Five years ago at this time, the federal government seized control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as the financial meltdown began to unfold. The two mortgage giants have remained in conservatorship ever since and are now the subject of a policy debate over whether they should be radically transformed or obliterated entirely.
Meanwhile, the primary culprits for the housing bubble and collapse – the big Wall Street banks, that is – remain intact. They face some legal entanglements, but they will be able to buy their way out of those cases and continue with business as usual, which for them means profiting from reckless transactions and expecting that taxpayers will eventually pay to clean up the mess.
A major reason for the disparity between the fates of Fannie and Freddie and that of the banks was the success of the rightwing disinformation campaign blaming the financial crisis entirely on the mortgage agencies. According to this warped narrative, it was their role in promoting home ownership among lower-income Americans that brought the system down. In 2011 New York Times columnist David Brooks declared that “the Fannie Mae scandal is the most important political scandal since Watergate. It helped sink the American economy. It has cost taxpayers about $153 billion, so far. It indicts patterns of behavior that are considered normal and respectable in Washington.”
Fannie and Freddie certainly made their share of mistakes. Let’s recall, as conservatives typically fail to do, that while these agencies were created by Congress and ultimately had taxpayer backing, they had been functioning as for-profit entities. Their executives benefited handsomely from the housing bubble.
Yet much more damage was done by purely private-sector players such as Countrywide Financial, which steered low-income families into predatory sub-prime mortgages, as well as the big investment banks, which packaged those doomed mortgages into securities whose risks were not adequately disclosed to investors. In this they were aided by the unscrupulous credit-rating agencies.
Those risks were also not sufficiently disclosed to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which purchased many of the toxic securities. A few years ago, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which currently oversees Fannie and Freddie, began to bring legal actions against the banks.
In January 2011 Bank of America, which had purchased Countrywide, consented to pay $2.8 billion to settle one such suit brought by FHFA. The amount was considered a bargain for BofA, with one financial analyst calling it a “gift” from the government.
In July 2011 FHFA brought a similar action against a U.S. subsidiary of the Swiss bank UBS, which had been an aggressive marketer of mortgage-backed securities in the years following its acquisition of U.S. investment banks PaineWebber and Kidder Peabody. The case is pending.
And in September 2011 FHFA brought suits against 17 financial institutions, among them Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley. In the Citi complaint, for example, FHFA alleged that the bank “falsely represented that the underlying mortgage loans complied with certain underwriting guidelines and standards, including representations that significantly overstated the ability of the borrowers’ to repay their mortgage loans.” Those cases are pending as well.
At the beginning of this year, Bank of America agreed to pay another $10.3 billion ($3.6 billion in cash and $6.75 billion in mortgage repurchases) to Fannie Mae to settle a new lawsuit concerning the bank’s sale of faulty mortgages to the agency. As part of the deal, BofA also agreed to sell off about 20 percent of its loan servicing business.
Those who depict Fannie and Freddie as the root of all housing evil should explain how it is that they ended up among the main victims of Wall Street’s huge mortgage-backed securities scam and are receiving billions to resolve their legal claims over the matter.
In August President Obama came out in favor of winding down Fannie and Freddie and sharply restricting the role of the federal government in mortgage markets. When will the Administration propose something similarly radical about the big banks?