WASHINGTON — Three months after the government seized control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, lawmakers on Tuesday blamed former top executives at the mortgage giants for fueling the financial market turmoil that has dragged the country into a recession.
And the housing fallout continues. The National Association of Realtors' index of pending U.S. home sales beat expectations in October _ but deeply discounted foreclosures and distressed sales accounted for nearly half the deals.
On Wall Street, stocks fell after a two-day rally as downbeat corporate news reminded investors that the economy's troubles won't soon ease. The Dow Jones industrials fell nearly 243 points, while broader indexes showed more moderate declines.
Seeking the safety of government securities, investors drove demand for ultra-safe Treasury bills so high Tuesday that they were willing to earn no interest on their investments at a Treasury Department auction. Interest rates on four-week Treasury bills slid to zero from 0.04 percent a week earlier.
At the same time, Congress and the White House pushed to clear the final obstacles to a $15 billion bailout of the auto industry.
Internal e-mails and other documents released by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee show that former Fannie Mae CEO Daniel Mudd and former Freddie Mac CEO Richard Syron disregarded recommendations that they avoid riskier types of loans.
"Their irresponsible decisions are now costing the taxpayers billions of dollars," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the committee, which reviewed nearly 400,000 internal documents from Fannie and Freddie.
Republicans argued that the primary causes of the financial meltdown were weak government regulation of Fannie and Freddie and Clinton administration policies to promote homeownership. "We knew a long time ago that this train was going to crash," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.
Democrats acknowledged that the two government-sponsored companies contributed to the financial crisis. But they stressed that Wall Street banks _ not Fannie and Freddie _ led the dramatic decline in lending standards that caused mortgages to start defaulting in huge numbers two years ago.
Two months after federal regulators seized the two companies in September, Freddie Mac asked for an injection of $13.8 billion in government aid after posting a huge quarterly loss. Fannie Mae has yet to request any government aid but has warned it may need to do so soon.
Fannie and Freddie own or guarantee around half the $11.5 trillion in U.S. outstanding home loan debt. The two companies are the engines behind a complex process of buying, bundling and selling mortgages as investments.
They traditionally backed the safest loans _ 30-year fixed rate mortgages that required a down payment of at least 20 percent. But in recent years, they lowered their standards, matching a decline fueled by Wall Street banks that backed the now-defunct subprime lending industry.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D.-N.Y., grilled Syron about the Freddie Mac's decision to fire David Andrukonis, its former chief risk officer. Andrukonis had sounded warnings as far back as 2004 about the risks posed by loans in which borrowers didn't provide proof of their incomes or detail their assets, according to e-mails released by the committee.
"Do you regret firing him?" Maloney said. "Do you regret buying these risky loans? Do you regret the way you led _ and I would say mismanaged _ this company?"
Syron said Andrukonis "was fired for a variety of reasons. It was not primarily for his having a view on credit."
Likewise, lawmakers pressed Mudd about an internal Fannie Mae presentation from June 2005. It showed the company at a key juncture. Its competitors on Wall Street were starting to reap lucrative fees on investments backed by risky loans. Fannie Mae had to decide whether to compete in that market or take the less risky, but also less profitable, path.
Fannie Mae executives worried at the time about "becoming a niche player" and "becoming less of a market leader" at the time, according to the confidential internal presentation, which noted that mortgage securities sold by Wall Street investors exceeded those sold by Fannie Mae for the first time in 2004.
With competitors entering the market, Mudd said, "we couldn't afford to make the bet that the changes were not going to be permanent."
Lawmakers, in questioning that lasted more than four hours, were frustrated by what they called a lack of willingness among Syron and Mudd, plus former Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines and former Freddie Mac CEO Leland Brendsel, to share any of the blame for the companies' fortunes.
"All four of you seem to be in complete denial that Freddie and Fannie are in any way responsible for this," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. "Your whole excuse for going to risky and unreasonable loans that are defaulting at an incredibly high rate is that everyone is doing it."
Repeated attempts to impose tighter regulation of the two companies were thwarted by the companies' powerful lobbyists. The companies, which are now banned from lobbying, spent nearly $177 million on lobbying over the past 20 years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Raines defended his company's lobbying, saying "Fannie Mae, like any other corporation owned by shareholders, came to Congress and expressed its views."
The two companies, with their goal of promoting affordable housing, have traditionally been allied with Democrats. But internal Freddie Mac budget records obtained by The Associated Press show $11.7 million was paid to 52 outside lobbyists and consultants in 2006 as part of a campaign to preserve weak regulatory oversight, with particular pressure exerted on the Republicans who led Congress at the time.
The more difficult questions, however, will come next year, when lawmakers will weigh what role, if any, the two companies should play in the mortgage market
Options include taking the companies private, morphing them into a public utility or a federal agency, or leaving them as government-sponsored entities that have private shareholders and profits, with tougher regulations.