Freddie Mac's new chief executive said yesterday that the federally chartered mortgage company has not done enough to promote home ownership for people with low and moderate incomes, and that he is using pay incentives to make the company take that responsibility more seriously.
In the past, the company viewed the housing mandate as a "tax" on what was otherwise "a profit-maximizing organization," Richard F. Syron said in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters.
"I don't think we've paid enough attention to the mission . . . as would be desirable," Syron said.
The company and its direct competitor, Fannie Mae, face government criticism and regulatory challenges on multiple fronts. The Bush administration has argued that they should do more to help low-income families buy homes, and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has stated that their huge size and rapid growth pose potential risks to the financial system. The administration and some members of Congress have been trying to counter the perception that the government would rescue the companies in a crisis.
Syron, 60, who has been on the job since January, was hired to lead Freddie Mac after an accounting scandal toppled the company's longtime chief, Leland C. Brendsel, and the first executive the board named to replace Brendsel. Syron, who joined Freddie Mac from Thermo Electron Corp., a Massachusetts-based maker of scientific instruments, once headed the American Stock Exchange and previously worked at the Federal Reserve Board and the Treasury Department.
In the interview, Syron conceded that people may be skeptical about his stated commitment to ideals the McLean company has long espoused.
"Of course, if I were you I would be cynical about it," he said. "You can say, 'Well, that's all BS, right?' And, and you know, if I was you I might say that."
Syron said that 30 percent of the company's 2004 bonus formula is now based on promoting home ownership for underserved populations, though it has not been decided yet how to measure that performance. Until recently, the company's pay incentives were based on various measures of financial performance, and the federally mandated housing mission did not factor into the equation, spokesman David Palombi said.
"We have a multipurpose charter, but Congress didn't set us up because what they thought was they needed another Goldman Sachs," Syron said, referring to the Wall Street investment bank.
Congress chartered Freddie and Fannie to provide steady funding for home mortgages and to make housing more affordable. The companies are middlemen between the capital markets and lenders such as banks and savings and loans.
Freddie and Fannie borrow money by issuing bonds and use those funds to buy mortgages from lenders. They profit largely by paying lower interest rates on the money they borrow than they receive on the mortgages they buy. The widespread perception that the government would prop them up helps them borrow money at discounted rates, giving them an advantage in the marketplace, according to analysts at the Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget Office.
One of their key functions is packaging mortgages as securities for sale to other investors. Together, they also hold more than $1.5 trillion in mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. Greenspan recently wrote that the companies can "automatically profit" from their apparent ability to "borrow at subsidized rates without any realistic limit and invest the proceeds."
The companies use complex hedging strategies to protect their investments against fluctuations in interest rates.
In the interview, Syron said that Freddie's portfolio of investments carries "very low risk." But he said the company "can't and shouldn't" expand it "the way it grew in the past."
"It clearly is both politically and financially . . . not feasible for us to begin to have people thinking that we're a hedge fund and running a pure arbitrage" business, he said, referring to a style of opportunistic investing.
Syron said that if Freddie and Fannie were privatized, as some critics urge, it would become harder and costlier for consumers to get 30-year fixed-rate mortgages that allow them to prepay or refinance at any time without penalty.
He also questioned whether over the long run the company could meet requirements the Department of Housing and Urban Development recently proposed for Fannie and Freddie to focus larger percentages of their business on loans for low- and moderate-income borrowers and underserved areas.
In the short term, a top company priority -- and one that counts for 70 percent of the new incentive pay formula -- is issuing up-to-date financial statements. In the aftermath of its accounting scandal, Freddie is more than a year behind in reporting quarterly earnings, a basic function of any publicly traded company.
"I know we've got to get to a regular standard of responsibility, but we've got to have a higher standard of responsibility than an ordinary organization because, you know, we have a federal government charter," Syron said.
Syron said that he was trying to change an organization that in the past was "too inbred" and "too secretive."