By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Internal Freddie Mac documents show that senior executives at the company were warned years ago that they were offering mortgages that could pose dangers to the firm, hurt borrowers and generate more risky loans throughout the industry.
At Fannie Mae, top executives were told it was necessary to develop "underground" efforts to buy subprime mortgages because of competitive pressures, although there were growing risks and borrowers often didn't understand the terms of the loans, documents show.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has the documents, is holding a hearing today to discuss Fannie and Freddie's downfall. The companies were seized by the government three months ago after nearly collapsing in the wake of billions of dollars of losses on mortgages.
In a memo to former Freddie chief executive Richard F. Syron and other top executives, former Freddie chief enterprise risk officer David Andrukonis wrote that the company was buying mortgages that appear "to target borrowers who would have trouble qualifying for a mortgage if their financial position were adequately disclosed."
Andrukonis warned that these mortgages could be particularly harmful for Hispanic borrowers, and they could lead to loans being made to people who would be unlikely to pay them off. "The potential for the perception and the reality of predatory lending with this product is great," Andrukonis wrote.
The documents, which the committee has not yet released but were obtained by The Washington Post, show that Fannie and Freddie, two linchpins of the nation's mortgage market, continued to push into new, risky markets despite internal debate over whether the efforts were prudent.
Fannie and Freddie declined to comment, as did Andrukonis. Syron's lawyer did not respond to messages left with his secretary and an e-mail message sent to him. Daniel H. Mudd, Fannie's former chief executive, declined to comment as well.
Syron and Mudd -- as well as their predecessors, Leland Brendsel at Freddie and Franklin D. Raines of Fannie -- are scheduled to testify today before the House panel, as will a number of other outside analysts.
When the government took over the mortgage finance giants, it announced it was installing new management and creating a $200 billion fund to support the companies in case they faltered further.
Fannie and Freddie's distress has its roots in the new, risky mortgages the companies bought and guaranteed in increasing numbers, largely from 2004 through 2007. These new products included home loans made to people with blemished credit histories, called subprime loans, and mortgages made without verification of income, assets or employment, often called Alt-A.
As Mudd's and Syron's decisions have been called into question, they have described their push into these new areas of the mortgage business as an inevitable consequence of dueling mandates to support affordable housing and maximize profit for shareholders. And they've said that the collapse of the housing market was unforeseeable and the primary reason behind the company's fall.
But the documents show how top executives at both companies were told that the new subprime and Alt-A loans were dangerous both to the companies and to the borrowers they were charted by Congress to help.
At Fannie, chief credit officer Adolfo Marzol wrote to chief executive Mudd in March 2005 to warn that entering new areas of the mortgage market represented significant risks. The industry was pushing new types of loans, he wrote, including those that required little documentation and those that carried rates that would adjust in a few years.
"The combination of these risks may be difficult for subprime borrowers to understand," Marzol wrote.
Marzol also warned that securities backed by these loans might not be as safe as they seemed. Fannie reported them as carrying the top grade given by credit-rating agencies, AAA, but Marzol cast doubt on that. "Although we invest almost exclusively in AAA rated securities, there is concern that rating agencies may not be properly assessing the risk in these securities," he wrote.
Despite these concerns, Fannie continued to push into this new market. A business presentation in 2005 expressed concern that unless it didn't, Fannie could be relegated to a "niche" player in the industry. Mudd later reported in a presentation that Fannie moved into this market "to maintain relevance" with big customers who wanted to do more business with Fannie, including Countrywide, Lehman Brothers, IndyMac and Washington Mutual.
The documents suggest than Fannie and Freddie knew they were playing a role in shaping the market for some types of risky mortgages. An e-mail to Mudd in September 2007 from a top deputy reported that banks were modeling their subprime mortgages to what Fannie was buying.
At Freddie, risk officer Andrukonis expressed concern about a new mortgage product called stated-income, stated-asset that the company was considering buying. The loans required borrowers to state their incomes and assets, but not prove them.
In a memo to Syron and others, Andrukonis warned that in 1990 Freddie called this product "dangerous" and stopped offering it. "I'm not convinced we aren't leading the market into this product," Andrukonis wrote.
Freddie offered to buy the stated-income, stated-asset loans anyway.
Andrukonis and others expressed concern about another type of mortgage Freddie was buying, where neither income nor assets were stated on the loan application. Andrukonis said these were popular with Hispanic borrowers, but the delinquency rates of 8 to 13 percent were much higher than on conventional loans. People familiar with the matter said Freddie was being pushed by advocacy groups to come up with new loan products to offer to low-income and minority borrowers.
Andrukonis acknowledged that getting out of this business could cost $50 million annually and draw criticism. "On the other hand, what better way to highlight our sense of mission than to walk away from profitable business because it hurts the borrowers we are trying to serve," he wrote.
At times, Andrukonis grew frustrated with the response he got from Freddie leadership about his concerns as he registered worries about low-documentation loans.
In a message to colleagues, Andrukonis wrote that while he and others "make the case for sound credit, it's not the theme coming from the top of the company and inevitably people down the line will play follow the leader."
Andrukonis was joined by others expressing concerns. Don Bisenius, then a credit officer, wrote in an e-mail to Michael May, a top executive, that "the lack of verified information on a borrower's income and assets could clearly influence the risk potential in a loan and the ultimate performance of the loans."
In a separate e-mail, May wrote that he recognized the risks of the business. But he predicted "a different pattern [than] we did with no-doc lending before," suggesting there won't be big losses. He listed reasons including that Freddie had more information about borrowers' credit-worthiness than before and other tools for accessing risk.
In October 2004, May ultimately recommended continuing no-income, no-asset loans, though with some changes. Through Freddie Mac, May declined to comment. Syron signed off on continuing with the loans. Bisenius, now part of new Freddie chief executive David Moffett's inner circle, formally opposed the decision.
There is some mystery surrounding Andrukonis's ultimate role. In one document sent to Syron, he joined a group of people neither supportive of nor opposing the decision to continue no-income, no-asset loans, but registered as "neutral."
However, a person familiar with the discussions said Andrukonis and other risk officers continued to oppose the product until the very end. Freddie executives asked him to leave the company, according to people familiar with the matter, which he did in 2005.
Staff writer Amit R. Paley contributed to this report.