WASHINGTON The handful of financial services industry executives publicly criticizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are trying to prompt congressional hearings where they can tell their stories of intimidation and retaliation in detail, industry sources said Monday.
Fannie and Freddie have dismissed the allegations, citing a lack of specifics, and their regulator, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, has said it would need more proof to open an investigation. But a number of financial services executives said Monday that details would be more forthcoming if the companies involved were given a forum that would shelter them from retribution.
Most sources agreed that a congressional investigation of the GSEs would have broad industry support. However, they added, few executives are willing to be seen as its prime movers, for fear of retaliation in the form of lost business from the government-sponsored enterprises, which largely control the secondary mortgage market.
To go as far as they have took a lot of courage, a mortgage industry source said. Everybody has to truly understand how many touch points the agencies have where they can impact your financial viability. If you are a lender and they decide to give you a couple of basis points more on a guarantee fee, you are significantly advantaged in the market. A few basis points less, and you can be significantly disadvantaged.
Another industry source said, The answer is, lets get someone to hold hearings. Then maybe people would be willing to give specifics.
The issue was touched off Thursday by Richard M. Kovacevich, president and chief executive officer of Wells Fargo & Co., and Maurice R. Greenberg, chairman of American International Group Inc., who told The Wall Street Journal that Fannie Mae had threatened companies that are members of FM Watch, a lobbying group dedicated to reining in the GSEs power.
The article reported similar comments from William B. Harrison Jr., president and CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., who resigned last week from FM Watchs board.
Another industry executive, GE Capital CEO Denis Nayden, made similar claims Friday, issuing a statement that the company has also been on the receiving end of multiple communications from Fannie Mae indicating that GE would suffer financial consequences if GE remained a member of FM Watch.
Mr. Harrisons comments reportedly came during a meeting of the Financial Services Forum, a group of high-ranking executives from some of the largest banks, insurers, and securities firms in the U.S.
Contrary to some reports, the Forum is not backing Mr. Kovacevichs and Mr. Greenbergs remarks.
George J. Vojta, president of the Forum, said that these are comments by individual members and do not represent a consensus within the group. We have not taken a position on the question as a group, he said. The Forum is not involved in the GSE question. Some members have chosen to comment publicly.
Fannie CEO Franklin D. Raines said the allegations were not true. A Fannie spokeswoman charged that the claims are merely a public relations effort by FM Watch, which disbanded its board of directors because of alleged threats made against members by management and employees of Fannie and Freddie.
In a statement sent Thursday by e-mail, Gerald L. Friedman, chairman of the FM Watch board, said each member of the board had been approached and threatened by Fannie and Freddie. But last week, a spokeswoman for FM Watch could not confirm intimidation of remaining board members William F. Aldinger, chairman and CEO of Household International Inc., and James E. Rohr, chairman and CEO of PNC Financial Services Group.
By Monday, FM Watchs Web site had changed the original statement, and omitted Mr. Friedmans earlier claim that all members had been threatened.
A spokesman for PNC Bank declined to comment on the allegations. A spokesman for Household did not return phone calls.
If the goal of Mr. Kovacevich, Mr. Greenberg, and their allies was, in fact, to stir up further congressional interest in the issue, they appear to have succeeded. While no hearings have been promised, prominent lawmakers have expressed interest in learning more about the issues.
Rep. Richard Baker, the Louisiana Republican who last year led a crusade against the expansion of Fannie and Freddie, has directed his staff to investigate the issues raised in the press last week.
He wants to see what people will tell us if we push them a little bit further, said a spokesman, noting that Rep. Baker has already spoken personally with one of the executives alleging intimidation by the GSEs.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm, R-Tex., last week instructed his staff to look into the allegations, but a spokeswoman said Monday that it is way too early to be talking about hearings.
In the meanwhile, bankers, market participants, and investors are left trying to parse a he-said she-said debate between some of the biggest companies in the financial services world.
The GSEs detractors paint a picture of a cabal, while representatives of the GSEs characterized the allegations as baseless and bizarre.
For instance, in an interview last week, Fannie Mae chief financial officer Timothy Howard directly challenged Mr. Kovacevichs assertion that Wells had been removed, without cause, from the list of approved bidders for Fannie Mae bonds, based, we were told, on our overall relationship with Fannie Mae.
In response, Mr. Howard said, They have never been removed from any list of approved bidders of Fannie Mae bonds.
In a bulletin sent to investors on Monday, Keefe, Bruyette & Woods analyst David M. Graifman articulated the markets confusion.
We find it difficult to believe that either GSE would be so unprofessional, bold, and downright irresponsible to make threats, he wrote. The dilemma is that we also find it difficult to believe that these CEOs would be so irresponsible as to make false accusations. Whats going on here?
Mr. Graifman, whose firm recently managed offerings of Fannie and Freddie debt, ultimately came down on the side of the GSEs, arguing that if there had been illegal threats, the institutions would have pursued a legal remedy.
Michele Heller contributed to this article.
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