Judge Gorsuch v. Uncle Sam

The Hill published my latest column, Where Does Judge Gorsuch Stand on Limiting the Federal Government? It opens,

This week, all eyes are on Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing for a seat on the Supreme Court. While Gorsuch has not explicitly stated that he wants to drown or deconstruct the federal government, there is troubling language in his opinions that indicates that he shares that goal. While this will hearten many a Tea Partyer, moderate Republicans along with Democrats should be wary of someone who does not value the good that the federal government can and does do.

His opinion in Caring Hearts Personal Home Services v. Burwell describes a federal government that has ceased to function rationally: “The number of formal rules [administrative] agencies have issued thanks to their delegated legislative authority has grown so exuberantly it’s hard to keep up. The Code of Federal Regulations now clocks in at over 175,000 pages. And no one seems sure how many more hundreds of thousands (or maybe millions) of pages of less formal or ‘sub-regulatory’ policy manuals, directives, and the like might be found floating around these days.”

You can read the rest of it here.

The Economic Implications of the Housing Supply

Ed Glaeser and Joe Gyourko posted The Economic Implications of the Housing Supply which is forthcoming in The Journal of Economic Perspectives. In it, they

review the basic economics of housing supply and the functioning of U.S. housing markets to better understand the impacts on home prices, household wealth and the spatial distribution of people across markets. Section II documents the state of housing affordability in the U.S., and begins with three core facts about housing supply. First, when building is unrestricted by regulation or geography, housing supply curves seem relatively flat, meaning that we can approximate reality by referring to a single production cost. Second, both geography and regulation severely restrict the ease of building in some parts of the country. These constraints raise building costs both directly, by increasing time delays and reducing the amount of available land, and indirectly, by ensuring the homes are produced more on a one-by-one basis rather than in bulk. Third, the supply of housing is kinked and vertical downwards because housing is durable. (2, citation omitted)

These are themes that Glaeser and Gyourko have touched on before, but this essay does a service by updating them ten years after the financial crisis.

Glaeser and Gyourko have consistently hit on some important points that can garner attention at the national level , but there has been no real action on them as of yet:

  • where supply is regulated, housing costs more;
  • heavy land use regulation in places like NYC and SF reduces the nation’s overall economic output; and
  • existing homeowners tend to oppose new projects, which is consistent with their financial self-interest.

Glaeser and Gyourko do not give up hope that policymakers can craft solutions that deal with the political economy of housing construction. One first step would be to develop a toolkit of carrots and sticks that can be employed at the national and state level to incentivize local governments to take actions that are in the interest of their broader communities and the nation as a whole.

We know we need more housing in highly productive regions. We just need to figure out how to build it.

United States v. CFPB

photo by AgnosticPreachersKid

United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse

The Trump Administration has filed an amicus brief in PHH Corp. v. CFPB. The case is schedule for an en banc hearing in May. The filing is particularly newsworthy because the Trump Administration is siding with PHH, a mortgage lender, against the CFPB, a federal agency. The Trump Administration summarizes its position as follows:

In 2010, Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) as part of the Dodd-Frank Act, giving the CFPB authority to enforce U.S. consumer-protection laws that had previously been administered by seven different government agencies, as well as new provisions added by Dodd-Frank itself. See 12 U.S.C. § 5581(b). The CFPB is headed by a single Director who is appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, for a term of five years, id. § 5491(b), (c)(1), and who may be removed by the President only for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office,” id. § 5491(c)(3).

The panel in this case held that this “for cause” removal provision violates the constitutional separation of powers. Op. 9-10. The panel explained—and neither party disputes—that, as a general matter, the President has “Article II authority to supervise, direct, and remove at will subordinate [principal] officers in the Executive Branch” in order to exercise his vested power and duty to faithfully execute the laws. Op. 4. The panel recognized as well that Humphrey’s Executor v. United States, 295 U.S. 602, 629 (1935), established an exception to that rule, holding that Congress may “forbid [the] removal except for cause” of members of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—a holding that has been understood to cover members of other multi-member regulatory commissions that share certain features and functions with the FTC. Op. 4.

