What's Hidden in Fannie, Freddie Settlements?
The federal conservator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has decided that it’s fine for taxpayers to know how much UBS AG is paying to resolve claims that it ripped off the two government-backed housing financiers.
Unfortunately the same government agency still thinks the public has no business knowing anything about its settlements with General Electric Co. and Citigroup Inc. over the same sorts of allegations.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency late yesterday said it reached an $885 million settlement with Zurich-based UBS, one of 17 financial institutions it sued in 2011. The suit sought to recoup losses on $4.5 billion of securities that Fannie and Freddie bought from 2004 to 2007. Under the agreement, UBS will pay about $415 million to Fannie Mae and $470 million to Freddie Mac.
Yet the housing-finance agency still won’t divulge how much GE or Citigroup agreed to pay earlier this year to get their lawsuits dismissed. Why disclose the terms for UBS, but not GE or Citigroup? Here’s all I could get from the agency:
“The law requires disclosure of the settlement amounts where the size of the settlement is of a certain amount relative to the size of the company,” an FHFA spokeswoman, Corinne Russell, said in an e-mail. She declined to say what law she was referring to, or otherwise elaborate on her statement. So it isn't clear what she was talking about.
One way to interpret her statement is that the $885 million accord was material to UBS from a financial-reporting standpoint under federal securities laws -- but that the GE and Citigroup settlements were so minuscule that they weren’t significant to those companies, meaning they could remain confidential. UBS disclosed earlier this week that it had reached an agreement in principle to settle the suit.
Whatever the case, here in essence is what the FHFA is saying: Buzz off.
This is an insult to every American. The government is devoting taxpayer resources to pursue these claims in court. The public is entitled to know the results of the housing-finance agency’s efforts.
When the FHFA filed the 17 lawsuits, it said the bond issuers had misled Fannie and Freddie about the soundness of the loans underlying $196 billion of mortgage-backed securities. Other defendants include JPMorgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Deutsche Bank AG, Bank of America Corp. and Ally Financial Inc. -- the last of which is still majority-owned by the government.
The agency dropped its suit against GE (which had sold mortgage bonds to Freddie Mac) in January, without disclosing any of the agreement’s terms. It settled with Citigroup in May, after initially accusing the company of making misrepresentations about $3.5 billion of mortgage bonds that it sold to Fannie and Freddie before they were rescued by the government.
Shortly after the Citigroup deal, I asked Russell why it was keeping the terms of those deals secret. She said the “public interest supports avoiding possible impacts on ongoing litigation and future settlements.”
It was a bogus reason then and still is. Somehow I suspect the country will survive the public disclosure of the UBS settlement terms just fine.
As I wrote in a column two months ago, not all government agencies behave this way. The policy of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is that all settlements are public whenever it files claims as a conservator or receiver for a failed bank. Those include mortgage-fraud settlements, as well as accords with bank officers, directors, appraisers, attorneys and auditors. If the FDIC can do it, the housing-finance agency can, too.
What does the FHFA have to hide?
(Jonathan Weil is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)