But at that meeting, Mr. Mozilo, a butcher’s son who had almost single-handedly built Countrywide into a financial powerhouse, threatened to upend their partnership unless Fannie started buying Countrywide’s riskier loans.
Mr. Mozilo, who did not return telephone calls seeking comment, told Mr. Mudd that Countrywide had other options. For example, Wall Street had recently jumped into the market for risky mortgages. Firms like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs had started bundling home loans and selling them to investors — bypassing Fannie and dealing with Countrywide directly.
“You’re becoming irrelevant,” Mr. Mozilo told Mr. Mudd, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting who requested anonymity because the talks were confidential. In the previous year, Fannie had already lost 56 percent of its loan-reselling business to Wall Street and other competitors.
“You need us more than we need you,” Mr. Mozilo said, “and if you don’t take these loans, you’ll find you can lose much more.”
Then Mr. Mozilo offered everyone a breath mint.
Investors were also pressuring Mr. Mudd to take greater risks.
On one occasion, a hedge fund manager telephoned a senior Fannie executive to complain that the company was not taking enough gambles in chasing profits.
“Are you stupid or blind?” the investor roared, according to someone who heard the call, but requested anonymity. “Your job is to make me money!”
Capitol Hill bore down on Mr. Mudd as well. The same year he took the top position, regulators sharply increased Fannie’s affordable-housing goals. Democratic lawmakers demanded that the company buy more loans that had been made to low-income and minority homebuyers.
“When homes are doubling in price in every six years and incomes are increasing by a mere one percent per year, Fannie’s mission is of paramount importance,” Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, lectured Mr. Mudd at a Congressional hearing in 2006. “In fact, Fannie and Freddie can do more, a lot more.”
But Fannie’s computer systems could not fully analyze many of the risky loans that customers, investors and lawmakers wanted Mr. Mudd to buy. Many of them — like balloon-rate mortgages or mortgages that did not require paperwork — were so new that dangerous bets could not be identified, according to company executives.
Even so, Fannie began buying huge numbers of riskier loans.
In one meeting, according to two people present, Mr. Mudd told employees to “get aggressive on risk-taking, or get out of the company.”
In the interview, Mr. Mudd said he did not recall that conversation and that he always stressed taking only prudent risks.
Employees, however, say they got a different message.
“Everybody understood that we were now buying loans that we would have previously rejected, and that the models were telling us that we were charging way too little,” said a former senior Fannie executive. “But our mandate was to stay relevant and to serve low-income borrowers. So that’s what we did.”
Between 2005 and 2007, the company’s acquisitions of mortgages with down payments of less than 10 percent almost tripled. As the market for risky loans soared to $1 trillion, Fannie expanded in white-hot real estate areas like California and Florida.
For two years, Mr. Mudd operated without a permanent chief risk officer to guard against unhealthy hazards. When Enrico Dallavecchia was hired for that position in 2006, he told Mr. Mudd that the company should be charging more to handle risky loans.
In the following months to come, Mr. Dallavecchia warned that some markets were becoming overheated and argued that a housing bubble had formed, according to a person with knowledge of the conversations. But many of the warnings were rebuffed.
Mr. Mudd told Mr. Dallavecchia that the market, shareholders and Congress all thought the companies should be taking more risks, not fewer, according to a person who observed the conversation. “Who am I supposed to fight with first?” Mr. Mudd asked.
In the interview, Mr. Mudd said he never made those comments. Mr. Dallavecchia was among those whom Mr. Mudd forced out of the company during a reorganization in August.
Mr. Mudd added that it was almost impossible during most of his tenure to see trouble on the horizon, because Fannie interacts with lenders rather than borrowers, which creates a delay in recognizing market conditions.
He said Fannie sought to balance market demands prudently against internal standards, that executives always sought to avoid unwise risks, and that Fannie bought far fewer troublesome loans than many other financial institutions. Mr. Mudd said he heeded many warnings from his executives and that Fannie refused to buy many risky loans, regardless of outside pressures .
“You’re dealing with massive amounts of information that flow in over months,” he said. “You almost never have an ‘Oh, my God’ moment. Even now, most of the loans we bought are doing fine.”
But, of course, that moment of truth did arrive. In the middle of last year it became clear that millions of borrowers would stop paying their mortgages. For Fannie, this raised the terrifying prospect of paying billions of dollars to honor its guarantees.
Sustained by Government
Had Fannie been a private entity, its comeuppance might have happened a year ago. But the White House, Wall Street and Capitol Hill were more concerned about the trillions of dollars in other loans that were poisoning financial institutions and banks.