Efforts to attract and retain top managers at Freddie and its larger sibling, Fannie Mae, have been stymied by salary restrictions that are modest relative to comparable to private sector pay and by the fact that the firm’s federal overseers have effective veto rights over major decisions.
In 2007, then-Freddie Mac CEO Richard F. Syron had a base salary of $1.2 million and total compensation of $18.3 million, according to SEC filings. In the same year, Daniel Mudd, the chief executive of Fannie Mae, had a base salary of $987,000 and total compensation of $11.7 million.
I do not know why Witherell resigned. I hope he is not facing a family emergency. I write to ask why he was hired. Witherell’s principal experience was with Lehman. In particular, he was chief executive officer of Aurora Loan Services from 2003 to 2006. Lehman owned Aurora. Aurora specialized in purchasing and reselling “liar’s” loans.
I testified before the House Financial Services Committee on April 21, 2010 about Lehman and Aurora’s pervasive accounting fraud. A copy of that testimony can be found here.
The key point is that Aurora was a massive fraud — purchasing and selling often fraudulent mortgages. It is virtually certain that Freddie purchased material amounts of Aurora’s fraudulent mortgages (directly, or by purchasing collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that were supposed to be backed by Aurora’s liar’s loans). As my colleague Randy Wray has emphasized, we need a new term for the toxic MBS (mortgage-backed securities) because they often weren’t backed by mortgages due to lender fraud.
The proverbial bottom line is that a global search for talent, after Fannie and Freddie’s second descent into accounting control fraud bankrupted both firms, Fannie and Freddie (with its regulators’ blessing, chose Witherell. (Heidrick & Struggles, which describes itself as the leading executive search firm, issued a press release praising itself for finding Witherell.) When Obama knew he had to clean up the Stygian Stables that were Fannie and Freddie — knew that their senior managers and their regulators had failed catastrophically — he left in charge the failed regulatory leadership team. The regulator team allowed Freddie to select as its COO one of the leaders in the creation of the liar’s loans that were the greatest single contributor to Freddie’s failure and the financial crisis. This was bizarre politics — the senior regulator Obama left in power until his voluntary resignation was a Republican chosen because he was George Bush’s close friend since their days together in prep school. It was even more insane regulatory policy.
Freddie (and Fannie) should be suing Aurora/Lehman for their frauds. Freddie and Fannie should be making thousands of criminal referrals against Aurora’s fraudulent loans. Witherell would be a key witness in the cases. Freddie placed him in impossible positions due to his conflicts of interest.
Aurora was notorious — why would anyone, much less Freddie, hire a top official from one of the firms most responsible for the frauds that destroyed Freddie and cost the taxpayers billions of dollars in losses? Is there anything that a business leader can do that disqualifies him from receiving millions of dollars annually — paid for by the taxpayers? It’s bad enough that our elites now loot with impunity. Do we really have to make them even richer?
Fannie and Freddie have no need to pay these high salaries to senior managers. It was the perverse executive compensation that drove the accounting control frauds at Fannie and Freddie — as the SEC explicitly charged. Executive compensation created the perverse managerial incentives that destroyed Fannie and Freddie. This was an unanticipated consequence of their privatization. Because Fannie and Freddie were privatized, their officers designed their compensation system in the same perverse manner as most firms (Bebchuk & Fried 2004). The mangers stood to gain enormous compensation if they inflated short-term accounting income, and as Akerlof & Romer famously observed, accounting fraud is a “sure thing.” Mr. Raines explained in response to a media question what was causing the repeated scandals at elite financial institutions:
We’ve had a terrible scandal on Wall Street. What is your view?Investment banking is a business that’s so denominated in dollars that the temptations are great, so you have to have very strong rules. My experience is where there is a one-to-one relation between if I do X, money will hit my pocket, you tend to see people doing X a lot. You’ve got to be very careful about that. Don’t just say: “If you hit this revenue number, your bonus is going to be this.” It sets up an incentive that’s overwhelming. You wave enough money in front of people, and good people will do bad things.