December 1, 2014

Home Equity Insurance: Only Good in Theory?

By David Reiss

Smith and Harper have posted Home Equity Insurance & The Demise of Home Value Insurance Corporation to SSRN.  The abstract reads,

This study uses the demise of the Home Value Insurance Company (HVIC) to explore whether the concept of home equity insurance is implementable. Shiller, R. and Weiss, A. (1999) and Goetzmann, W., Caplin, A., Hangen, E., Nalebuff, B., Prentce, E., Rodkin, J., Spiegel, M. and Skinner, T. (2003) have provided a platform to evaluate this concept by questioning whether a product that allows homeowners to transfer the risk associated with a decline in housing prices should be structured as insurance. This study explores the cost associated, in the U.S. Real Estate Market, with this risk transfer process in the pre- and post-mortgage crisis periods by simulating the cost of insurance using the theoretical pricing of ATM (at the money) put options based upon the Black Scholes Option Pricing Model from 1989 to 2013. As the U.S. Housing Market transitioned from the pre-crisis to the post-crisis periods the hypothetical breakeven cost of insurance increased from 0.60% to 20.85% of the starting value of the index. The demise of HVIC seems to be a cautionary tale: Given the recent changes in the underlying dynamics of the U.S. Real Estate Market it does not seem prudent (for insurers) to use insurance contracts to transfer the risk associated with a decline in the value of U.S. Residential Equity Wealth.

This is all a bit technical, but basically it is an investigation of a clever idea that did not seem to pan out. Robert Shiller and others proposed that home owners could insure against a decrease in the value of their home.  But a company based on that proposal failed in its first year of operation. The article finds that the cost of such insurance would be unsustainable. I am not sure that this article definitively demonstrates that this concept is impossible to implement, but it certainly raises a lot of questions that would need to be answered if someone were to want to give it another go.

December 1, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

November 28, 2014

Accurately Measuring Mortgage Availability

By David Reiss

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has posted a research report, Measuring Mortgage Credit Availability Using Ex-Ante Probability of Default. This report tackles an important subject:

How to strike a balance between credit availability and risk to achieve a sustainable housing market is a much-debated topic today, but these discussions are not grounded in good measurements of credit availability and risk. We address this problem below with a new index that measures credit availability and risk simultaneously

The first section of the paper discusses the limitations of the existing measures. The second section describes our development of the new index, which distills borrower credit profiles, loan products and terms, and macro economic conditions into a measurement of the weighted average probability of default for mortgages originated at a given time. The third section illustrates the value of this measure by empirically exploring the varying risk appetites of the market as a whole, and of market segments, which directly aids evidence-based policymaking on how to open the tight credit box. The final section discusses the limitations of this new index. (1)
The report concludes,
Measuring a concept as complicated and varied as credit access is no easy task. Yet this is an important time to ensure that it is being measured accurately. As we seek to reform the housing finance system, Congress, the housing finance industry, advocacy groups, policymakers, and even the general public need to clearly understand how well the market is providing access to mortgage credit for borrowers. (18)
I say amen to that. There is a slim chance that housing finance reform may be back on the table in Washington, given the midterm election results. We need as much good data we can get in order to structure a system based on solid principles rather than on the views of special interests that typically dominate this debate.
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November 28, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

November 27, 2014

Just Now, Happy Thanksgiving

By David Reiss

Just Now

In the morning as the storm begins to blow away
the clear sky appears for a moment and it seems to me
that there has been something simpler than I could ever
believe
simpler than I could have begun to find words for
not patient not even waiting no more hidden
than the air itself that became part of me for a while
with every breath and remained with me unnoticed
something that was here unnamed unknown in the days
and the nights not separate from them
not separate from them as they came and were gone
it must have been here neither early nor late then
by what name can I address it now holding out my thanks

by W.S. Merwin from The Pupil

November 27, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

November 26, 2014

Manufacturing Jobs in NYC

By David Reiss

The New York City Council released a report, Engines of Opportunity: Reinvigorating New York City’s Manufacturing Zones for the 21st Century. I am always worried that discussions of increasing manufacturing jobs, especially in a city as expensive as New York, are informed by a romantic vision of a past that cannot be recaptured. This report seems to be aware of that trap. It focuses on marginal improvements that can be made to support the kind of manufacturing and creative economy jobs that can survive the brutal competition for space and skilled employees that New York companies have to deal with.

