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After the news broke in May of last year that government-sponsored lending agency Freddie Mac had agreed to back $786 million in loans to the Kushner Companies, political opponents asked whether the family real estate firm formerly led by the president’s son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner, had received special treatment.
“We are especially concerned about this transaction because of Kushner Companies’ history of seeking to engage in deals that raise conflicts of interest issues with Mr. Kushner,” Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Tom Carper (D-Delaware) wrote to Freddie Mac’s CEO in June 2019.
The loans helped Kushner Companies scoop up thousands of apartments in Maryland and Virginia, the business’s biggest purchase in a decade. The deal, first reported by Bloomberg, also ranked among Freddie’s largest ever. At the time, the details of its terms weren’t disclosed. Freddie Mac officials didn’t comment publicly then. Kushner’s lawyer said Jared was no longer involved in decision-making at the company. (He does continue to receive millions from the family business, according to his financial disclosures, including from some properties with Freddie Mac-backed loans.)
Freddie Mac packaged the 16 loans into bonds and sold them to investors in August 2019. But Kushner Companies hadn’t finished its buying spree. Within the next two months, records show, Freddie Mac backed another two loans to the Kushners for an additional $63.5 million, allowing the company to add two more apartment complexes to its portfolio.
A new analysis by ProPublica shows Kushner Companies received unusually favorable loan terms for the 18 mortgages it obtained with Freddie Mac’s backing. The loans allowed the Kushner family company to make lower monthly payments and borrow more money than was typical for similar loans, 2019 Freddie Mac data shows. The terms increase the risk to the agency and to investors who buy bonds with the Kushner mortgages in them.
Moreover, Freddie Mac’s estimates of the Kushner properties’ profitability — a core element of any decision to back a loan — have already proven to be overly optimistic. All 16 properties in the firm’s biggest loan package delivered smaller profits in 2019 than Freddie Mac expected, despite the then-booming economy. The loan for the largest property lagged Freddie Mac’s profit prediction by 31% last year.
U.S. taxpayers could be responsible for paying back much of the nearly $850 million in Freddie Mac financing if Kushner Companies defaults and its properties drop significantly in value. During the last real estate crash, taxpayers had to bail out Freddie Mac and its larger sibling, Fannie Mae, to the tune of $190 billion as the agencies plunged into the government equivalent of bankruptcy. (The agencies ultimately repaid the money and more.)
The involvement of Jared’s sister Nicole Kushner Meyer adds to questions about whether the family sought to exploit its political influence. Meyer, who shares her brother’s slight build, porcelain features and dark chestnut hair, lobbied Freddie Mac in person on behalf of Kushner Companies in February last year, a timeline of the deal obtained by ProPublica shows. She has previously drawn criticism for invoking her brother’s name while doing Kushner Companies’ business before.
In a statement Freddie Mac said it does “not consider the political affiliations of borrowers or their family members.” It called ProPublica’s analysis “random, arbitrary and incomplete” and asserted that the Kushner loans “fit squarely within our publicly-available credit and underwriting standards. The terms and performance of every one of these loans is transparent and available on our website, and all the loans are current and have been consistently paid.”
A spokesperson for Kushner Companies did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
There’s no evidence the Trump administration played a role in any of the decisions and Freddie Mac operates independently. But Freddie Mac embarked on approving the loans at the moment that its government overseer, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), was changing from leadership by an Obama administration appointee to one from the Trump administration, Mark Calabria, vice-president Mike Pence’s former chief economist. Calabria, who was confirmed in April 2019, has called for an end to the “conservatorship,” the close financial control that his agency has exerted over Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae since the 2008 crisis.
The potential for improper influence exists even if the Trump administration didn’t advocate for the Kushners, said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University specializing in government and legal ethics. She compared the situation to press reports that businesses and associates connected to Jared Kushner and his family were approved to receive millions from the Paycheck Protection Program. Officials could have acted because they were seeking to curry favor with the Kushners or feared retribution if they didn’t, according to Clark. And if Kushner Companies had wanted to avoid any appearance of undue influence, she added, it should have sent only non-family executives to meet with Freddie Mac. “I’d leave it to the professionals,” Clark said. “I’d keep family members away from it.”
The Freddie Mac data shows that Kushner Companies secured advantageous terms on multiple points. All 18 loans, for example, allow Kushner Companies to pay only interest for the full 10-year term, thus deferring all principal payments to a balloon payment at the end. That lowers the monthly payments, but increases the possibility that the balance won’t be paid back in full.
“That’s as risky as you get,” said Ryan Ledwith, a professor at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate, of 10-year interest-only loans. “It’s a long period of time and you’re not getting any amortization to reduce your risk over time. You’re betting the market is going to get better all by itself 10 years from now.”
Interest-only mortgages, which notoriously helped fuel the 2008 economic crisis, represent a small percentage of Freddie Mac loans. Only 6% of the 3,600 loans funded by the agency last year were interest-only for a decade or more, according to a database of its core mortgage transactions.
Kushner Companies also loaded more debt on the properties than is usual for similar loans, with the loan value for the 16-loan deal climbing to 69% of the properties’ worth. That compares with an average 59%, according to data for loans with similar terms and property types that Freddie Mac sold to investors in 2019, and is just below the 70% debt-to-value ceiling Freddie Mac sets for loans in its category. “What we generally have seen from Freddie and Fannie,” said Andrew Little, a principal with real estate investment bank John B. Levy & Company, “is they will do 10 years of interest-only on lower-leveraged deals.”
Loans right at the ceiling are “not very common,” Little said, adding that “you don’t see deals this size that commonly.”
Meanwhile Freddie Mac and its lending partner overestimated the profits for the buildings in the Kushners’ 16-loan package by 12 % during the underwriting process, according to the agency’s data. Such analysis is supposed to provide a conservative, accurate picture of revenue and expenses, which should be relatively predictable in the case of an apartment building.
But the level of income anticipated failed to materialize in 2019, financial reports show. The most dramatic overstatement came with the largest loan in the deal, $120 million for Bonnie Ridge Apartments, a 960-apartment complex in Baltimore. In that case, realized profits last year were 31% below what Freddie Mac had expected.
“That’s definitely a significant amount,” said John Griffin, a University of Texas professor who specializes in forensic finance and has studied mortgage underwriting. He co-authored a recent paper highlighting as worrisome loans in which projected profits exceeded actual profits by 5%. “It’s a problem when underwritten income is inflated or overstated,” he said. “That is a key metric that determines the safety of the loan.”
Griffin’s paper found that 28% of all loans examined had projected profits that were 5% or more greater than what the properties actually earned in their first year. Some instances of underperformance could be caused by bad luck, the paper acknowledged, but “such situations should be relatively rare.” Yet in the case of Freddie Mac’s estimates in the Kushner deal, 13 of the original 16 loans met or exceeded the 5% threshold — many by a considerable amount.
Read Heather Vogell's full print story at ProPublica.
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The Freddie Mac headquarters building in McLean, Va., Saturday, April 21, 2018.(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)