November 21, 2014

Does Morningstar Speak with Forked Tongue?

By David Reiss

Morningstar Credit Ratings, a small Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization (albeit a subsidiary of Morningstar, the large investment research firm), has issued a Structured Credit Ratings Commentary on Rating Shopping in Asset Securitization Markets. It finds that

Rating shopping is alive and well in the U.S. securitization markets notwithstanding the implementation of regulatory and legislative actions intended to curb the practice and promote competition among credit rating agencies, or CRAs. It is important to note, however, that the rating shopping following the financial crisis has not led to a “race to the bottom” scenario with respect to rating standards that some congressional lawmakers and other critics of the issuer-paid model believe was prevalent during the years leading up to the crisis. (1)

I have to say that I find Morningstar’s analysis perplexing. The commentary highlights a number of structural problems in the ratings agency industry. It then goes on to say that everything is fine and that there is no race to the bottom to worry about, to lead us into another financial crisis.

The commentary goes on to state that while

it is rational for issuers and arrangers to choose the CRA with the least onerous terms, CRAs generally have held their ground by adhering to their analytical methodologies notwithstanding the constant threat of losing business. . . . The CRAs’ unwillingness to lower their standards in the midst of reviewing a transaction is attributable in part to strong regulatory oversight from the SEC, which has focused heavily on holding nationally recognized statistical rating organizations, or NRSROs, accountable for following their published methodologies. (1-2)

I find it odd that the commentary does not consider where we are in the business cycle as part of the explanation. Once the market becomes sufficiently frothy, rating agencies will be more tempted to compromise their standards in order to win market share. I wouldn’t accuse Morningstar of speaking with a forked tongue, but its explanation of the current state of affairs seems self-serving: move on folks, we rating agencies have everything under control for we have tamed the profit motive once and for all!

November 21, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

November 20, 2014

Reiss on GSE Privatization

By David Reiss

GlobeSt.com quoted me in Waiting to Say Goodbye to the GSEs. It reads in part,

US HUD Secretary Julian Castro added another “to do” item to the lame duck Congress’ list of things they should get done before they adjourn on Dec. 11: pass the bipartisan Johnson-Crapo Senate bill introduced earlier this year that would wind down the GSEs.

“This could be, I believe, a good victory in the lame duck session or next term of Congress for housing finance reform,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg Television earlier this week. The crux of the plan – doing away with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, creating a backstop for these loans and removing tax payer risk – are all supported by the Obama Administration, he said.

“Housing finance reform will continue to be a priority for the Obama Administration,” Castro said.

The multifamily finance industry has been expecting GSE reform for years now; certainly there have been calls for their dismantlement when they were placed in conservatorship in 2008 during the depth of the financial crisis. Many in the industry, in fact, would welcome their sunset, in the expectation that the private sector could fully and more efficiently and more cheaply provide the same level of funding.

That is not the unanimous sentiment though. In fact, opinions about the subject in commercial real estate range, widely, across the board from “it is about time” to “the politics are too strident for it to happen” to “maybe it will happen but it is difficult to believe the GSEs could entirely be replaced by the private sector.”

*     *     *

David Reiss, a professor of Law and Research Director, Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship (CUBE) at Brooklyn Law School, has been calling for the privatization of Fannie and Freddie for some time and is dismissive of the “Chicken Little claims” that the sector will collapse if the government reduces its footprint in multifamily and single-family housing finance.

“With a carefully planned transition, it is eminently reasonable to believe that we can put private capital in a first loss position for multifamily housing so long as the government retains a role in subsidizing affordable housing and acting as a lender of last resort when necessary,” he tells GlobeSt.com.

November 20, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

November 19, 2014

Reiss on Lawsky’s Departure from DFS

By David Reiss

Bloomberg interviewed me for Lawsky Leaving After $3 Billion in Fines Makes a Mark. The article reads in part,

When Ocwen Financial Corp. (OCN) shares soared on the news that regulator Benjamin Lawsky, who’s probing the company, will step down, Bill Miller shrugged.

The next head of New York’s Department of Financial Services will probably be as aggressive as Lawsky, continuing the uncertainty for Ocwen, said Miller, who runs the $2.2 billion Legg Mason Opportunity Trust. (LMOPX) Lawsky’s investigations of nonbank mortgage servicers such as Ocwen have caused their shares to plunge.