The principal constitutional question in this case is whether the exception to the President’s removal authority recognized in Humphrey’s Executor should be extended by this Court beyond multi-member regulatory commissions to an agency headed by a single Director. While we do not agree with all of the reasoning in the panel’s opinion, the United States agrees with the panel’s conclusion that single-headed agencies are meaningfully different from the type of multi-member regulatory commission addressed in Humphrey’s Executor.

The Supreme Court’s analysis in Humphrey’s Executor was premised on the nature of the FTC as a continuing deliberative body, composed of several members with staggered terms to maintain institutional expertise and promote a measure of stability that would not be immediately undermined by political vicissitudes. A single-headed agency, of course, lacks those critical structural attributes that have been thought to justify “independent” status for multi-member regulatory commissions. Moreover, because a single agency head is unchecked by the constraints of group decision-making among members appointed by different Presidents, there is a greater risk that an “independent” agency headed by a single person will engage in extreme departures from the President’s executive policy. And as the panel recognized, while multi-member regulatory commissions sharing the characteristics of the FTC discussed in Humphrey’s Executor have existed for over a century, limitations on the President’s authority to remove a single agency head are a recent development to which the Executive Branch has consistently objected.

We therefore urge the Court to decline to extend the exception recognized in Humphrey’s Executor in this case. (1-2)

This is of course an obscure argument about administrative law jurisprudence, but it also has serious real world consequences. I have previously argued that the panel reached the wrong result in this case and I think that the en banc Court will overturn it.

This amicus brief does not add too much to the reasoning in Judge Kavanaugh’s majority opinion in PHH v. CFPB, although it does flesh out one important argument that it made. The brief provides some support for the position that multi-member commissions are better suited to run independent agencies than single directors. But while it makes the case that single director agencies may not be the best choice for agency design, it does not make the case that it is an unconstitutional one.

 

Can Downpayment Assistance Work?

The HUD Inspector General issued a report on FHA-Insured Loan with Borrower-Financed Downpayment Assistance. Downpayment assistance has a long history of failure, a history that has led to big losses for the FHA and foreclosures for borrowers. The IG audited HUD’s oversight of FHA-insured loans that were originated with downpayment assistance. The Inspector General had already determined that “lenders allowed FHA borrowers to finance their own downpayments through an increase in their mortgage interest rate as part of programs administered through housing finance agencies.” (1)

The IG found that HUD

failed to adequately oversee more than $16.1 billion in FHA loans that may have been originated with borrower-financed downpayment assistance to ensure compliance with HUD requirements, putting the FHA Mortgage Insurance Fund at unnecessary risk. Between October 1, 2015 and September 30, 2016, HUD guaranteed nearly $12.9 billion in FHA loans that may contain questioned assistance. While governmental entities are not prohibited sources of downpayment assistance, the assistance provided through these programs did not comply with HUD requirements. FHA borrowers were required to obtain a premium interest rate and, therefore, repaid the assistance through higher mortgage payments and fees. Despite the prohibition against similar seller-funded programs, HUD’s requirements appeared to have enabled the growth of these questioned programs. In addition, HUD did not adequately track these loans and review the funding structure of these programs. Despite concerns raised by OIG, HUD failed to protect FHA borrowers against the higher mortgage payments and higher fees imposed on them, which increased the risks to the FHA Insurance Fund in the event of default. (1)

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has criticized the IG’s report on methodological grounds. I will defer to the Urban Institute’s critique because they have done a lot of work in this area.

But I do think that the IG is right to pay careful attention to downpayment assistance programs. Historically, they have proven too good to be true. One of the FHA’s biggest failures resulted from the downpayment assistance program that was set forth in the American Dream Downpayment Assistance Act of 2003.

