FM Watch has enlisted top executives from Wells Fargo & Co., PNC Bank Corp., and Chase Manhattan Corp., among other finance industry leaders, in its quest to contain Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The Washington coalition, formed earlier this year to monitor and protest the two government-sponsored enterprises' activities outside the secondary mortgage market, on Wednesday disclosed the makeup of a six-person board.
Members include Richard M. Kovacevich, the president and chief executive of Wells Fargo & Co.; Thomas M. O'Brien, chairman and CEO of PNC Bank; and William B. Harrison Jr., the president and CEO of Chase Manhattan Corp.
Gerald Friedman, a former mortgage insurance executive who is chairman of the new group, said the presence of these heavyweights on the board suggests that the frustrations and fears surrounding Fannie and Freddie are not confined to the mortgage or mortgage insurance industries. Fannie and Freddie have painted the group as merely a lobbying group for the mortgage insurers.
The executives joined the coalition's board because they are concerned that the secondary marketing agencies will ultimately become "giant financial services companies" with an unfair edge over their own companies, Mr. Friedman said.
Because of the implied guarantee from the government, Fannie and Freddie can finance their activities with more debt relative to equity than most other companies. That advantage, Mr. Friedman said, would enable the GSEs to offer all kinds of financial products and services -- from home equity loans to insurance to credit cards -- at a lower price than FM Watch's members, at least initially.
The board also includes William F. Aldinger, chairman and CEO of Household International Inc., a major consumer finance company; Dennis Dammerman, chairman and CEO of GE Capital Services; and Maurice R. Greenberg, chairman of the insurance giant American International Group, FM Watch said. None of the board members could be reached on Wednesday.
"People like Hank Greenberg, Will Harrison, and Dick Kovacevich don't take orders from mortgage insurance executives," Mr. Friedman said.
Controversy over mortgage insurance was certainly what galvanized the group, whose membership is made up of trade organizations. Fannie and Freddie cannot buy loans with less than 20% down unless they have some form of credit enhancement, which usually comes from private insurers. Early this year the GSEs unveiled alternative insurance arrangements, in which they would require less coverage in exchange for an up-front fee or higher note rate.
The insurers viewed those schemes as incursions on their turf, and the fracas brought to the surface gripes that had been bubbling for several years about so-called "charter creep."
Despite the high-profile makeup of FM Watch's board, Fannie and Freddie still insist that protecting mortgage insurers' profits is the driver behind the coalition.
"They're doing what I'd expect them to do," said Sharon McHale, a spokeswoman for Freddie Mac. "We called it like it is. They couldn't very well put mortgage insurance companies on the board, so they're doing what politicians do every day -- try to paint yourself different than you really are when someone has tagged you."
Added Fannie Mae spokesman David Jeffers: "We have always said that this was a group motivated by mortgage insurers and their allies, all of whom make their money one of three ways: through mortgage insurance, though financial arrangements with mortgage insurers, or other products that cost consumers more."
The release of the board's roster marks the first time that individual companies and executives have been publicly identified as FM Watch members. Previously, its only acknowledged members were other trade groups. "We hadn't been forthright with respect to our leadership," Mr. Friedman said.
With the big guns now out in the open, will FM Watch have more success lobbying policymakers? The executives on the board of directors "have influence with Washington policymakers, including Congress and the executive branch," including the Office of the Comptroller, the Federal Reserve "and other departments concerned with the role of the GSEs" Mr. Friedman said.
But some observers were skeptical. "I don't think the public wants to roll back the things (Fannie and Freddie) have been doing," said Gary Gordon, an analyst at PaineWebber. For example, he said, in the realm of A-minus loans, "if Fannie Mae can say, 'we can lower rates to the borrower by 100 basis points,' where's the constituency that's gonna say, 'No, don't do that.' "