SEC Update on Rating Agency Industry

The staff of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has issued its Annual Report on Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations. The report documents some significant problems with the rating agency industry as it is currently structured. The report highlights competition, transparency and conflicts of interest as three important areas of concern.

Competition. There are some of the interesting insights to be culled from the report. It notes that “some of the smaller NRSROs [Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations] had built significant market share in the asset-backed securities rating category.” (16) That being said, the report also finds that despite “the notable progress made by smaller NRSROs in gaining market share in some of the ratings classes . . . , economic and regulatory barriers to entry continue to exist in the credit ratings industry, making it difficult for the smaller NRSROs to compete with the larger NRSROs.” (21)

Transparency. The report also notes that “there is a trend of NRSROs issuing unsolicited commentaries on solicited ratings issued by other NRSROs, which has increased the level of transparency within the credit ratings industry. The commentaries highlight differences in opinions and ratings criteria among rating agencies regarding certain structured finance transactions, concerning matters such as the sufficiency of the credit enhancement for the transactions. Such commentaries can serve to enhance investors’ understanding of the ratings criteria and differences in ratings approaches used by the different NRSROs.” (23) The report acknowledges that this is no cure-all for what ails the rating industry, it is a positive development.

Conflicts of Interest.Conflicts of interest have been central to the problems in the ratings industry, and were one of the factors that led to the subprime bubble and then bust of the 2000s.  The report notes that the “potential for conflicts of interest involving an NRSRO may continue to be particularly acute in structured finance products, where issuers are created and operated by a relatively concentrated group of sponsors, underwriters and managers, and rating fees are particularly lucrative.” (25) There is no easy solution to this problem and it is important to carefully study it on an ongoing basis.

The staff report is valuable because it offers an annual overview of structural changes in the ratings industry. This year’s report continues to highlight that the structure of the industry is far from ideal. As the business cycle heats up, it is important to keep an eye on this critical component of the financial system to ensure that rating agencies are not being driven by short term profits for themselves at the expense of long-term systemic stability for the rest of us.

The True Christmas

The True Christmas, Henry Vaughan (1678)

So stick up ivy and the bays,
And then restore the heathen ways.
Green will remind you of the spring,
Though this great day denies the thing.
And mortifies the earth and all
But your wild revels, and loose hall.
Could you wear flowers, and roses strow
Blushing upon your breasts’ warm snow,
That very dress your lightness will
Rebuke, and wither at the ill.
The brightness of this day we owe
Not unto music, masque, nor show:
Nor gallant furniture, nor plate;
But to the manger’s mean estate.
His life while here, as well as birth,
Was but a check to pomp and mirth;
And all man’s greatness you may see
Condemned by His humility.
Then leave your open house and noise,
To welcome Him with holy joys,
And the poor shepherd’s watchfulness:
Whom light and hymns from heaven did bless.
What you abound with, cast abroad
To those that want, and ease your load.
Who empties thus, will bring more in;
But riot is both loss and sin.
Dress finely what comes not in sight,
And then you keep your Christmas right.

Welds on Eminent Domain for Underwater Mortgages

One of the great joys of being a professor is being able to brag about your students’ accomplishments.  Brooklyn Law School just posted this about Leanne Welds on our website:

Leanne Welds ’14 has been awarded the 2014 Brown Award by The Judge John R. Brown Scholarship Foundation for her paper “Giving Local Municipalities the Power to Affect the National Securities Market.” The Brown Award recognizes excellence in legal writing in American law schools. This is the first time a BLS student has taken first place in the national competition, which awards a $10,000 stipend to the winner.

Welds is currently an associate at Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett LLP in its Real Estate Group. As a student, she served as Executive Articles Editor for the Brooklyn Law Review and was the recipient of the Lorraine Power Tharp Scholarship from the New York State Bar Real Property Section. She was a member of the Community Development Clinic taught by Professor David Reiss, and externed with Enterprise Community Partners, an affordable housing firm. She also served as secretary of the Black Law Students Association.