The IG recommends that HUD

(1) reconsider its position on questioned borrower-financed downpayment assistance programs,

(2) develop and implement policies and procedures to review loans with downpayment assistance,

(3) develop requirements for lenders to review downpayment assistance programs,

(4) require lenders to obtain a borrower certification that details borrower participation,

(5) ensure that lenders enter all downpayment assistance data into FHA Connection, and

(6) implement data fields where lenders would be required to enter specific downpayment assistance information. (1)

The IG’s procedural recommendations all seem reasonable enough, whether you agree or disagree with the folks at the Urban Institute.

 

Trump, Homelessness and the General Welfare

photo by Jay Black

The Hill published my column, Trump’s Budget Proposal Is Bad News for Housing Across the Nation. It opens,

The White House unveiled its much anticipated budget proposal today. It shows deep cuts to important agencies, including a more than $6 billion decrease in funding to the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). More than 75 percent of the agency’s budget goes to helping families pay their rent. Thus, these cuts would have a negative impact on thousands upon thousands of poor and working class households.

Many years ago, Congress enshrined the “goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family” within its Declaration of National Housing Policy. This goal was not just justified by the basic needs of those with inadequate housing, but also because “the general welfare and security of the nation” required it. As our nation’s leading cities grapple with rapidly growing homeless populations, this additional justification takes on added weight today.

Click here to read the rest of it.

Fannie and Freddie’s Credit Risk Transfers

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has released its February 2017 Housing Finance at a Glance Chartbook, always a great resource for housing geeks. Each Chartbook highlights one topic. This one focuses on GSE credit risk transfers, an important but technical subject:

The GSE’s credit risk transfer (CRT) program is growing and tapping into a more diverse investor base, reducing the costs of CRTs and improving liquidity in this market. At the same time, the continued reliance on back-end transactions is cause for concern
.
Freddie Mac‘s first two capital markets CRT transactions of 2017 have been different from previous Structured Agency Credit Risk (STACR) transactions in one important way. Unlike the pre-2017 deals, in which the first loss piece (Tranche B) was 100 basis points thick, the first loss piece (Tranche B2) in the latest transactions is only 50 basis points thick while second loss piece (B1) is also 50 basis points thick. Splitting the old B tranche more granularly in this manner is a noteworthy development for a few reasons.
Although this is hardly the first improvement the GSEs have made to their back-end CRT execution, it is an important one. Splitting the offering into more granular risk buckets will force investors to price the tranches more accurately, thus facilitating more precise price discovery of credit risk. More granular tranching will also help increase the demand for STACR securities. Investors who were previously willing, but unable to invest in the B tranche because investment guidelines prohibited them from taking first loss credit risk will now instead be able to invest in the second loss B1 tranche, which offers a higher expected returns than the previous second loss tranche (M2). Growing and diversifying the investor base is important because it makes the bidding process more efficient and minimizes the cost of risk transfer for Freddie Mac and the taxpayer. A larger, more diverse investor base also bodes well for the liquidity of the CRT market, which is still in its infancy.
Clearly, these innovations are important steps towards improving the efficiency of back-end CRT. But at the same time, they must be viewed in the context of the broader objectives of credit risk transfer and housing finance reform which have near unanimous support: reducing taxpayer risk, passing the benefits of CRT on to borrowers, facilitating broad availability of credit through the economic cycle, ensuring adequate access for lenders of all sizes, and promoting a variety of CRT executions, including at the front end to facilitate an understanding of which programs are most favorable under which circumstances.
Although the GSEs have experimented with front end mechanisms like lender recourse and deeper MI, these transactions have been few and far between, and with very little transparency about pricing and other terms. But more importantly, the GSEs’ continued and significant reliance on back-end capital markets transactions doesn’t put us on a path towards achieving some of the program objectives outlined above. This matters because it signals that the GSEs’ current strategy for credit risk transfer, which revolves largely around the success of back-end transactions, may ultimately keep the program from realizing its full potential. (5)
 So, all in all Fannie and Freddie are taking a step in the right direction, but it is just a small step on the road to housing finance reform.