Audit Notes: Nocera on Frannie, The Fed’s Politics, Confidence Game

Joe Nocera writes that the SEC’s case against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac executives is “extraordinarily weak,” relying on the bogus, debunked data of the American Enterprise Institute:

Taking its cues from the Wallison/Pinto school of inflated data, it claims that Fannie and Freddie failed to reveal to investors the true extent of their subprime portfolios. To make this claim, however, the S.E.C. has included categories of loans, such as so-called Alt-A loans, that may have had a subprime characteristic, such as low documentation, but which were often made to borrowers with high credit scores.

There are no damning internal e-mails in the complaint, with executives contradicting their public statements, and no examples of sleazy insider stock sales. A quick look at Fannie and Freddie financial disclosure statements shows that they clearly laid out the credit characteristics of their mortgage portfolios, even if they didn’t label every non-30-year-fixed loan as subprime. More than a year ago, a federal judge presiding over a shareholder lawsuit against Fannie Mae threw out the allegations surrounding lack of disclosure. Why? Because, he said, the company’s disclosure of its subprime portfolio had been adequate.

Paul Krugman makes a good point, too, about why Frannie have such huge losses despite having far, far better loan portfolios than the private sector:

But why did Fannie and Freddie have to be bailed out? Basically because they had virtually no capital, so that even though their losses as a percentage of assets were smaller than private institutions, the losses were still enough to put them underwater.

— I thoroughly enjoyed Matt Stoller’s piece at Naked Capitalism on how the Federal Reserve, supposedly removed from politics, plays politics.

Here’s a snippet on the influence of journalists, like my late friend Mark Pittman, and bloggers, were able to muster to fight the Fed:

Soon thereafter, I met Pittman, and a whole suite of people on the right and the left skeptical of the Fed’s behavior (including Yves Smith, Bob Ivry, Barry Ritholz, Walker Todd, Chris Whalen, Josh Rosner, Jane D’Arista, Bill Greider, Karl Denninger, Dean Baker, Simon Johnson, and lots of others, including over email Tyler Durden). The financial blogs formed a sort of shadow financial elite, making counter-arguments against the standard establishment norms peddled by centrist, conservative, and liberal Fed defenders. These people became increasingly influential over the course of several years, which is an important reason the financial reform bill became stronger over the course of 2009-2010, unlike most bills which get chipped away at by special interests.

During the next year and a half, heat on the Fed ratcheted up as the AIG counterparties story came out (due to Darryl Issa), and as Bloomberg and many others (like Elijah Cummings) began digging into what was going on during the crisis. Grayson continued with a remarkable use of YouTube and Congressional hearings, including one hearing with the Fed’s inspector general that now has over 4 million views. Bernanke had a rough confirmation ride in 2009, because of the focus and heat on the Fed from this newly interested public. As the confirmation vote neared, blogger Mike Stark kicked off the mania around Bernanke’s hearings when he asked Dodd whether the confirmation was a certainty (as Dodd had implied a few months earlier). Dodd said his confirmation wasn’t a certainty, which led to furious lobbying by the White House, some market panic, and ultimately a record 30 no votes on Bernanke, “the weakest endorsement ever extended to a chairman in the Fed’s 96-year history.”

Read the whole thing.

AdAge’s Matthew Creamer includes Audit CEO Dean Starkman’s “Confidence Game” in his list of Best Media Writing of the Year.

The beating that the institution of journalism has been taking for several years has come in many different forms, from the market and technological forces that have pulled so much advertising from newspapers and magazines to the theoretical pounding the trade’s practices and processes have been getting from academe. For a few loud critics, the news-gathering processes at many news organizations have grown moldy and need a rethink. Among others, Dean Starkman points to Jeff Jarvis’ interrogation of the idea of the article and John Paton’s “digital first” focus on the crowd and networked journalism. In “Confidence Game,” Mr. Starkman summarized and parsed the number of these “future of news,” or FON, thinkers, producing a useful critique as well as one of my favorite lines of the year: “I covered Pawtucket City Hall, and you had to pay me.”

Creamer gives it the “Best Painting a Bull’s-Eye on Oneself” award, which sounds about right. Check out “Confidence Game” here.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,