“It is truly gratifying to have my work recognized in this way,” Welds said. “I picked this topic for my Law Review Note because of my combined interests in both the real estate and social justice aspects of the issue, but I never once thought I could be writing an award-winning paper. I am especially thankful to Professor David Reiss for believing in my work and sponsoring me for this competition, as well as both Professor Brian Lee and Professor Reiss for their detailed and thoughtful comments throughout the drafting process.”

Welds’ winning paper evaluates the constitutionality and wisdom of plans by local governments to condemn underwater mortgages without also condemning the land that is attached to the mortgages. These plans are in response to the foreclosure crisis that has hit certain communities particularly hard. If successful, these plans would result in refinanced and smaller mortgages on homes that have seen their values drop dramatically since the start of the financial crisis. The financial industry opposes these plans because they would reduce the face value of the existing mortgages.

“Leanne is a perfect candidate for this prize,” said Professor David Reiss. “Her passion for the law is complemented by an excellent work ethic, good legal judgment, and serious intellectual firepower. Leanne is a rising star of the bar. I have no doubt she will not only be a valuable member of the bar, but that she will also play a leadership role in the community.”

Reiss on Ocwen Settlement

Law360 quoted me in New York’s Ocwen Deal Sets Tough Precedent For Regulators (behind a paywall). It reads in part,

New York regulators ordered Ocwen Financial Corp. to pay $150 million in hard cash and barred the company from claiming a tax deduction on the restitution payments in a mortgage servicing settlement that could set a new standard for regulators accused of being soft on the companies they penalize.

The New York Department of Financial Services’ penalty against Ocwen, which also saw the company’s executive chairman lose his job, comes amid criticism that major penalties against Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and other banks have been too lax. In a move aimed at addressing concerns over companies’ abilities to game the penalties, New York’s settlement specifically says Ocwen will not be able to use some of the techniques banks have used to lessen the blow of earlier settlements.

“They’ve tried to make a very tight settlement that demonstrates that Ocwen is suffering measurable costs for their behavior,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

The New York Department of Financial Services announced Monday that Ocwen, the country’s fourth-largest mortgage servicer, with some $430 billion in unpaid servicing balances, would pay out $150 million in “hard money” to New York homeowners who were victim to the company’s problematic servicing operations. A third of that $150 million would go directly to people who were foreclosed upon, and the remaining $100 million would go to housing-related projects chosen by the state.

But, unlike in previous mortgage-related settlements, Ocwen will not be able to count what are known as “soft dollar” modifications of mortgages they do not own and other techniques toward its settlement total, the DFS said. Banks and other servicers have been able to count such modifications in their total settlement amounts in previous deals, including the $25 billion national mortgage settlement from 2012.

Critics say such soft-dollar remediation has allowed law enforcement agencies, regulators and banks to inflate the amount of money banks and servicers are said to be paying out while limiting the amount of money they actually pay.

“It seems like a transparent settlement,” Reiss said.

*     *     *

“A lot of the problems that people have had with these financial settlements are specifically identified,” Reiss said.

Catalyzing Savings

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has announced a Project Catalyst  Pilot to Promote Regular Saving Behavior Among Prepaid Card Users.The pilot involves an American Express product, a prepaid card with a saving feature.

The CFPB’s research study associated with this pilot will explore two major research questions:
1.  Can certain strategies encourage or support regular consumer saving behavior?
2.  Is saving behavior associated with better outcomes for consumers, particularly for
     low-income and underserved consumers?
Within these broad questions, the research goals for this project are to:

>  Gain insight into consumer saving behavior and identify practices that promote saving behavior among prepaid card users

>  Evaluate the impact of saving on consumer wellbeing among prepaid card users (2)

I have been critical of some of the CFPB’s financial literacy initiatives, but this seems like a good one. What is important about this pilot study is that it is not just evaluating whether consumers respond to the product in the expected way — save more, for instance — but whether it has longer-term and more significant effects. Does it help consumers develop saving habits in other contexts? Do those saving habits lead to better outcomes in housing and consumer credit contexts? These are really important questions. If the pilot study helps to answer them, it will be of great value.

