September 19, 2014

Performance-Based Consumer Law

By David Reiss

Lauren Willis has posted Performance-Based Consumer Law to SSRN. This article

makes the case for recognizing performance-based regulation as a distinct tool in the consumer-law regulatory toolbox and for employing this tool broadly. Performance-based consumer law has the potential to incentivize firms to educate rather than obfuscate, develop simple and intuitive product designs that align with rather than defy consumer expectations, and channel consumers to products that are suitable for the consumers’ circumstances. Moreover, the process of establishing performance standards would sharpen our understanding of our goals for consumer law, and the process of testing for compliance with those standards would produce data about how to meet those goals in a continually evolving marketplace. Even if performance-based regulation does not directly lead to dramatic gains in consumer comprehension or marked declines in unsuitable uses of consumer products, the process of establishing and implementing such regulation promises dividends for improving traditional forms of regulation. (1)
This seems like a pretty radical change from our current approaches to the regulation of consumer financial transactions. Willis argues that disclosure does not work (no argument there) and industry can easily circumvent bright line rules (no argument there). She claims that a suitability regime, like ones that exist in the brokerage industry, offer a superior alternatives.  She writes,
Suitability standards would be closer to traditional substantive regulation, but more flexible. Regulation might define suitable (or unsuitable) uses of types or features of products, or firms might define suitable uses of their products, provided that they did so publicly. Although suitability might be required of every transaction, testing every transaction for suitably would often be prohibitively expensive and ad hoc ex post enforcement would create only limited incentives for firm compliance. Better to set performance benchmarks for what proportion of the firm’s customers must use the products or features suitably (or not unsuitably) and use field-based testing of a sample of the firm’s customers to assess whether the benchmarks are met. Enforcement levers could include, e.g., fines, rewards, licensing consequences, regulator scrutiny, or unfair, deceptive, or abusive conduct liability. (4)
This is certainly intriguing. But just as certainly, one can see the consumer finance industry raising concerns about a lack of clear rules to guide their actions and the after-the-fact evaluations that this approach would subject them to. Willis is too quick to reject such concerns, but they are legitimate ones that would need to be addressed if performance-based consumer law was to be widely adopted. Nonetheless, this is an intriguing paper and its implications should be further explored.

September 19, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

September 18, 2014

Frannie Reps and Warranties Crisis Brewing

By David Reiss

The Inspector General of the Federal Housing Finance Agency released an audit, FHFA’s Representation and Warranty Framework. Reps and warranties are a risk-shifting device that sophisticated commercial parties use in transactions. If a party makes a representation or warranty that turns out to be false, they other party may have some remedy — maybe the ability to return something or to get some kind of payment to make up for the failure to live up to the promise.

For instance, a lender may sell a bunch of mortgages to a securitizer and represent that all of the borrowers have FICO (credit) scores of 620 or higher. If it turns out that some of the borrowers had scores of less than 620, the securitizer may be able to make the lender buy back those mortgages pursuant to a rep and warranty clause. The IG undertook this audit because of recent changes to the reps and warranties framework for Fannie and Freddie. Before these changes were implemented,

the Enterprises’ risk management model primarily relied on reviewing loans for underwriting deficiencies after they defaulted as the representations and warranties were effective for the life of the loans. In contrast, the new framework transfers responsibility to the Enterprises to review loans upfront for eligible representation and warranty deficiencies that may trigger repurchase requests. If the Enterprises fail to do so within the applicable period, their ability to pursue a repurchase request expires if it is based upon a representation and warranty that qualifies for repurchase relief. (2)

The IG’s findings are disturbing. It “found that FHFA mandated a new framework despite significant unresolved operational risks to the Enterprises.” (3) It also found that

FHFA mandated a 36-month sunset period for representation and warranty relief without validating the Enterprises’ analysis or performing sufficient additional analysis to determine whether financial risks were appropriately balanced between the Enterprises and sellers. Freddie Mac, in contrast to Fannie Mae which provided analysis limited to a 36-month period, provided FHFA with the results of an internal analysis of loans that indicated loans with a 48-month clean payment history were significantly less likely to exhibit repurchaseable defects than loans with a 36-month clean payment history. Thus, losses to the Enterprise could be less with a longer sunset period. Therefore, FHFA cannot support that the sunset period selected does not unduly benefit sellers at the Enterprises’ expense. (3)

This is all very technical stuff, obviously. But it is of great significance. Basically, the IG is warning that the FHFA has not properly evaluated the credit risk posed by changes to the agreements that Fannie and Freddie enter into with the lenders who convey mortgages to them. It also implies that this new framework “unduly” benefits the lenders.