“Ocwen has been rallying on the view that with him gone that will lift the burden, but I would be surprised if the next person didn’t at least follow through in the way Lawsky was going to,” said Miller, whose fund, which invests in Nationstar Mortgage Holdings Inc., has gained an annual 38 percent since 2011.

In three years as New York’s financial watchdog, Lawsky extracted more than $3 billion in fines from global banks, called for the firing of executives and questioned whether the lightly regulated nonbank servicers are properly handling modifications and defaults. As the department’s first superintendent, Lawsky hired experienced lawyers from the New York Attorney General’s office, creating a strong enforcement culture that will continue after he’s gone, said Kathryn Judge, an associate professor focusing on financial institutions at Columbia University Law School.

“Similar to what we saw Eliot Spitzer doing as attorney general, being in New York allowed Lawsky to step in where federal regulators hadn’t,” Judge said. “By stepping into this role at a formative stage for the regulator, he created a footprint. That legacy will survive.”

*     *     *

The superintendent’s work has reflected favorably on the governor, said David Reiss, a professor who specializes in real estate and consumer protection at Brooklyn Law School. That will encourage Cuomo to select a successor who’s equally dynamic, Reiss said.

Cuomo will want to build on Lawsky’s record of protecting homeowners from improper foreclosures and holding mortgage servicers accountable, said Reiss.

Chief of staff Anthony Albanese, general counsel Daniel Alter, and capital markets division head Maria Filipakis are among the top people that Lawsky brought to the department. One of them may be in a position to replace him, according to a lawyer who has had extensive dealings with the superintendent. The lawyer asked not to be named because he’s not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

The successor will have to focus more on regulation and finding answers to the issues the department uncovered with nonbank servicers and insurers, said Eric Dinallo, who served as New York’s superintendent of insurance from 2007 to 2009.

“Each superintendent or commissioner wants to put their unique stamp on the agency,” he said.

November 19, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

November 18, 2014

Carney, Epstein, Macey & Reiss on GSE Litigation

By David Reiss

I was on an interesting panel today on the state of the Fannie/Freddie shareholder litigation. Judge Lamberth’s ruling in Perry Capital LLC v. Lew et al. was bad news for the plaintiffs in all of the shareholder suits. The panel was hosted by Michael Kim, CRT Capital Managing Director & Senior Research Analyst, and featured

  • John Carney – Wall Street Journal
  • Richard Epstein – NYU Law School
  • Jonathan Macey – Yale Law School
  • David Reiss – Brooklyn Law School

The agenda for the panel included

  • an overview of the litigation timeline for the cases in Iowa District Court, the Court of Federal Claims and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia
  • a detailed analysis of Judge Lamberth’s Ruling and
  • a review of legal strategies and the outlook going forward

The more of these panels I am on, the more I am struck by the passionate intensity of those representing the shareholders. They are convinced that they are not only right, but also that the judiciary will see it their way. I lack this conviction.

It is not that I am so sure that the shareholders will ultimately lose (although that is a good possibility). Rather, it is that the facts and the law are extraordinarily complex in these cases. Because of this complexity, I find it hard to predict how the judges assigned to hear these cases will choose to frame them.

Judge Lamberth and other judges deciding cases arising from government action during the financial crisis often frame their decisions with a narrative of extraordinary government intervention during a period of great uncertainty. As a result, those judges have granted the government as much deference as they can.

Many of the shareholder advocates analogize from precedents drawn from more pedestrian situations and believe that courts will hew closely to them. I am quite skeptical of that approach. Judges lived through the crisis too and are all too aware of the precipice we were on. I think they will think twice before second guessing those who had to call the shots with such severely limited information, and did so while under unrelenting pressure to get it right when the stakes were so high.

November 18, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

November 17, 2014

FHA’s Financial Health Looking Up

By David Reiss

HUD has released the Annual Report to Congress Regarding the Financial Status of the Mutual Mortgage Insurance Fund Fiscal Year 2014. It appears that things are looking up for the FHA, particularly after last year’s mandatory appropriation from the Treasury, the first in the FHA’s 80 year history. For those of you who are not housing finance nerds, the Mutual Mortgage Insurance Fund (MMIF) is the financial backbone of the FHA’s single-family mortgage insurance program.  When it is in bad shape, the FHA is in bad shape.