The report makes three land use policy recommendations:

1) Industrial Employment District – A zoning district which provides the space for those industries which are critical to the economic well-being of thousands of New Yorkers and the health of the overall economy. In places where a concentration of  manufacturing/ industrial activity exists — in many of the existing “Industrial Business Zones” for instance — a re-writing of the use regulations to focus on the protection and growth of these industries is essential, as is allowing for additional density to create the option for more space for new and existing firms to expand. Combined with strategic incentives and targeted enforcement, these districts will provide a stable regulatory framework for investment.
2) Creative Economy District –A dynamic new combination of industrial space and commercial office space. These creative economy districts would no longer be hindered by competition with incompatible uses like mini-storage or nightlife or blocked-out by unproductive warehousing of property in hope of future residential rezoning. With the additional density, property owners would gain much more lucrative development opportunities than under the current zoning while growing the City’s employment base. Robust workforce development strategies will need to be implemented in tandem with these new districts to ensure a wide variety of New Yorkers will have access to these new jobs.
3) A Real Mixed Use District–Mixed-use industrial-residential-commercial neighborhoods like parts of SoHo or Long Island City or Williamsburg or the Gowanus have a unique dynamism that has made them tremendously desirable. Other cities are increasingly trying to emulate the dynamic synergy of these mixed-use neighborhoods. The creation of the “MX” zone acknowledged the value of mixed-use neighborhoods and tried to find a solution that could increase the residential capacity while maintaining their dynamism. Unfortunately because MX allows but does not require a mixture of uses, the economics of real estate have lead residential development to dominate and displace other uses. A zone which supports and requires the creation of commercial and compatible industrial space alongside residential would create dynamic new neighborhoods instead of just residential development. (5)
The big problem with this (and similar reports) is that it does not directly address the opportunity cost of such proposals.  What are we giving up when we create these new zoning districts? For one thing, we make less land available for residential uses, which tend to crowd out other uses because of the immense demand for housing in New York City right now.
More generally, how do we properly balance the various needs of the City in our overall zoning plan?  There is no right answer to such questions, but they should be asked and proposals like this should put their answers on the table for others to consider.

November 26, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

November 25, 2014

Housing Finance Reform at a Glance

By David Reiss

The Urban Institute has posted its November Housing Finance At A Glance.  This is a really valuable resource. The introduction provides a nice overview of recent developments in the area:

With a sweeping midterm election victory for the GOP, the path to legislative GSE reform got considerably narrower. Thus, the focus for reform turns to the FHFA and FHA, where we expect significant movement in the coming months. Over the past six months, the FHFA has asked for input on a variety of issues, and we have commented on them all: guarantee fees and loan level pricing adjustments, Private Mortgage Insurance Eligibility requirements (PMIERs), the single security, and affordable housing goals.
The FHFA has made a concerted effort to open the credit box, strengthening the provision by which lenders are relieved from much of their put-back risk and raising the maximum loan-to-value ratio for some GSE loans from 95 to 97. Both will help expand access without unduly increasing GSE risk. FHFA Director Mel Watt has indicated in recent speeches that work is underway to further clarify reps and warrants, with more guidance on the sunset provision, an independent resolution process for put-back disputes, and remedies short of a put-back for lesser mistakes.
As our new credit availability index indicates, these actions to open the credit box are very important. Our index shows that post-crisis loans have half the credit risk of loans made in the 2000-2003 period. The GSE channel is particularly tight, with about a third of the risk of the 2000-2003 period. This is corroborated by the data in our special feature, which shows that only 8.3 percent of recent Fannie loans (page 34) and 7.4 percent of recent Freddie loans (page 36) have FICOs under 700, compared to 35-37 percent in 1999-2004.
On the FHA side, there have also been initiatives to open the credit box, as outlined in the Blueprint for Access program. Since then, the FHA has released the initial critical draft chapters of their guidebook and a draft of the taxonomy of defects. Many hope to see lower mortgage insurance premiums to broaden access and lessen the risk of adverse selection as better credit flees to the less costly GSEs. Given that their actuary now projects that the FHA’s Mutual Mortgage Insurance Fund will not reach the statutory reserve requirements until 2016, however, such a move is far from certain.
Risk Sharing Developments
The GSEs continue to broaden their risk sharing activities, now turning to front-end risk sharing deals. Prior to this month, they had focused exclusively, and with much success, on laying off risk already on their books, known as back-end risk sharing. Fannie has laid off risk on 7.5 percent of their book of business and Freddie on 11.9 percent of theirs (page 21), both far exceeding the requirements of the Conservatorship Scorecard. The GSEs started including mortgages over 80 LTV in these transactions in May.
This month saw a very meaningful step in bringing private capital back into the mortgage market: the first front-end risk sharing deal, JPMorgan’s Madison Avenue Securities 2014-1 (page 21). JP Morgan warehoused loans made by JP Morgan Chase bank, then sold them in bulk into a newly issued Fannie Mae MBS, presumably for a very meaningful reduction in guarantee fees. JP Morgan retained the first 4.75 percent subordinated interest, and a 26.88 bps servicing strip that absorbs losses before the subordinated interest. The risk on the 4.75 percent subordinated interest was sold in the capital markets in the form of credit linked notes. Redwood Trust is also reported to be contemplating a front-end risk sharing transaction.
Front-end risk sharing bears important similarities to the private capital/catastrophic insurance structure contemplated by many GSE reform proposals. It is thus an administrative opportunity to experiment deliberately with a truly reduced government footprint in the conventional mortgage market. (3)
I am very excited by the possibility of putting private capital in a first loss position for residential mortgages and agree with UI that the stars are aligning, at least a little bit, for this to become a reality. Many interests will need to be balanced for this to move forward, but politicians of all stripes should be worried about leaving Fannie and Freddie in limbo for much longer.

November 25, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

November 24, 2014

Reiss on Avoiding War

By David Reiss

MaintStreet quoted me in How to Avoid War Between Homeowner Associations and Residents. It reads in part,

When Robert Stern moved into the Sedgefield retirement community in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C. four years ago, all he could see was four golf courses, a pool and club house on multiple wooded acres.

“Our home is on the 14th hole of Lion’s Paw golf course where there is beautiful water lining the green,” Stern told MainStreet. “It is common to see egrets, herons, geese, turtles and other wildlife coming in and out of the area.”

But lurking under the beautiful scenery was the Homeowners Association, which Stern discovered when he left for six months to live in his Nevada retirement home. Stern is among the 63 million Americans living in communities across the country under the jurisdiction of an HOA, according to the Community Association Institute.

“Our property was being neglected and is currently a mess and the dysfunctional Sedgefield Committee won’t take responsibility for not having performed contractual compliance inspections,” said Stern.

“An HOA is a double edged sword,” said David Reiss, professor of real estate with the Brooklyn Law School. “HOAs allow residents to have a lot of sway over their environments but they also make decisions that individual residents don’t like. If you don’t agree with the decision, whether it be over a big or small issue, it can grate no matter what the decision is.”

How to Resolve Disputes

Resolving a dispute with an HOA can involve litigation or joining the club.

“When it comes to the tyranny of the board, we have met the enemy and it is us,” Reiss told MainStreet. “A very effective technique to contest a decision with which you disagree is to run for the board.”

Under most HOAs, boards are elected by residents.

“Those who are willing to do the work end up calling the shots,” Reiss said.

November 24, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

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