Freddie, Fannie May Skate
In contrast to last summer’s bipartisan outrage over corporate misdeeds, allegations of accounting irregularities and the abrupt departure of three top executives at mortgage giant Freddie Mac has elicited little indignation on Capitol Hill.
Though Congress moved swiftly a year ago to punish companies, such as Enron, WorldCom and Tyco, for accounting scandals that misled investors, most Members do not appear to have a big appetite for legislative remedies to the shake-up two weeks ago at Freddie, the nation’s fourth-largest financial institution .
“It isn’t remotely like those other stories,” said House Financial Services ranking member Barney Frank (D-Mass.). “There’s no indication that the underlying situation [at Freddie Mac] is anywhere near as bad. It just isn’t Enron or Tyco.”
Like Frank, most Members indicated their continued strong support for Freddie Mac and its much larger sister, Fannie Mae — private companies chartered by Congress to inject fresh capital into the housing market by buying home loans from commercial banks.
However, a handful of Congressional critics of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are hoping hearings on Freddie Mac’s recent troubles will uncover enough evidence of questionable corporate governance to finally break the immense influence the two government-sponsored enterprises have cultivated in the halls of Congress.
“I’ve got a window of opportunity that I’ve never had before,” said longtime Freddie and Fannie foe Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.), who is kicking off the hearings today. “This is not just Baker off pontificating about the what-ifs.”
Baker, who chairs the House Financial Services subcommittee on capital markets, insurance and government-sponsored enterprises, is holding a hearing on general oversight of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. For years, he has criticized them for allegedly abusing for shareholder profit their historic exemptions from many securities laws and their other market advantages, such as lower borrowing costs from the federal Treasury, that flow from their link to the federal government.
Baker has promised to hold more hearings that look more closely at Freddie Mac. This week he also introduced legislation to move oversight of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to the Treasury Department’s Office of Thrift Supervision, which he would rename the Office of Housing Finance Supervision.
Baker views Treasury’s rigorous oversight of savings and loans as well as commercial banks as preferable to what he sees as the weaker regulatory powers that the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight currently has under the Housing and Urban Development Department.
But Former House Banking Chairman Jim Leach (R-Iowa), who still sits on the renamed Financial Services panel, indicated that it is nearly impossible for Members to take on the mortgage giants. His own attempt as chairman to force Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to pass on to consumers the savings they receive from their relationship with the federal government was shut down by GSE lobbyists “within 24 hours,” he said.
“In the financial community, there are various types of [financial] risks,” said Leach. “But more than any other financial institution in America, Fannie and Freddie have legislative risk. Therefore, more than any other financial company in the country, they are highly attuned to the legislative process, and they put a great deal of energy into the crafting of legislation. That leads to Member sensitivities to their issues.”
Indeed, one Freddie Mac lobbyist said major changes to regulation of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were unlikely to gain enough steam to pass Congress.
“I think we’re going to see some potential for legislative movement, but does that have the legs to get through committee, or through the House floor and onto the Senate? I don’t know. Frankly, Congress has got a pretty full agenda this year,” the lobbyist said.
The lobbyist also indicated that Members would likely be loath to tinker with the regulatory structure of the two companies, given their successes in helping to keep mortgage rates low and encouraging lending to minorities.
“Congress will act rationally, because they know the role of Fannie and Freddie in the housing market,” the lobbyist said.
Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), who chairs the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs subcommittee on housing and transportation, also advocated a go-slow approach.
“Sometimes you have to take change incrementally,” he said.
The longstanding respect the two companies enjoy with many Members as well as Baker’s well-known, and often maligned, crusade to rein them in appears to, so far, be aiding them in fending off serious regulatory changes.
“There are a lot of people who are just anti-government-sponsored enterprise, and this could be a vehicle for some people to go after them,” said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who sits on the Senate Banking panel. “I don’t think we should do that.”
Another bill — sponsored by Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) — appears to have at least a slightly better chance at passage. It would require the two mortgage companies to register and report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, something they agreed to do voluntarily last year.
Markey and Shays have argued that the voluntary compliance has been irregular and that the public has a right to more transparent information about the business dealings of the two entities, especially since a failure by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac could potentially put taxpayers at risk for footing the bill.
Many investors believe the mortgage-backed securities sold on Wall Street by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are safer than other stocks, because of the companies’ links to the government. The U.S. government does not guarantee their securities, as it does government bonds, but it is widely assumed that the government would bail the two giants out if they went under.
Baker, Markey and Shays all acknowledge it will not be easy going toe-to-toe with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s large cadre of lobbyists, who have a long history of successfully shutting down Congressional attempts to limit the advantages built into their charters or to increase their regulator’s power.
“It’s a heavy lift,” Baker said.
The bright spot for Baker and other GSE critics is that there is widespread agreement, even among GSE supporters, that Congress should hold hearings on why Freddie Mac’s board of directors fired its president and chief operating officer, David Glenn, for failing to cooperate with in an internal audit while Chairman Leland Brendsel and Chief Financial Officer Vaughan Clarke resigned at the same time.
“The secrecy that has surrounded the reasoning behind the change in management may be a problem in and of itself,” Leach said.
The departures came after Freddie Mac announced in January that it would undergo an internal audit and have to restate its earnings for three years due to a recommendation by its new auditor, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, to alter the way it accounts for its derivative holdings — a change company officials acknowledged could make their future earnings reports more unpredictable.
House Financial Services Chairman Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) has expressed support for Baker’s hearings, but he reportedly has good relations with Freddie Mac chief lobbyist Mitch Delk and has not strongly questioned the mortgage company publicly.
Consequently, Baker appears to be the only one rushing to find answers now.
Both Allard and Senate Banking Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) say they want to wait until current investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and OFHEO, as well as a criminal probe by the a U.S. attorney in Virginia, are completed before holding hearings.
“If we rush ahead of the regulators, it looks like we’re looking for headlines and not thoughtful solutions,” said Shelby. “We need to be thoughtful and measured about this.”
Allard, who has pursued legislation to introduce more competition in the secondary mortgage market only to be thwarted much like Leach, indicated that while he’s “concerned” about the issues at Freddie Mac, he doesn’t want to jump to conclusions.
“As far as what’s happened with Freddie Mac, right now, I’m willing to say that it’s just an administrative change that needed to happen,” he said. “I’m waiting to get some more information as to what really happened here.”
Another GOP Senator speaking on the condition of anonymity said indications that Freddie Mac’s eventual restatement of earnings would be higher than originally forecast actually means that the management has been too conservative, not too risky.
But critics of the GSEs said members were underestimating the potential problem and buying into Freddie Mac’s efforts to downplay the incident.
“If they only understated their earnings, why did they fire their CEO and let their president and their CFO go? Why would you penalize someone for erring on the side of caution?” asked former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), who now heads a GSE watchdog group called FM Policy Focus. “This should raise a red flag to say we’ve got to be more in tune to what’s going on with the GSEs.”