Reiss on Cramming

E-Commerce Times quoted me in Feds Pounce on Sprint for Phone Bill Cramming. It opens,

The United States government is delivering a one-two punch to Sprint over the practice of cramming — allowing third parties to place unauthorized charges on customers’ bills.

The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau on Thursday filed a civil suit against Sprint over the issue.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission reportedly is planning to hit Sprint with a US$105 million fine.

Coordination between the government agencies “is not atypical,” said David Reiss, professor of law at the Brooklyn Law School.

“Frequently federal government agencies coordinate their actions for better results,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

It’s possible that the FCC was negotiating with Sprint prior to the CFPB taking action, suggested Robert Jaworsky, a partner at ReedSmith.

“I doubt the FCC will take any action while this lawsuit is pending,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

The CFPB’s Allegations

Sprint charged wireless customers for unauthorized third-party services from 2004 through 2013, costing them millions of dollars each year, by creating a billing and payment system that provided third parties with unfettered access to its customers’ accounts, according to the CFPB complaint.

Sprint automatically enrolled customers in this billing system without their knowledge or consent, and many customers were unaware of the unauthorized charges, the bureau maintains.

Sprint continued to operate its system despite numerous red flags, including high refund rates, along with complaints from customers, law enforcement agencies and consumer groups, the CFPB claims. The carrier retained 40 percent of the gross revenue collected for the third-party charges, totaling “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Sprint took advantage of its customers, treated them unfairly in various ways, mishandled or ignored complaints about the unauthorized charges, and didn’t track them, said CFPB director Robert Cordray.

Sprint refused to provide refunds to some customers, instead telling them how to block future third-party charges, he added — and sometimes it referred victims back to the scammers themselves.

Life Post-Fannie, Post-Freddie

The Congressional Budget Office has released a report, Transitioning to Alternative Structures for Housing Finance. This report

examines various mechanisms that policymakers could use to attract more private capital to the secondary mortgage market. The report also addresses how those mechanisms could be combined in different ways to help the market make the transition to a new structure during the coming decade. CBO analyzed transition paths to four alternative structures that involve choices about whether the government would continue to guarantee payment on mortgages and MBSs and, if so, what form and prices those guarantees would have. Under those different structures, the government’s activities would range from providing full or partial guarantees for a large share of the mortgage market to playing a minimal role in a largely private market (except perhaps during a financial crisis). Any transition to a new type of secondary market would also require decisions about what to do with the existing operations, guarantee obligations, and investment holdings of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. (1, footnotes omitted)

The report has three key findings:

1.  A transition to a new structure for housing finance that emphasized private capital could reduce costs and risks to taxpayers. One drawback to such a transition is that mortgages could become somewhat less available and more expensive to borrowers. Thus, over the longer term, it could also result in a modest shift of the economy’s resources away from housing toward other activities.
2.  Although the transition to a new structure could significantly decrease the number of borrowers who received mortgages backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, additional private capital would replace most of the lost funding. Borrowers would probably not face significant increases in interest rates because the two GSEs’ current pricing is not too far below market pricing. Consequently, a gradual transition would probably exert only modest downward pressure on house prices.
3.  Because policymakers have already raised the guarantee fees charged by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac close to those that CBO estimates would be charged by private insurers, the budgetary costs of the two GSEs’ activities over the next 10 years are expected to be small. As a result, the budgetary savings would also be small under any of the transition paths to a more private system that CBO considered. Thus, the choice between the different market structures probably rests primarily on considerations other than budgetary costs. (2)
I have been a long-time advocate for attracting more private capital to the secondary mortgage market, so I welcome this report. Given the public statements of the Obama Administration and the composition of the new Congress, there appears to be an opportunity to move in that direction. A bipartisan reform plan for the housing finance system will need to provide for a lender of last resort; appropriate consumer protection; and assistance for households that are underserved by the private market. There seems to be bipartisan will to reform this system, so we just need to chart a way to achieve it. This report leads us down the right path.