Lawmakers grill GSE leaders over bonuses
The leaders of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and their chief regulator faced lawmakers Wednesday to defend millions of dollars in bonuses and compensation paid to them and other top executives.
Fannie CEO Michael Williams, Freddie CEO Charles "Ed" Haldeman and Federal Housing Finance Agency Acting Director Edward DeMarco sat in a row before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. They stared grimly and were often asked to speak up in defense of a paradox difficult for millions of Americans still facing foreclosure to understand.
The companies have pulled more than $180 billion in bailouts from the Treasury Department since the federal conservatorship began in 2008 and still owe back $151.7 billion in dividends.
The top 10 executives at Fannie and Freddie made nearly $13 million in performance bonuses in 2010. Williams and Haldeman each made roughly $2.3 million in bonuses, according to financial filings made almost one year ago.
Haldeman, who recently announced he was leaving his post within a year, was the more animated of the three.
"I understand the outrage," he said in his prepared testimony and then later explained how difficult it was to reconcile the issue. "We had a $900 billion investment portfolio when I started. We've reduced that down to roughly $688 billion. What I worry about is that if one person makes a 1% mistake that costs the taxpayers $6.8 billion. The people required to effectively manage that portfolio and not make mistakes are highly skilled, highly seasoned, who can take other higher paying jobs and we need those people at Freddie Mac. That's the dilemma."
Williams said he lost five senior vice presidents in the past three years to higher paying jobs at other financial institutions.
"These are challenging jobs and challenging circumstances, and we need people to do these jobs," Williams said.
The House Financial Services Committee had a solution of its own. On Tuesday, the powerful committee passed a bill almost unanimously to cut payment to Fannie and Freddie employees to the same level as federal regulators. Under the bill, Haldeman and Williams would have made slightly less than $300,000 last year.
Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., pushed DeMarco repeatedly on what sort of performance the bonuses reflect when the two companies continue to hemorrhage billions in losses every quarter. DeMarco, who approved the bonuses and took the brunt of the grilling Wednesday, pushed back against the bill during the exchange with Walberg.
"I oppose it simply for the matter that enacting this is going to result in the taxpayer losses going up not going down," DeMarco said. "That's it put simply."
Even DeMarco's pay of a little more than $250,000 as a regulator was called into question. Committee Chair Darrell Issa, R-Calif., asked him if he was satisfied with his own compensation given the fact that he could take his expertise elsewhere for much more.
"I'm still here," DeMarco said.
All three repeatedly said executive pay at Fannie and Freddie has been cut in half since the companies entered conservatorship three years ago. They also said the current executives were not there when the brunt of the problem loans were originated between 2005 and 2007.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, wasn't buying it.
"In listening to the testimony, my concern is that there may not be enough sympathy for those who are losing their homes," he said. "If there is a gap with tremendous pay being given to those at the top, and we're not seeing enough sympathy, that may mean that you are just too far removed."
DeMarco pointed the blame right back as he did Tuesday before the Senate Banking Committee.
"I appreciate how difficult this is," DeMarco said. "Clearly, we are all frustrated with the condition of the housing market and the economy. We are committed to keep Fannie an Freddie active to make sure there is liquidity in the mortgage market, to assist with troubled mortgages and to ensure that the $5 trillion in mortgages they hold in their investments is being managed by competent and qualified professionals.
"It is not our goal to keep this going and I really would urge Congress to move forward with a transition for the secondary market, which would end this compensation issue and their conservatorship."
The retort from Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., represented what many Americans are so frustrated with in Washington when it comes to problems still lingering in housing: Policymakers' insistence on passing the responsibility of difficult decisions to someone else.
"I would hope the FHFA works with the president on the future of housing finance," McHenry said.
Write to Jon Prior.
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