By Jared Chausow
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By Elizabeth Flock
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Cuomo's predecessor, Henry Cisneros, did that for the first time in December 1995, taking a cautious approach and moving the GSEs toward a requirement that 42 percent of their mortgages serve low- and moderate-income families. Cuomo raised that number to 50 percent and dramatically hiked GSE mandates to buy mortgages in underserved neighborhoods and for the "very-low-income." Part of the pitch was racial, with Cuomo contending that Fannie and Freddie weren't granting mortgages to minorities at the same rate as the private market. William Apgar, Cuomo's top aide, told The Washington Post: "We believe that there are a lot of loans to black Americans that could be safely purchased by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac if these companies were more flexible."
While many saw this demand for increasingly "flexible" loan terms and standards as a positive step for low-income and minority families, others warned that they could have potentially dangerous consequences. Franklin Raines, the Fannie chairman and first black CEO of a Fortune 500 company, warned that Cuomo's rules were moving Fannie into risky territory: "We have not been a major presence in the subprime market," he said, "but you can bet that under these goals, we will be." Fannie's chief financial officer, Timothy Howard, said that "making loans to people with less-than-perfect credit" is "something we should do." Cuomo wasn't shy about embracing subprime mortgages as a possible consequence of his goals. "GSE presence in the subprime market could be of significant benefit to lower-income families, minorities, and families living in underserved areas," his report on the new goals noted.
Moody's didn't sound an immediate alarm, but its senior analyst, Stanislas Rouyer, said the expansion into subprime loans and the lower level of documentation that came with them could mean that Fannie 's loss levels would increase in the future. Steven Holmes, a reporter from the Times's Washington bureau, wrote at the time: "In moving, even tentatively, into this new area of lending, Fannie Mae is taking on significantly more risk, which may not pose any difficulties during flush economic times. But," he added, "the government-subsidized corporation may run into trouble in an economic downturn, prompting a government rescue similar to that of the savings and loan industry in the 1980s."
When HUD released the next set of goals in 2004, it reported that after Cuomo's previous edict, there had been a sudden spurt of GSE subprime investment, "partly in response to higher affordable-housing goals set by HUD in 2000." Fannie had gone from $1.2 billion in subprime-mortgage and securities purchases in 2000 to $9.2 billion in 2001 and $15 billion in 2002. Freddie's numbers were murkier, but clearly also on the rise. In 2003 alone, the two bought $81 billion in subprime securities—which also count against the goals.
Fannie also developed a "flexible" product line, providing up to 100 percent financing and requiring borrowers to make as little as a $500 contribution, and bought $13.7 billion of those loans in 2003. In addition to subprime loans and securities, both banks burst into the "alt-a" market, making alternative products easily available to borrowers who had slightly better credit histories than subprime borrowers, but were unwilling to provide full documentation of their financial histories. (It was the "alt-a" investments that recently brought down the private bank IndyMac.) These risky adventures, according to the 2004 HUD report, prompted Freddie to claim that "the increased goals created tension in its business practices between meeting the goals and conducting responsible lending practices," a self-serving attempt to plant the blame back on HUD.
After this initial uptick, the two banks purchased $434 billion in securities backed by subprime loans between 2004 and 2006. The Washington Post noted this June that the GSEs' aggressive acquisitions "created a market for more such lending" by others, feeding the fire. No one knows just how big a bite the subprime mess is now taking out of the GSEs, or how much of that portfolio will ultimately go bad, but it has become axiomatic that, whatever the total, it is too much, since it will have seriously shaken confidence in these two linchpin institutions.
That June Post story focused its critical reassessment of HUD's affordable-housing goals on the department's 2004 decision—during the Bush re-election campaign—to juice them up again, pushing the target to 56 percent by 2007. Though the story never mentioned Cuomo—whose three-year, eight-point goal hike exceeded Bush's more gradual six-point increase—it did quote his top aide William Apgar, who helped craft the 2000 policy, saying: "It was a mistake." Apgar, who now teaches at Harvard, conceded, "In hindsight, I would have done it differently."
But raising the affordable-housing goals was only half the Cuomo story.
The HUD secretary is also required to produce voluminous rules that govern how the GSEs meet those goals, and the 187-page rules Cuomo issued opened the door to abuse.
The rules explicitly rejected the idea of imposing any new reporting requirements on the GSEs. In other words, HUD wanted Fannie and Freddie to buy risky loans, but the department didn't want to hear just how risky they were.
HUD conceded in the rules that many consumer groups had urged it to insist that the GSEs provide "loan-level data" revealing how many of their loans contained high interest rates, prepayment penalties, or other requirements that presaged bad loans.