The FHFA’s response is unsettling — it effectively rejects the IG’s concern without providing a reasoned basis for doing so. Its express rationale for doing so is to avoid “adverse market effects” and because addressing the IG’s concern “may not align with the FHFA objective of increased lending to consumes . . ..” (32)

Whenever federal regulators place increased lending as a priority over safety and soundness, warning bells should start ringing. Crises at Fannie and Freddie (and the FHA, for that matter) begin with this kind of thinking. Increased lending may be important today, but it should not be done at the expense of safety and soundness tomorrow. We are too close to our last housing finance crisis to forget that lesson.

September 18, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

September 17, 2014

Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling Works

By David Reiss

The Urban Institute published a study, National Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling Program Evaluation Final Report, Rounds 3 Through 5, that it prepared for NeighborWorks® America. The executive summary notes that

The National Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling (NFMC) program is a special federal appropriation, administered by NeighborWorks® America (NeighborWorks), designed to support a rapid expansion of foreclosure intervention counseling in response to the nationwide foreclosure crisis. The NFMC program seeks to help homeowners facing foreclosure by providing them with much-needed foreclosure prevention and loss mitigation counseling. The objective of the counseling services provided to clients is to determine the most appropriate solution, given a client’s circumstances and aid them in obtaining this solution. NeighborWorks distributes funds to competitively selected Grantee organizations, which in turn provide counseling, either directly or through Subgrantee organizations. (v)

The Urban Institute found that households counseled through NFMC were nearly 3 times more likely to have received a loan modification than non-counseled households. The authors estimate that “nearly two-thirds of the 151,000 loan modifications that NFMC clients received after entry into counseling would not have happened at all without the assistance of their counselor.” (vii)

On the one hand, these are very significant results and seem to validate this approach to foreclosure mitigation counseling. On the other hand, there is a lot of literature that calls into question the efficacy of various forms of financial counseling. It is important that this study be peer reviewed to ensure that its methods and conclusions are valid. If it holds up, it is equally important that we determine why this approach is so much more effective than many others.

September 17, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

September 16, 2014

Gimme More Mortgage Data!

By David Reiss

People are always talking about the value of data about web browsing habits. They don’t talk nearly enough about the value of data about mortgage shopping habits. Regulators and researchers do not know nearly enough about how borrowers and lenders interact in the mortgage business — and the stakes are high, given that a home is often the biggest investment that a household ever makes. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is seeking to make some modest improvements to the federal government’s existing data collection pursuant to the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) through a proposed rule.

Under this proposed rule,

financial institutions generally would be required to report all closed-end loans, open-end lines of credit, and reverse mortgages secured by dwellings. Unsecured home improvement loans would no longer be reported. Thus, financial institutions would no longer be required to ascertain an applicant’s intended purpose for a dwelling-secured loan to determine if the loan is required to be reported under Regulation C, though they would still itemize dwelling-secured loans by different purpose when reporting. Certain types of loans would continue to be excluded from Regulation C requirements, including loans on unimproved land and temporary financing. Reverse mortgages and open-end lines of credit would be identified as such to allow for differentiation from other loan types. Further, many of the data points would be modified to take account of the characteristics of, and to clarify reporting requirements for,different types of loans. The Bureau believes these proposals will yield more consistent and useful data and better align Regulation C with the current housing finance market. (79 F.R. 51733)
This seems like a reasonable proposal. It increases the amount of information that is to be collected about important consumer products such as reverse mortgages.  At the same time, it releases lenders from having to determine borrowers’ intentions about how they will use their loan proceeds, something that can be hard to do and to document well.
There is more to the proposed rule than this, so take a look at it and consider commenting on it. Comments are due by October 29, 2014.

September 16, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

September 15, 2014

Housing Goals and Housing Finance Reform

By David Reiss

The Federal Housing Finance Agency issued a proposed rule that would establish housing goals for Fannie and Freddie for the next three years. The Federal Housing Enterprises Financial Safety and Soundness Act of 1992 required that Fannie and Freddie’s regulator set annual housing goals to ensure that a certain proportion of the companies’ mortgage purchases serve low-income households and underserved areas. Among other things, the proposed rule would “establish a new housing subgoal for small multifamily properties affordable to low-income families,” a subject that happens to be near and dear to my heart.(54482)

This “duty to serve” is very controversial, at the heart of the debate over housing finance reform. Many Democrats oppose housing finance reform without it and many Republicans oppose reform with it. Indeed, it was one of the issues that stopped the Johnson-Crapo reform bill dead in its tracks.

While this proposed rule is not momentous by any stretch of the imagination, it is worth noting that the FHFA, for all intents and purposes, seems to be the only party in the Capital that is moving housing finance reform forward in any way.

