WASHINGTON — If a House Oversight Committee hearing Tuesday on the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is any indication, lawmakers will have a tough time agreeing on a way to revamp the government-sponsored enterprises.
More than three months after the government seized Fannie and Freddie, lawmakers are still arguing whether the GSEs' actions fed the financial crisis.
"The one thing we know for certain is that the overinflated housing market and defaulting subprime loans are at the center of the problem," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., "and it is no secret that I believe that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's role in the crisis is a primary cause, if not the primary cause."
But Rep. Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the financial crisis is bigger than Fannie and Freddie.
"The CEOs of Fannie and Freddie made reckless bets that led to the downfall of their companies," the California Democrat said. "Their actions could cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. But it is a myth to say they were the originators of the subprime crisis. Fundamentally, they were following the market, not leading it."
The chief executives who were booted from Fannie and Freddie after the government takeover were asked for few specifics on how Congress should revamp the GSEs. Daniel Mudd, the former Fannie CEO, said parts of the company could be treated differently. The mortgage portfolio side, most closely linked with the GSEs' mission to provide liquidity to the mortgage market, may be better off in government hands, he said.
"It seems clear to me now that if there is a real crisis in the country, the liquidity provider is going to be the government," Mr. Mudd said. "That gives rise to the question of whether you want a company to be the liquidity provider, or whether that's the province of the government."
He said the guarantee fee business of Fannie and Freddie, where the GSEs collect a fee from lenders to assume the credit risk of mortgages, could remain in private hands.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., asked Richard Syron, Freddie's former CEO, whether a fully private company could "be entrusted to protect consumers."
"I don't think a purely private company could generate long-term fixed-rate mortgages that are prepayable," Mr. Syron responded. "The most important thing in this is getting a more precise definition" of the GSEs' responsibility to their shareholders.
Franklin Raines, the former CEO of Fannie, suggested the GSEs could be treated more like utilities, which are closely regulated by the government also have public shareholders.
Many topics — most old and a few new — were raised at the hearing, including executive compensation, capital, and risk management. Mr. Mudd was pressed about an internal presentation he made in 2005 that said Fannie could stick with the status quo of a conservative business model or "meet the market where the market is," which would involve taking on riskier alternative-A and subprime mortgages.
"It appears to me you made the decision to meet the market and that was a bad decision," said Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass.
Mr. Mudd tried to explain that he was simply exploring the range of strategies Fannie could follow at the height of the housing boom.
"What we were doing at that time was thinking through what our various alternatives were in the marketplace," he said.
Still, Mr. Mudd was further pressed by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, on his commitment to vigorous risk management.
"As CEO, you were taking hundreds of billions of more risk," Rep. Kucinich said. "You're taking higher risk and then you cut the budget of your chief risk officer."
Lawmakers were also upset that, the former CEOs, after years of pulling down hefty compensation packages, failed to accept any responsibility for the collapse of their firms.
"I'm glad I came to the hearing today to learn that none of you had anything to do with Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac when it was going south," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga.
"Your job as CEO was to rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic and you didn't even know it was going down."