Shortly after joining the U.S. Senate and while enjoying a surge in income, Barack Obama bought a $1.65 million restored Georgian mansion in an upscale Chicago neighborhood. To finance the purchase, he secured a $1.32 million loan from Northern Trust in Illinois.
The freshman Democratic senator received a discount. He locked in an interest rate of 5.625 percent on the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, below the average for such loans at the time in Chicago. The loan was unusually large, known in banker lingo as a “super super jumbo.” Obama paid no origination fee or discount points, as some consumers do to reduce their interest rates.
Compared with the average terms offered at the time in Chicago, Obama’s rate could have saved him more than $300 a month.
Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said the rate was adjusted to account for a competing offer from another lender and other factors. “The Obamas have since had as much as $3 million invested through Northern Trust,” he said in a statement.
Modest adjustments in mortgage rates are common among financial institutions as they compete for business or develop relationships with wealthy families. But amid a national housing crisis, news of discounts offered to Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the banking committee, and Kent Conrad, D-N.D., by another lender, Countrywide Financial, has brought new scrutiny to the practice and has resulted in a preliminary Senate ethics committee inquiry into the Dodd and Conrad loans.
Within Obama’s presidential campaign organization, former Fannie Mae chief executive James Johnson resigned abruptly as head of the vice presidential search committee after his favorable Countrywide loan became public.
Driving the recent debate is concern that public officials, knowingly or unknowingly, may receive special treatment from lenders and that the discounts could constitute gifts that are prohibited by law.
Under financial disclosure rules, members of Congress are not obliged to disclose debts owed to financial institutions for personal residences. Names of lenders and rates paid on mortgages sometimes can be determined by scrutinizing property transaction records. In March, in response to media questions, Obama posted on his campaign Web site records related to his house purchase.
In Obama’s case, he received a lower rate than the average offered at the time in Chicago for similarly structured jumbo loans. He secured his final mortgage commitment on June 8, 2005, and during that week, rates on similar loans for which information is available averaged 5.93 percent, according to HSH Associates, which surveys lenders. Another survey firm, Bankrate.com, placed the average at 6 percent.
The Obama campaign called the rate “consistent with Northern Trust policies, and it reflected the base rate set for that period discounted to address the competition for the account and other opportunities, such as personal financial services, that the relationship would bring to Northern Trust.”
The Obamas had no prior relationship with Northern Trust when they applied for the loan. They received an oral commitment on Feb. 4, 2005, and locked in the rate of 5.625 percent, the campaign said. On that date, HSH data show, the average rate in Chicago for a 30-year fixed-rate jumbo loan with no points was about 5.94 percent.
Jumbo loans are for amounts up to $650,000, but the Obamas’ $1.32 million loan was so large that few comparables are available. Mortgage specialists say that many high-end buyers pay cash.
Unlike Countrywide, where leaked internal e-mails documented a special discount program for friends of chief executive Angelo Mozilo, Northern Trust says it has no formal program to provide discounts to public officials. Loan officers may consider a borrower’s occupation when establishing an interest rate, the bank said.
“A person’s occupation and salary are two factors; I would expect those are two things we would take into consideration,” said Northern Trust Vice President John O’Connell. “That would apply to anyone seeking to get a mortgage at Northern Trust.” He added that the rates offered to Obama were “consistent with internal Northern Trust rates at that time.”
“The bottom line is, this was a business proposition for us,” he said. “Our business model is to service and pursue successful individuals, families and institutions.”
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