As Secretary Castro notes in his forward to the report,

The value of the Fund has improved significantly, now standing at $4.8 billion. The increased economic value represents a capital reserve ratio of 0.41. This improvement shows tremendous progress, especially considering that the Fund had a negative value of $16.3 billion just two years ago. The two-year gain in Fund value is an impressive $21 billion. The performance of the portfolio has improved dramatically in a short period of time. Foreclosures are down 68 percent since the height of the crisis and recoveries to the Fund have improved 68 percent from their lowest level–saving billions of dollars. While FHA must still respond to challenges presented by legacy books and market volatility, the independent actuary’s report demonstrates that FHA is firmly on the right track and is projected to continue improving. (1)
The MMIF is supposed to have a capital reserve ratio of 2 percent, so the FHA is still quite a bit away from receiving a clean bill of health. But according to projections, it should achieve that level in 2016 and then continue to improve from there. (35, Ex. II-3)
While this is all pretty abstract, there are some pretty concrete aspects to the health of the MMIF. The size of FHA premiums, paid by homeowners borrowing FHA-insured mortgages, is set in the context of the health of the MMIF because the FHA is a self-funded government agency. So low reserves means that it is harder to cut premiums. Higher FHA premiums mean that  mortgages are more expensive for the low- and moderate income borrowers who make up a large part of the FHA’s book of business. So the health of the MMIF is an indicator of sorts of the health of the housing market overall.

November 17, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

November 14, 2014

No Action on Financial Innovation?

By David Reiss

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a Request for Comment on a proposed policy regarding No-Action Letters. Under the proposed policy, the Bureau could

issue no-action letters (NALs) to specific applicants in instances involving innovative financial products or services that promise substantial consumer benefit where there is substantial uncertainty whether or how specific provisions of statutes or regulations implemented by the Bureau would be applied (for example if, because of intervening technological developments, the application of statutes and regulations to a new project is novel and complicated). The Policy is also designed to enhance compliance with applicable federal consumer financial laws. (79 F.R. 62119)

The notice goes on,

The Bureau recognizes that, in certain circumstances, some may perceive that the current regulatory framework may hinder the development of innovative financial products that promise substantial consumer benefit because, for example, existing laws and rules did not contemplate such products. In such circumstances, it may be substantially uncertain whether or how specific provisions of certain statutes and regulations should be applied to such a product—and thus whether the federal agency tasked with administering those portions of a statute or regulation may bring an enforcement or supervisory action against the developer of the product for failure to comply with those laws. Such regulatory uncertainty may discourage innovators from entering a market, or make it difficult for them to develop suitable products or attract sufficient investment or other support.

Federal agencies can reduce such regulatory uncertainty in a variety of ways. For example, an agency may clarify the application of its statutes and regulations to the type of product in question—by rulemaking or by the issuance of less formal guidance. Alternatively, an agency may provide some form of notification that it does not intend to recommend initiation of an enforcement or supervisory action against an entity based on the application of specific identified provisions of statutes or regulations to its offering of a particular product. This proposal is concerned with the latter means of reducing regulatory uncertainty in limited circumstances. (79 F.R. 62119)

This notice certainly identifies a problem inherent in the complex regulatory state we live in — heavy regulation can impede innovation. It is a good thing to try to address that problem, but it is far from certain how effective a No Action regime will be in that regard. It is hard to imagine that it could do any harm though, so it is certainly a reasonable step to take.

Your thoughts? Comments are due December 15th, so get crackin’!

November 14, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

November 13, 2014

Reiss on Privatization of Fannie and Freddie

By David Reiss

BadCredit.org profiled an article of mine in Brooklaw Professor Pushes for Privatization of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac. The profile opens,

Since the end of the Great Recession, policymakers, academics and economists have been struggling with a very difficult question — what should we do with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Should the government continue its role in providing mortgage credit to millions of American?

Fordham University Associate Professor of Law and Ethics Brent J. Horton made a proposal in his forthcoming paper “For the Protection of Investors and the Public: Why Fannie Mae’s Mortgage-Backed Securities Should Be Subject to the Disclosure Requirements of the Securities Act of 1933“:

“The best way to reduce risk taking at Fannie Mae is to subject its MBS offerings to the disclosure requirements of the Securities Act of 1933,” Horton writes.

However, Brooklyn Law School Professor of Law David Reiss believes “the problems inherent in Fannie Mae’s structure are greater than those that increased disclosure can address.”

In his response, titled “Who Should Be Providing Mortgage Credit to American Households?” Reiss points to increased privatization as one way to address the question of what to do with Fannie Mae and Freddi Mac.

November 13, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments