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UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See prorev.com for full contents of our site

June 8, 2008

OBAMA USING HOUSING BUBBLE BLOWER, HEDGE FUND EXEC TO LEAD HIS VEEP SEARCH

We have previously reported on one member of the Obama Veep review team - Clintonista hack Eric Holder. Another member is James A Johnson, vice president of a hedge fund, a former chair of Lehman Brothers and a member of the Trilateral Commission. While one can rightfully wonder why a hedge fund exec is holding such a prominent position in the politics of hope and change, even more interesting was Johnson's role in the disastrous housing bubble.

BENJAMIN WALLACE-WELLS WASHINGTON MONTHLY 2004 What drives most appreciation in housing prices is the universal human desire to own a slightly larger and more expensive place than one can really afford; a desire restrained in normal times by the universal desire of those who lend money to get paid back.

Getting a home loan used to be a particularly nerve-wracking and unpleasant process. A stern loan officer behind a big mahogany desk would pore over your income and credit, suspiciously probing your portfolio for weaknesses. And sensibly enough: The bank that lent you the money would have to collect on the mortgage for the next 30 years and had to make sure you were really good for it. It hired independent appraisers to make sure the price was in line. This process was a little stingy, and meant some people on the low end of the income scale couldn't buy a home and many others got less home than they might have wanted, but the system usually kept prices in check.

The one exception to this general process was mortgages sold on the secondary market. In the 1930s, Congress created the Federal National Mortgage Corporation (Fannie Mae) to encourage banks to make loans to low-income Americans by agreeing to purchase those mortgages from the banks. In 1970, Congress created a second agency, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac), to do much the same thing. By the late 1980s, these two entities, which belong to the category known as Government Sponsored Entities, were buying up and reselling 30 percent of new mortgages and packaging the mortgages to be sold as securities.

Fannie and Freddie's market share was limited by their ability to attract investment capital. But in 1989, Congress instituted some modest-seeming technical changes that made Freddie and Fannie much more attractive to investors, and able to draw much more capital. Under the new rules, for instance, they were allowed to customize securities at different levels of risk and return to meet more precisely the demands of different sectors of the capital market. Then, too, bank regulators let pension funds and mutual funds class Fannie's debt as low-risk. As a consequence, during the 1990s, investors practically threw money at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which became enormously, steadily profitable. The GSEs used the new capital to buy up every mortgage they could, and banks were only too happy to sell off the mortgage paper. The price cap on the mortgages Fannie and Freddie could insure was raised. As a result of all these changes, Fannie and Freddie went from buying mostly mortgages for low-end homes to those of the middle- and upper-middle class. And the share of the nation's conventional mortgage debt which they insure has swelled, to more than 70 percent today, double its share in 1990.

This shift has had two crucial, if under-appreciated, consequences. First, in little more than a decade, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have gone from handling one trillion dollars in mortgages to four trillion, with virtually no changes in oversight. Second, their dominance of the mortgage market has profoundly undermined the discipline that once kept housing prices in check.

Once banks knew they could automatically hand off the mortgages they wrote to Fannie and Freddie with basically no risk, the old incentive system dissolved. "Banks and other mortgage lenders are not watching home prices carefully because they rarely hold onto the mortgage paper they create--they just sell it upstream to mortgage investors," John R. Talbott, a housing researcher at UCLA's Anderson School of Business, has argued. "It is a dangerous situation indeed when neither home buyers nor the institutions that finance them are concerned with the ultimate price being paid for the housing asset.". . .

It's not just the discipline of banks that keeps people from buying more than they can afford, but also the buyers' own fear and guilt. But in an environment where home prices continue to spiral up, fear and guilt are replaced by a sense that you're a fool not to buy the most house you can possibly get away with. . .

What makes the current frenzy especially dangerous is that every relevant institution has an incentive to play along. Who, after all, is likely to say stop? Not the realtors. Not the banks, any longer. Not Fannie and Freddie or the private secondary-mortgage operators, who are turning vast profits on the backs of the bubble. Certainly not the Federal Reserve or the Treasury Department, while the economy depends on a sustained housing boom.

By 2000, some acute observers, like Jane D'Arista, a former chief economist for the House Financial Services committee and now a federal funds researcher with the Financial Markets Center, had begun to warn that the situation was untenable. By 2002, a few major players, like Steve Roach, Morgan Stanley's chief economist, had picked up on the concerns about a bubble and Fannie and Freddie's sprawling influence. But Greenspan, Treasury, and GSE officials, in interviews and testimony, denied that housing inflation posed a problem. And, sure enough, in the next year, not only did the bubble fail to deflate, but it also expanded--the housing sector posted its best year ever. . .

Both political parties have bought into the idea that a vast, unfettered Fannie and Freddie are good for the country. . . Republicans are still invested in the deregulation of Fannie and Freddie they helped engineer in the late 1980s. Democrats, generally the party of more regulation, have historically been Fannie and Freddie's best friends, and the GSEs' lush executive suites are packed with former Democratic staffers: Raines was Clinton's director of the Office of Management and Budget, and his predecessor, James A. Johnson, a longtime aide to Walter Mondale, is now leading John Kerry's search for a running mate. In the hearings on the Hill, neither Democrats nor Republicans have seemed favorably disposed to strict regulation of Fannie and Freddie, and American Banker has concluded that the GSEs' lobbying power is strong enough that no regulatory bill will pass without their okay.

ANNYS SHIN WASHINGTON POST, 2006 - When James A. Johnson walked out of his office as chief executive at Fannie Mae for the last time, in December 1998, the longtime Democratic Party operative and investment banker could look back at his nearly decade-long tenure at the helm knowing the company had lived up to his promises of double-digit earnings growth. The value of its assets had also tripled, and its share price had risen sevenfold. . .

Good numbers kept Wall Street happy. They paid the light bills for more than 50 partnership offices that represented Fannie Mae around the country. And they made top executives multimillionaires. Johnson received $21 million in his last year as chief executive and a consulting contract worth $600,000 a year.

But when good numbers -- and the bonuses that came with them -- weren't possible anymore, the executives who came after Johnson allegedly rearranged the math and, even after accounting problems were found, used the company's political clout to fend off closer regulation. That was the conclusion of Fannie Mae's chief regulator, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, in a 340-page report that determined the company's $10.6 billion accounting scandal was rooted in a corporate culture that dates back 20 years.

Johnson, now a managing partner with Perseus, a private equity firm and merchant bank, has not been accused of involvement in the accounting irregularities. During the 1990s, he shaped the company's management and culture, mixing a Wall Street-like obsession with meeting earnings targets and the aggressive tactics of a political campaign. . .

To keep up with Wall Street expectations, . . . the company began holding onto more mortgages and mortgage-backed securities for investment purposes. The same practice nearly drove the company into bankruptcy in the early 1980s, when interest rates strayed into the double digits. Its smaller rival, Freddie Mac, copied the strategy. Around the time Freddie Mac's accounting scandal broke in 2003, the companies' combined portfolios totaled $1.5 trillion.

Then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and others came to fear that a sudden meltdown at one of the two companies could bring down the financial markets with it -- an argument that Johnson and his successor, Franklin D. Raines, fought at every opportunity. They assured investors and policymakers that no such thing could happen because the company was so well managed.

Only after OFHEO uncovered accounting problems did it become clear that Fannie Mae hadn't adequately invested in internal controls. The report said political power helped stave off closer scrutiny.

Fannie Mae's lobbyists "did a superb job," said Wright H. Andrews Jr., a partner at Butera & Andrews, a lobbying firm. "Politicians of both parties were afraid to give proper oversight."


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