Thursday, December 22, 2011

Speaking Of The Housing Crisis... anyone else thinking this is a bit of a bombshell (emphasis mine)?

Democrats have spent years arguing that private lenders created the housing boom and bust, and that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac merely came along for the ride. This was always a politically convenient fiction, and now thanks to the unlikely source of the Securities and Exchange Commission we have a trail of evidence showing how the failed mortgage giants turbocharged the crisis.

That's the story revealed Friday by the SEC's civil lawsuits against six former Fannie and Freddie executives, including a pair of CEOs. The SEC says the companies defrauded investors because they "knew and approved of misleading statements" about Fan and Fred's exposure to subprime loans, and it chronicles their push to expand the business.

The executives deny the charges, and we hope they don't settle. The case deserves to play out in court, so Americans can see in detail how Fan and Fred were central to the bubble. The lawsuits themselves, combined with information admitted as true by Fan and Fred in civil nonprosecution agreements with the SEC, are certainly illuminating.

The Beltway story of the crisis claims that Congress's affordable housing mandates had nothing to do with it. But the SEC's lawsuit shows that Fannie degraded its underwriting standards to increase its market share in subprime loans. According to the SEC suit, for instance, in 2006 Fannie Mae adjusted its widely used automated underwriting system, "Desktop Underwriter." Fannie did so as part of its "Say Yes" strategy to "provide more 'approve' messages . . . for larger volumes of loans with lower FICO [credit] scores and higher LTVs [loan-to-value] than previously permitted."

The SEC also shows how Fannie led private lenders into the subprime market. In July 1999, Fannie and Angelo Mozilo's Countrywide Home Loans entered "an alliance agreement" that included "a reduced documentation loan program called the 'internet loan,'" later called the "Fast and Easy" loan. As the SEC notes, "by the mid-2000s, other mortgage lenders developed similar reduced documentation loan programs, such as Mortgage Express and PaperSaver—many of which Fannie Mae acquired in ever-increasing volumes."

Mr. Mozilo and Fannie essentially were business partners in the subprime business. Countrywide found the customers, while Fannie provided the taxpayer-backed capital. And the rest of the industry followed.

As Fannie expanded its subprime loan purchases and guarantees, the SEC alleges that executives hid the risk from investors. Consider Fannie's Expanded Approval/Timely Payment Rewards (EA) loans, which the company described to regulators as its "most significant initiative to serve credit-impaired borrowers."

By December 31, 2006, Fannie owned or securitized some $43.3 billion of these loans, which, according to the SEC, had "higher average serious delinquency rates, higher credit losses, and lower average credit scores" than Fannie's disclosed subprime loans. By June 30, 2008, Fannie had $60 billion in EA loans and $41.7 billion in another risky program called "My Community Mortgage," but it only publicly reported an $8 billion exposure.

The SEC says Fannie executives also failed to disclose the company's total exposure to risky "Alt-A" loans, sometimes called "liar loans," which required less documentation than traditional subprime loans. Fannie created a special category called "Lender Selected" loans and it gave lenders "coding designations" to separate these Alt-A loans from those Fannie had publicly disclosed. By June 30, 2008, Fannie said its Alt-A exposure was 11% of its portfolio, when it was closer to 23%—a $341 billion difference.

All the while, Fannie executives worked to calm growing fears about subprime while receiving internal reports about the company's risk exposure. In February 2007, Chief Risk Officer Enrico Dallavecchia told investors that Fannie's subprime exposure was "immaterial." At a March 2007 Congressional hearing, CEO Daniel Mudd testified that "we see it as part of our mission and our charter to make safe mortgages available to people who don't have perfect credit," adding that Fannie's subprime exposure was "relatively minimal." The Freddie record is similarly incriminating.


The SEC's case should embarrass Congress's Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which spent 18 months looking at the evidence and issued a report in January 2011 that whitewashed Fan and Fred's role. Speaker Nancy Pelosi created the commission to prosecute the Beltway theory of the crisis that private bankers caused it all, and Chairman Phil Angelides delivered what she wanted.

Far from being peripheral to the housing crisis, the SEC lawsuit shows that Fan and Fred were at the very heart of it. Private lenders made many mistakes, but they could never have done as much harm if Fan and Fred weren't providing tens of billions in taxpayer-subsidized liquidity to lend on easy terms to borrowers who couldn't pay it back.

Congress created the two mortgage giants as well as their "affordable housing" mandates, and neither the financial system nor taxpayers will be safe until Congress shrinks the toxic twins and ultimately puts them out of business.

Just a brief and simplified recap of the housing crisis:
- the Carter administration passed the Community Reinvestment Act in the late 1970s to force banks into relaxing their loan application standards to allow less well-qualified buyers (i.e. the 'poor' and illegal immigrants, people who were most at risk for failure to pay their mortgages) access to home loans
- banks complied
- in the 1990s the Clinton administration further relaxed the standards and the penalties for non-compliance
- the bubble began to build
- through the 2000s, the Bush administration tried over a dozen times to warn of the impending danger and prod Congress to do something about it
- Congress did nothing (but continue to take money from Freddie and Fannie)
- banks, being forced by law to issue mortgages to people they knew were likely to flake out and fail to pay, created new and inventive ways to ditch those risky/subprime loans
- the bubble burst

It's pretty much a consensus that the housing bubble was the final domino that triggered the economic catastrophe of 2008.  Now, with this lawsuit, we're seeing the seedy underbelly of those who lied, deceived, and covered up what they knew to be illegitimate business practices.

I agree with the editorial - bring it on.  Let's just remember who played which part on this stage as we watch the ugliness unfold.

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