs to force banks to buy back any delinquent loan in which it finds evidence of fraud, Freddie restricted examiners to screening only mortgages which had defaulted within two years of origination, a tiny sliver of total foreclosures comprising less than one-tenth of defaults from the years 2004 to 2007—the vintage of the Countrywide loans. When one of DeMarco’s deputies noticed this apparent oversight and began warning executives that “Freddie could passively be absorbing billions of dollars of losses” merely by refusing to glance at 90% of their files, the enterprise … chose to absorb the losses, repeatedly resorting to a boilerplate argument justifying the two-year policy holding that:

How Ed DeMarco finally cried fraud

By Maureen Tkacik
The opinions expressed are her own.

Read part two of this series: Everyone’s housing market profits were fictitious.

It took three years, but Fannie/Freddie Conservator Ed DeMarco is starting to channel his inner Irving Picard by acknowledging that among root causes of the financial crisis is fraud, and lots of it.

Trying to parse the madness of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over the past few years has given me a new appreciation for Bernie Madoff. Bernie might not have left much for his victims, but at least they finally got a straight answer about what he’d been doing with their money all those years, and a sensible legal framework for recovering and winding down all that might be left.

Why are we making Uncle Sam a trillion-dollar lender?

By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
The opinions expressed are his own.

America is on a path to fiscal disaster.  The skyrocketing national debt will continue to force the Nation to make fundamental decisions about what the government will and will not do, and how to share budget resources across competing programs.  Too bad Congressional budget rules give misleading signals on the best path forward.

In spite of the impending crisis, in just the past two years Congress and the President have committed the United States government to lend directly more than a trillion dollars of student, home and other loans.  That is over a trillion dollars of new borrowing at a time when debt threatens the foundations of the U.S. economy.  More startling, the borrowing was done in the name of deficit reduction.

How could this be?

Budget law requires the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to assume that loans made directly by the government earn huge profits, with virtually no risk that such estimates could be wrong.  As a former CBO Director, it is easy for me to point out that most of the governments financial transactions are fraught with risk – the support of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac being the prime examples that came back to haunt the taxpayer.  So it is a paper fantasy that the federal government will surely recoup more money than it lends out.  If a bank were to use the same accounting, the Securities and Exchange Commission would charge them with overstating their earnings and throw the book at them.  Congress gets to call these phantom profits “savings.”

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