Once again, we should note that doing nothing is not the same as leaving everything the same. As Congress fails to strike an agreement on reform and Fannie and Freddie continue to limp along in their conservatorships, regulators and market participants will, by default, be designing the housing finance system of the 21st century. That is not how it should be done.

Comments are due by October 28, 2014.

September 15, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

September 12, 2014

Reiss on Housing Finance Reform

By David Reiss

Inside MBS and ABS, the trade journal, quoted me in DeMarco Cites ‘Structural Improvements’ in Housing Six Years After GSE Conservatorship, More Needed (behind a paywall). It reads,

Six years after the government takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the former regulator of the government-sponsored enterprises noted that the housing finance system has made “significant progress.” But even as critical structural changes are underway, comprehensive improvement is still several years out.

In a policy paper issued last week, Edward DeMarco–new senior fellow-in-residence for the Milken Institute’s Center for Financial Markets–said that house prices, as measured by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, have recovered more than 50 percent since their decline in 2007.

“While the damage from the housing crisis has been substantial, we are finally seeing a sustained market recovery,” said the former FHFA chief. “The crisis showed that numerous structural improvements were needed in housing–and such improvements have been underway for several years.”

Poor data, misuse of specialty mortgage products, lagging technologies, weak servicing standards and an inadequate securitization infrastructure became evident during the crisis.

“New data standards have emerged…with more on the way,” wrote DeMarco. “These standards should improve risk management while lowering origination costs and barriers to entry.” Development of the new securitization structure, begun more than two years ago, “should be a cornerstone for the future secondary mortgage market,” he added.

DeMarco said the major housing finance reform bills in the House and Senate share key similarities: “winding down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, building a common securitization infrastructure and drawing private capital back into the marketplace while reducing taxpayer involvement.”

DeMarco added, “We should build on these similarities, making them the cornerstone features of final legislation.” Prolonging the GSEs’ conservatorship, he warned, “will continue to distort the market and place taxpayers at risk.”

David Reiss, research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at the Brooklyn Law School, lauded the common securitization project. But Reiss worried the former FHFA head is too optimistic about the state of Fannie and Freddie.

“The GSEs have been in a state of limbo for far too long,” said Reiss. “All sorts of operational risks may be cropping up in the entities as employees sit around or walk out the door waiting for Congress to act.”

September 12, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

September 11, 2014

Reiss on the $1M Parking Spot

By David Reiss

Law360 quoted me in NYC’s $1M Parking Spot Shows Appetite For Luxury (behind a paywall).It opens,

Atlas Capital Group LLC caused a buzz Wednesday with its listing of a parking space in a condominium building in SoHo for $1 million, more per square foot than the homes above it, but experts say in the context of a burgeoning luxury market such a price may just be the beginning.

That price for a 99-year license that allows the condominium resident to use the parking space — even one in its own condominium unit and tax lot — may sound wild, but experts say much of the attention this property has gotten may be a bit overblown, especially considering the level to which many are willing to go for comfort and convenience in New York City.

“It’s not really about $1 million for a parking space,” said Bruce Bronster of Windels Marx Lane & Mittendorf LLP. “If you were just going to condo a parking space, you couldn’t get $1 million for it. It has to do with having an amenity on a very expensive apartment.”

There aren’t many places to park in SoHo, making a convenient parking spot a hot commodity, but experts say the bigger message is that New York City’s luxury residential market is hotter than ever, creating new opportunities for developers to differentiate themselves with the right amenities.

The development is at 42 Crosby Street, near Broome Street, where Atlas Capital Group is turning what used to be a parking lot itself into a condominium building with three-bedroom units ranging from $8.7 million to $10.45 million, according to information gathered by The New York Times.

The eye-popping element comes when one looks at the price per square foot. Some of the parking spots — there are actually 10 being built under the condominiums — are expected to be up to 200 square feet, but they will reportedly all cost between $5,000 and $6,666 per square foot. The condominiums, on the other hand, are only going for about $3,150 per square foot.

But experts say this isn’t too surprising, considering the demand for luxury housing and amenities that has skyrocketed in recent years.

Prices for luxury residential properties have risen to pre-recession levels and surpassed them in some cases, with a few record-breaking penthouse deals passing the $90 million mark thanks to flush foreign investors.

More than anything, experts say, the $1 million parking spots are a way for Atlas Capital Group to distinguish 42 Crosby from other apartment buildings and draw in those investors willing to pay top dollar.

“The million-dollar spots do highlight how developers have seriously monetized amenity spaces,” said David Reiss, a real estate professor at Brooklyn Law School. “In all likelihood, the prices for amenities like parking spaces will follow the same trend line as those for the apartments to which they are attached.”

And it’s not just parking spaces; Reiss said he has seen similar setups with amenities such as storage facilities and rooftop cabanas commanding top dollar.

September 11, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments