By Pete Kotz
By Michael Musto
By Michael Musto
By Capt. James Van Thach told to Jonathan Wei
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Indeed, in March 2000, HUD had acknowledged that the new goal-driven pressure on the GSEs might "warrant increased monitoring and additional reporting." But when the final rules were adopted in October, that momentary caution had been abandoned: "HUD is not establishing any requirements for additional data to carry out this rule." The report explained that the GSEs "objected" to information mandates "related to their purchases of high-cost mortgages," so HUD decided against imposing "an undue additional burden." HUD would have no way of telling how abusive the low-income mortgages it was mandating might be.
Reporting from the GSEs to HUD "does not provide the details . . . [for] effective monitoring of their subprime activity," warned Allen Fishbein in a housing journal two years after the rules were published. Fishbein, who was the senior advisor at HUD for GSE oversight under Cuomo and is now general counsel at the Center for Community Change, said that HUD "should have the necessary information" to determine if the GSEs were purchasing "loans with predatory features," but that it did not.
In a Voice interview, Fishbein, who was reluctant to say a critical word about the regulations he and Cuomo developed, did acknowledge that "it would have been a beneficial thing" to have required such data from the GSEs in the 2000 rule-making, though he contended that HUD has "the general authority to collect it" without a rule-making.
"I certainly would have favored more data in hindsight," he said. But the failure to include reporting requirements that many consumer groups championed at the time was an invitation then—and not just in retrospect—for the GSEs to hide bad loans. Fishbein prefers to blame the lack of verification on the Bush administration, but when Cuomo issued his rules barely a week before the 2000 election, he failed to put any data demands in place that would have alerted the next administration, regardless of who it was, to any risks in the new GSE portfolio. In fact, Bush's HUD did institute some reporting requirements in 2004, but then never revealed much of what was learned.
But Cuomo wasn't only stifling data that HUD could use to keep the GSEs out of trouble. He also went against his own recommendation—in a report issued jointly with the Treasury Department a few months earlier—that called for a prohibition against the GSEs purchasing loans "with high costs and/or predatory features." Instead, Cuomo decided without explanation to adopt rules that prohibited nothing.
Consumer groups then contended that if HUD wasn't going to bar bad loans, it should at least penalize the GSEs for every one they made. Cuomo declined to do that as well, instead declaring that loans with specific odious terms would not be counted against the goals. His allies have pointed to this refusal as evidence of his toughness, but Cuomo couldn't very well reward Fannie and Freddie for purchasing bad loans. And the absence of any reporting requirements made it virtually impossible to figure out which loans shouldn't be credited anyway.
Cuomo also adopted Fannie and Freddie's standards of what a bad loan was, almost verbatim. For example, HUD accepted Fannie's many caveats on prepayment penalties—a predatory practice long condemned by housing advocates. The final rules allowed the GSEs to take goal credit on some loans that carried these penalties, even though these sky-high charges often either bound borrowers to bad mortgages or cost them dearly to climb out.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Fannie conceded in 2005 that 10 percent of its loans had such prepayment penalties. HUD's next rulemaking, in 2004, freely acknowledged that "certain practices were not enumerated in the regulations adopted in 2000," including certain kinds of prepayment penalties, and that they "often lock borrowers into disadvantageous loan products." But once again, HUD did nothing about those practices.
While fashioning these final rules, Cuomo wrestled with the octopus-like reach of Fannie and Freddie, which spend tens of millions each year on lobbying firms. The GSEs hired 88 lobbying firms over six years, three of which were friendly enough with Cuomo to give to his campaign committee later.
Just a look at the New Yorkers tied to the GSEs must have impressed Cuomo, who, after all, would soon return to New York politics. Harold Ickes, the former Clinton chief of staff and a Democratic power broker in this state, was on the Freddie board. Tom Downey, the former New York congressman who would later donate $21,894 to Cuomo, was a Fannie lobbyist. And Al D'Amato, the former banking committee chair who'd shepherded Cuomo's appointment through the Republican Senate, was a Fannie consultant.
But Cuomo was closer to the GSEs' most formidable opponents—namely, the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), regarded as the most influential private real-estate finance lobby in Washington, and the upstart FM Watch, a new coalition of heavyweights from Chase to AIG. Both of these groups wanted Cuomo to put as much affordable-housing pressure on the GSEs as he could, and they said so in their releases and newsletters. They opposed what they called Fannie and Freddie's profit-driven "mission creep," which they saw as a publicly subsidized invasion of their high-end mortgage market. Their goal was the same as Cuomo's: to push Fannie and Freddie deeper into low-end mortgages, consistent with the mission statement in their charters.
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