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Investigation explores whether banks misled Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac

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Bill Radke: The agency that regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has sent subpoenas to banks that issued mortgage-backed securities that got Fannie and Freddie in so much trouble. Remember, these are the government-backed mortgage giants that bought billions of dollars of these securities during the housing boom. Many of them were based on subprime mortgages and they helped contribute to the need for a taxpayer bailout. Marketplace’s Alisa Roth joins us live to talk about these subpoenas. Good morning, Alisa.

Alisa Roth: Good morning.

Radke: What is Fannie and Freddie’s regulator trying to figure out here?

Roth: Well, it really wants to know whether the firms that issued those mortgage-backed securities intentionally misled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac about how risky those investments were.

Radke: And Alisa, could you give us the quick referesher on these mortgage-backed securities?

Roth: Sure. You remember that mortgage-backed securities are those complicated financial instruments where banks basically packaged up mortgages and then sold pieces of the securities to investors. A lot of banks were accused of putting questionable mortgages into those securities, but then telling investors that they were perfectly safe. And as you know, part of what caused the financial crisis was when the housing market collapsed and all those securities that were based on it lost value.

Radke: A sad story. So in this investigation, who is being looked at Alisa? Who got the subpoenas?

Roth: The agency isn’t saying, but it’s pretty easy to guess. Some of the biggest issuers of these are now extinct, so Bear Stearns and Countrywide are two names you might recognize. But they were taken over by places like JP Morgan Chase and B of A. So some big players could be involved in this. If the government’s investigation pans out, it could cost those bank players. If the government can prove the issuers were intentionally misleading investors, then the banks will have to pay the money back to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Radke: And how much money are we talking about?

Roth: A lot. Together, Fannie and Freddie own more than $200 billion worth of these things. So if the banks have to pay that money back, it could end up being very expensive.

Radke: Marketplace’s Alisa Roth. Thank you.

Roth: You’re welcome.

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