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Fannie Mae to tighten internal controls

Fannie Mae has agreed to boost its reserve cushion against risk by several billion dollars and take other sweeping actions to correct what were cited as serious accounting problems.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Under pressure from federal regulators, mortgage giant Fannie Mae has agreed to boost its reserve cushion against risk by several billion dollars and take other sweeping actions to correct what were cited as serious accounting problems, including recalculating key transactions back to 2001 and tightening internal controls.

The government-chartered mortgage financer and its regulator said Monday they had reached an agreement after negotiations last week and over the weekend. Last Monday, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight told the Fannie Mae board that its eight-month-old investigation had found pervasive earnings manipulation to meet Wall Street expectations and serious accounting misdeeds, and it ordered "immediate remedial action."

"This agreement is an important step toward resolving these concerns and helping to assure safe and sound operations" at Fannie Mae, OFHEO Director Armando Falcon said in a statement Monday.

A Treasury official, meanwhile, renewed the Bush administration's call for tighter government reins over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the other huge government-sponsored mortgage company, which faced an accounting crisis 15 months ago.

"We think the legislation needs to be re-enacted, and the sooner the better," Wayne Abernathy, the assistant Treasury secretary for financial institutions, told reporters, saying action by lawmakers might even be possible in the few remaining weeks before Congress adjourns. Key Republican senators and House members have urged such a measure.

OFHEO's investigation continues, and Falcon said the issues being looked at include the accountability of Fannie Mae's management. The Securities and Exchange Commission also is investigating the company's accounting. The housing oversight regulators last week raised the possibility of removing top management of Fannie Mae, the biggest financer of home mortgages in the country and the second-largest U.S. financial institution after Citigroup Inc.

The revelations pushed down Fannie Mae's stock more than 13 percent, to a 52-week low, in a three-day slide last week. The shares rose 53 cents to $66.04 in Monday trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Neither the regulators nor the company said whether Fannie Mae would have to restate its earnings, as happened last year at Freddie Mac.

Under the agreement with OFHEO, Fannie Mae will increase, within the next 270 days, its cushion of reserve capital against risk to 30 percent above its core capital of some $30 billion. The reserve level currently is at 18 percent above that core level, according to the company. The company also will recalculate all its transactions for derivatives, financial instruments it uses to hedge against interest-rate and other risk, for all quarters going back to 2001.

To raise the approximately $5 billion needed to reach that 30 percent reserve capital level, Fannie Mae could issue new stock, a move that could further weaken its share price; sell assets from its portfolio of investments, which in addition to billions in mortgages includes such items as aircraft leases; or even scale back its purchases of home mortgages from lenders for resale as bonds on Wall Street, which could reduce the supply of home loans for prospective buyers.

Morgan Stanley and Prudential Equity Group swiftly downgraded their rating of Fannie Mae stock Monday. "We believe that the requirement to carry extra capital could slow (Fannie Mae's) growth over the near- to intermediate term," Prudential analyst Bradley Ball said in a research note.

In addition, Ball wrote, the requirement for the company to recalculate its accounting for derivatives and spreading out the cost of expenses over time "will at a minimum create uncertainty and confusion surrounding (Fannie Mae's) past and prospective future results."

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pump money into the home mortgage market by buying billions of dollars of home loans each year from banks and other lenders, then bundling them into securities that are resold to investors. Their stock and debt — Fannie Mae's is nearly $1 trillion — are widely held by investors in the United States and around the globe.

An accounting crisis that erupted 15 months ago at Freddie Mac, with a restatement of some $4.5 billion in earnings for 2000-2002, prompted OFHEO to investigate Fannie Mae's accounting.