ATTORNEY: JESSICA N. DELL
Pomerantz Monitor, May/June 2014
In March, Bank of America (“BofA”) agreed to pay $9.3 billion to settle four settle lawsuits filed by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”). The lawsuits alleged that the bank misrepresented risks inherent in billions of dollars in mortgage-backed securities that it sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Under the terms of the settlement, BofA subsidiaries Countrywide Financial Corp and Merrill Lynch will pay $5.83 billion and repurchase another $3.2 billion in mortgage-backed securities, FHFA said.
As many will recall, FHFA filed these lawsuits among seventeen similar cases in its capacity as conservator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, after it was reported that Fannie and Freddie lost up to $30 billion in the subprime mortgage market. Cases were brought against all the big banks: JPMorgan, Barclays, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, and UBS. To date, the lawsuits have recovered more than $20 billion. Seven of those cases are still pending. The recovery is impressive, but brings renewed scrutiny to the whole fiasco, including the unclean hands of some Fannie and Freddie executives, who had long insisted that Fannie and Freddie’s involvement with subprime loans was minimal. We now know that Daniel Mudd and Richard Syron, chief executives of Fannie and Freddie, were aware of the exposure and the risks. Internal documents released at Congressional hearings showed that both ignored repeated warnings from internal risk officers. In March 2006, Enrico Dallavecchia, Fannie Mae’s chief risk officer, wrote to CEO Daniel Mudd to say, “Dan, I have a serious problem with the control process around subprime limits.”
Fannie’s role goes back to the beginning of the subprime phenomenon. The New York Times journalist Gretchen Morgenson reported that Fannie had actually recruited Countrywide to make the loans to help fulfill Fannie’s own “affordable housing” goals. In return, Countrywide was given a discount on fees. By 2004, Countrywide was Fannie’s top mortgage supplier, accounting for 26 percent of the loans purchased by Fannie. Fannie executives were also among the dozens of employees who enjoyed steeply discounted mortgage rates from Countrywide. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee found that 153 “VIP loans” had been issued to 27 employees.
When the government took over and ousted the executives, Fannie and Freddie appeared to be winding down and out. But wait. Mel Watt, head of FHFA, just signaled that Fannie and Freddie may not be exiting the mortgage industry, but instead might be enjoying something of a renaissance. As the Times reported, in a quote attributed to Jim Parrott of the Urban Institute, “(Watt’s) message was he will turn from focusing on the enterprises as institutions in intentional decline to institutions that should be better prepared to form the core of our system for years to come… this shift in focus ripples through the many decisions announced in the speech and signals a watershed moment in the brief history of the agency.”
The BofA settlement plays a significant role in the appearance of renewal: of the $5.7 billion Fannie Mae reported as comprehensive income for the first quarter, $4.1 billion was revenue from legal settlements, nearly double the $2.2 billion that Fannie had garnered in 2013. Freddie Mac also reported $4.9 billion in benefits from legal settlements.
This is only the latest in a seemingly endless cycle of banking industry misdeeds. In addition to misrepresentations about mortgage backed securities, we have money laundering, manipulations of LIBOR, aiding and abetting tax evasion, circumventing the sanctions on Iran, the London Whale fiasco, and a host of other high crimes and misdemeanors. That public outrage has somewhat waned on the matter might be attributed to sheer exhaustion. We have not seen the last of it. Not by a long shot.