By Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times
September 20, 2011, 5:45 p.m.

Reporting from Washington— The government’s latest attempt to hold large banks accountable for helping trigger the Great Recession could fall as flat as earlier efforts to punish Wall Street villains and compensate taxpayers for bailing out the financial industry.

Federal regulators, in landmark lawsuits this month, alleged that 17 large banks misled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on the safety and soundness of $200 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities sold to the two housing finance giants, sending them to the brink of bankruptcy and forcing the government to seize them.

Targets of other federal lawsuits and investigations have deflected such claims by arguing, for example, that the collapse of the housing market and job losses from the recession caused the loss in the value of mortgage-backed securities.

The big banks, though, might have a more powerful defense: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were no novices at investment decisions.

The two companies were major players in the subprime housing boom through the mortgage-backed securities market they helped create, and they should have known better than anyone that many of the loans behind those securities were toxic, some analysts and legal experts said.

“I can’t think of two more sophisticated clients who were in a better position to do the due diligence on these investments,” said Andrew Stoltmann, a Chicago investors’ lawyer specializing in securities lawsuits. “For them to claim they were misled in some form or fashion, I think, is an extremely difficult legal argument to make.”

But the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which has been running Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac since the government seized them in 2008, argued that banks can’t misrepresent the quality of their products no matter how savvy the investor.

“Under the securities laws at issue here, it does not matter how ‘big’ or ‘sophisticated’ a security purchaser is. The seller has a legal responsibility to accurately represent the characteristics of the loans backing the securities being sold,” the FHFA said.

The sophistication of Fannie and Freddie is expected to be the centerpiece of the banks’ aggressive defense. Analysts still expect the suits to be settled to avoid lengthy court battles, but they said the weakness of the case meant that financial firms would have to pay far less money than Fannie and Freddie lost on the securities.

Stoltmann predicted that a settlement would bring in only several hundred million dollars on total losses estimated so far at about $30 billion.

In the 17 suits, the FHFA alleged that it was given misleading data.

For example, in the suit against General Electric Co. over two securities sold in 2005 by its former mortgage banking subsidiary, the FHFA said Freddie Mac was told that at least 90% of the loans in those securities were for owner-occupied homes.

The real figure was slightly less than 80%, which significantly increased the likelihood of losses on the combined $549 million in securities, the suit said.

GE said it “plans to vigorously contest these claims.” The company said it had made all its scheduled payments to date and had paid down the principal to about $66 million.

The federal agency also has taken on some of the titans of the financial industry, including Goldman Sachs & Co., Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., to try to recoup some of the losses on the securities. That would help offset the $145 billion that taxpayers now are owed in the Fannie and Freddie bailouts.

The suits represent one of the most forceful government legal actions against the banking industry nearly four years after the start of a severe recession and financial crisis brought on in part by the crash of the housing market.

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