By GRETCHEN MORGENSON
Regulators have approved generous executive compensation at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the taxpayer-backed mortgage finance giants, with little scrutiny or analysis, according to a report published Thursday by the inspector general of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
The companies, whose fates are to be decided by Congress this year, paid a combined $17 million to their chief executives in 2009 and 2010, the two full years when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were wards of the state, the report found.
The top six executives at the companies received $35.4 million over the two years. Since Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were taken over in September 2008, the companies' mounting mortgage losses have required a $153 billion infusion from taxpayers. Total losses may reach $363 billion through 2013, according to government estimates.
Charles E. Haldeman Jr., a former head of Putnam Investments, the giant fund management concern, joined Freddie Mac as its chief executive in 2009.
He made $7.8 million for 2009 and 2010. Fannie Mae's chief is Michael J. Williams, who has worked at the company since 1991. He received $9.3 million for the two years. Company officials declined to comment.
With hundreds of billions in government support necessary to keep the companies running, questions are arising about the nature of the pay packages and how performance goals are determined.
The pay was approved by the housing finance agency, which is charged with conserving the assets of Fannie and Freddie on behalf of taxpayers.
"F.H.F.A. has a responsibility to Congress and taxpayers to efficiently, consistently, and reliably ensure that the compensation paid to Fannie Mae's and Freddie Mac's senior executives is reasonable," said Steve A. Linick, the newly appointed inspector general of the agency, in a statement. "This is especially true when you realize that the U.S. Treasury has invested close to $154 billion to stabilize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac," and they "are spending tens of millions of dollars for executive compensation."
The report cited a "lack of standardized evaluation criteria, documentation of management procedures and internal controls" at the oversight agency, missing steps that may have led to overpayments.
For example, the inspector general said that taxpayer support of the companies may have made performance benchmarks easier to meet for executives. In 2009, Fannie Mae issued 47 percent of new mortgage-backed securities, far exceeding its goal of 37.5 percent. But, as the report noted, this hurdle was almost certainly cleared because the Federal Reserve purchased almost all the mortgage securities issued by Fannie and Freddie in 2009.
In response to the report, the housing agency said that it would "institute a more formal and systematic approach" to its review of the performance benchmarks and the assessment of whether they were reached by the companies' executives. A spokeswoman for the agency said its officials declined to comment.
Lavish executive pay that does not track a company's performance has led to anger among shareholders in recent years. When the government stepped in to support some of the nation's biggest financial institutions in 2008, compensation became an issue of concern to taxpayers. Executive pay at institutions receiving support under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, for example, was subject to approval by an overseer, the special master for TARP. Fannie and Freddie were not required to submit to this process because their assistance did not come from TARP.
As the primary regulator and conservator of both companies, the housing agency has broad powers to direct the companies' activities; it has replaced board members and senior officers, for example. And it can bar the companies from making golden parachute payments to executives. It consulted with the TARP special master on executive pay at Fannie and Freddie after they were rescued by the government.
Nevertheless, the agency delegates pay decisions to the companies' boards, accepting their recommendations "unless there is an observed reason to do otherwise," according to the inspector general's report.
The F.H.F.A. receives advice from its own compensation consultant as well as the work of those hired by Fannie and Freddie.
The inspector general's report noted that the executives at Fannie and Freddie received far more than their counterparts at other federal housing agencies. The top executive at Ginnie Mae, for example, received an annual salary of less than $200,000. The inspector general suggested that the agency review the discrepancy and account for it to taxpayers.
Paying for talent
Agency officials say the salaries and deferred compensation awarded to executives at Fannie and Freddie are necessary if they are to attract and keep talent required to run those operations effectively.
They say that current pay at Fannie and Freddie is roughly 40 percent less than it was before the bailout and maintain that the compensation plans are based on the companies' ability to meet financial and performance targets, like providing liquidity and affordability to the mortgage market.
Video: Fixing Fannie & Freddie
Edward J. DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, testified before Congress on Thursday about proposals to overhaul Fannie and Freddie.
"I am concerned that legislation to overhaul the compensation levels and programs in place today with the application of a federal pay system to nonfederal employees carries great risk for the conservatorships and hence the taxpayer," he said.
Last year, Mr. DeMarco testified that the executive compensation plans at Fannie and Freddie were designed to achieve the goals of the conservatorship and "align executive decision-making with the long-term financial prospects of the enterprises, and minimize costs to the taxpayer."
Because shares of both Fannie and Freddie have little value, the companies' executive compensation consists solely of cash paid out in base salary, deferred salary and long-term incentive pay.
But Brian Foley, a compensation consultant in White Plains questioned the characterization of the companies' incentive pay as long term, given that it is paid entirely within two years. "One hundred percent of the compensation is paid for two-year performance and a fair portion of that is without regard to performance," he said. "I understand the stock is worthless, but that doesn't mean you can't have cash on the table for a long period. If anybody needs to have good long-term performance, isn't it Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?"