By David Freddoso
If Barack Obama is so concerned about the current economic crisis, why is he consulting those who played such a large role in causing it? That question came up again when Ben Smith of the Politico reported last month that Jim Johnson, former CEO of Fannie Mae, would be delivering an Obama campaign briefing to a group of Democratic luminaries, mostly former members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign brain-trust today.
Jim Johnson served as Fannie’s CEO from 1991 to 1998 and since then has served as a consultant to the company with a lucrative $600,000 annual contract. A Minnesotan who once served as an aide to Vice President Walter Mondale and made a career on Wall Street, Johnson received some publicity for his brief stint with the Obama campaign’s vice-presidential vetting operation earlier this year. Despite the fact that Johnson had helped choose running mates for Mondale and for John Kerry, Obama brought him on for this process anyway. Johnson had to quit that unpaid position, however, after the Wall Street Journal revealed that he’d accepted $5 million in loans from the now-defunct company Countrywide Home Loans — loans made outside of the company’s normal underwriting channels.
Countrywide had been an official partner of Fannie Mae, selling most of its loans to Fannie. It was one of the prime offenders in making bad mortgage loans; it was also one of the first dominoes to fall in the sub-prime crisis, and Barack Obama had denounced the company by name. Johnson was one of those who had received sweetheart loans in part of a program for friends of Angelo Mozilo, Countrywide’s CEO.
But Johnson’s time at Fannie Mae, which was founded in 1938, is also very interesting to study. Fannie, along with Freddie Mac, is a critical institution in today’s crisis of economic confidence. These institutions have historically controlled about half of what is called the “secondary mortgage market,” where mortgages are rolled into securities and re-sold in large packages to investors -- usually banks or other large financial institutions. This is how bad loans made their way from Main Street to Wall Street.
Prior to the crisis, Fannie and Freddie dominated the secondary mortgage market thanks in large part to the special tax exemptions and regulatory advantages they enjoy over competing private institutions. They do not have to keep as much money in reserve as do banks. They are exempt from taxes. Prior to their recent takeover by the federal government, they had a $4.5 billion line of credit with the U.S. Treasury. The implicit government guarantee behind the two companies made it possible for them to borrow money more cheaply than others.
Beyond these advantages, U.S. bank regulators gave preference to Fannie and Freddie debt, allowing banks to hold it instead of just government bonds and cash as part of their “tier-one capital” -- the rainy-day funds that banks are required to keep on hand in case all else fails. This encouraged American banks to accumulate more than $1 trillion in GSE-related securities by 2004, according to the FDIC, and kept Fannie and Freddie flush with cash -- for a time, anyway.
The Washington Post and Fortune magazine have reported on Johnson’s most important work -- the creation of Fannie’s clout machine in Washington and on Capitol Hill. Johnson, a true believer in Fannie’s role of expanding homeownership to less credit-worthy individuals, honed the company’s response to criticisms of its mission and its special advantages in the market. In order to ramp up Fannie’s lobbying operation, Johnson hired powerful Democratic and Republican staffers when they left the government.
Beginning in 1994, he established field offices for grassroots lobbying—“Partnership Offices,” they were called—from which Fannie operatives pressured uncooperative politicians. His strategy was to demonize anyone who worked against his goals as an enemy of affordable housing.
Johnson was never implicated in the accounting scandal that ensued immediately after he left Fannie, but his role at the company was to create an expensive noise machine, a lobbying operation that would spend $94 million over the following nine years under his successor, Franklin Raines. When Fannie’s accounting irregularities, which began in 1998, became known to members of Congress in 2003, Raines would set Fannie’s massive influence-machine to work in an effort to discredit the company’s regulators.
What Johnson had created in order to defend the principle of “affordable housing” would be used to shout down critics of Fannie Mae at a time when they needed to be heard -- as they helped plunge America into its current crisis of liquidity and confidence.