Fannie Mae chief Daniel H. Mudd says few predicted a downturn. (Carol T. Powers -- Bloomberg…)
In January 2007, as years of loose mortgage lending were about to send the nation's housing market into devastating decline, Fannie Mae chief executive Daniel H. Mudd wrote a confidential memo to his board.
Discussing the company's successes, Mudd said one of Fannie Mae's achievements in 2006 was expanding its involvement in the market for subprime and other nontraditional mortgages. He called it a step "toward optimizing our business."
A month later, Fannie Mae outlined plans to further expand its activities in the subprime market. The company recognized the already weak performance of subprime loans but predicted that they would get better in 2007, according to another Fannie Mae document.
Internal documents show that even late in the housing bubble, Fannie Mae was drawn to risky loans by a variety of temptations, including the desire to increase its market share and fulfill government quotas for the support of low-income borrowers.
Since then, Fannie Mae's exposure to loosely underwritten mortgages has produced billions of dollars of losses and sent its stock price plummeting, prompting the federal government to prepare for a potential taxpayer bailout of the company. This month, Fannie Mae reported that loans from 2006 and 2007 accounted for almost 60 percent of its second-quarter credit losses.
Fannie Mae documents from the period, obtained by The Washington Post, paint a picture of a company with the dual incentives of fostering affordable housing and making money, and of one caught between the imperatives of increasing its market share while avoiding excessive risk. In a bid to juggle these demands, the company's executives took on risks they either misunderstood or unduly minimized.
Fannie Mae aimed to benefit from subprime loans and expand the market for them -- and hoped to pass much of the risk on to others, documents show. Along with subprime loans, which were typically issued to borrowers with blemished credit, the company targeted so-called Alt-A loans, which were often made with no verification of the borrower's income.
"By entering new markets -- especially Alt-A and subprime -- and guaranteeing more of our customers' products at market prices, we met our goal of increasing market share from 22 to 25 percent," Mudd wrote in a 2006 year-end report to the Fannie Mae board dated Jan. 3, 2007.
In other internal documents, there was a common refrain: One of Fannie Mae's objectives for 2006 was to "increase our penetration into subprime."
In an interview, Fannie Mae Executive Vice President Thomas A. Lund said the company pursued the purchase of subprime loans in 2006 and 2007 at the request of lenders, who wanted Fannie Mae to take the loans off their books. He said Fannie Mae hoped to bring higher standards to the market, and he added that the loans helped the company in its struggle to meet goals the government had set for Fannie Mae's advancement of affordable housing.
Fannie Mae spokesman Brian Faith said that as early as 2005, the company's management was publicly expressing concern about loans with layer upon layer of risky characteristics.
At a conference in spring 2005, Lund warned about the danger to borrowers, asking, "Are we setting them up for failure?" according to news reports.
Despite such reservations, Fannie Mae moved ahead.
In 2006 and 2007, Fannie Mae "carefully broadened our entry into the subprime market," Faith said in a statement. At the time, it wasn't clear how severe the problems in the housing market would become, he said.
In a written statement provided for this story, Mudd said, "In 2006 and early 2007, the industry, many analysts and market observers were generally not predicting a downturn in the housing and credit markets to the magnitude of what has since emerged, and outlooks for particular market segments at that time varied significantly."
Compared with the broader market for Alt-A loans, Fannie Mae "was more conservative in its approach and the loans have continued to perform better," Mudd added.
Chartered by the government to keep mortgage money flowing, Fannie Mae buys loans from lenders, enabling them to make more loans. It also packages loans into securities for sale to other investors, guaranteeing it will make the payments if borrowers default. Its mortgage-related investments and guarantees total $3 trillion.
During the peak years of the housing bubble, the company was distracted by an accounting scandal and its fallout. For much of 2006, the company was focused on a continuing effort to correct years of false financial reports, a massive project that cost more than $1 billion and ultimately revealed that Fannie Mae had overstated past profits by $6.3 billion.
Mudd promised his employees a celebration when the restatement was done, and he delivered. In December 2006, the company threw a holiday bash at a Washington hotel with entertainment by Earth, Wind & Fire, the '70s group known for such hits as "Boogie Wonderland" and "Fantasy."