Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Whistleblower They Ignored

The Whistleblower They Ignored

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There aren’t too many genuine heroes to come out of the banking disaster, but Armando Falcon is one of them. You have probably never heard of him, but his testimony Friday before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, available on the commission’s website, is must reading for anyone trying to figure out why U.S. taxpayers had to bail out companies to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Falcon was the chief regulator attempting to bring order to the houses of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac during the first four years of this decade, and had he been listened to, a significant part of the housing crisis could have been mitigated. Instead his agency was denied serious regulatory power by Democrats in Congress including liberals such as Reps. Barney Frank and Maxine Waters, both of whom assumed he was undermining public support for more affordable housing.

He wasn’t, and instead was attempting to call attention to the reckless bundling of risky mortgages in which the government-chartered agencies acted like the other too-big-to-fail behemoths that together almost wrecked the entire economy. It was those on the lower end of the income scale who had put their life savings into risky mortgages that were most hurt when the bubble burst.

This is a guy whom Republican congressmen and the Wall Street Journal editorial writers have lionized, and for once they got it right. At least the part about Fannie and Freddie being out of control and their applauding Falcon’s past efforts to rein in the greed of their top executives. Where they go wrong is when they attribute the company’s misbehavior to the alleged liberal do-gooderism of the mostly Democratic Party hacks that ran the enterprises. The reality is that concern for affordable housing goals was simply a convenient mask for unfettered greed.

Conservatives make much of those goals, which both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush endorsed, but objectives of this sort had nothing to do with the sordid behavior of the executives who ran the companies. Asked by the commission to testify on the impact of those goals, Falcon responded:

“Your letter also asked me about the impact of affordable housing goals on the enterprises’ financial problems. In my opinion, the goals were not the cause of the enterprises’ demise. The firms would not engage in any activity, goal fulfilling or otherwise, unless there was a profit to be made. Fannie and Freddie invested in subprime and Alt A mortgages in order to increase profits and regain market share. Any impact on meeting affordable housing goals was a byproduct of the activity.”

The problem with the so-called government-sponsored but essentially private institutions that the conservatives are so happy to vilify and that liberals feel the need to defend is that they represented the worst of both worlds. Although originally chartered by the government, they had morphed into super for-profit monstrosities run by executives whose huge bonuses depended on the price of the company stock. As Falcon put it in his testimony:

“Ultimately the companies were not unwitting victims of an economic down cycle or flawed products and services of theirs. Their failure was deeply rooted in a culture of arrogance and greed.”

In short, they behaved like the other financial conglomerates, but the government-sponsored housing enterprises were protected by powerful members of Congress and what turned out to be a strong guarantee that their bad paper would be covered by the taxpayers.

They do deserve considerable blame for the banking disaster that ensued, and while it is hardly the whole story, it gave the free-market conservatives a convenient target. But it also presents them with a contradiction that they refuse to confront. The housing enterprises failed not because they were do-gooder pubic entities but because they weren’t. Their top executives were driven by the same desire for outlandish profit that their counterparts at AIG and Citigroup had. As Falcon put it referring to then Fannie Mae’s CEO Franklin Raines:

“While all of this political power satisfied the egos of Fannie and Freddie executives, it ultimately served one primary purpose: the speedy accumulation of personal wealth by any means. … In the case of CEO Franklin Raines, he collected over $90 million in total compensation from 1998 to 2003. Of that amount, $52 million was directly tied to achieving earnings-per-share goals. However, the earnings goal turned out to be unachievable without breaking rules and hiding risks.”

It only adds insult to injury to blame the unfettered greed of folks like Raines, and his congressional allies who were lavishly attended to by those agencies, on a concern for the low-income homebuyers who were their main victims.

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