REFinBlog

Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

March 6, 2018

Mortgage Insurers and The Next Housing Crisis

By David Reiss

photo by Jeff Turner

The Inspector General of the Federal Housing Finance Agency has released a white paper on Enterprise Counterparties: Mortgage Insurers. The Executive Summary reads,

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises) operate under congressional charters to provide liquidity, stability, and affordability to the mortgage market. Those charters, which have been amended from time to time, authorize the Enterprises to purchase residential mortgages and codify an affirmative obligation to facilitate the financing of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families. Pursuant to their charters, the Enterprises may purchase single-family residential mortgages with loan-to-value (LTV) ratios above 80%, provided that these mortgages are supported by one of several credit enhancements identified in their charters. A credit enhancement is a method or tool to reduce the risk of extending credit to a borrower; mortgage insurance is one such method. Since 1957, private mortgage insurers have assumed an ever-increasing role in providing credit enhancements and they now insure “the vast majority of loans over 80% LTV purchased by the” Enterprises. In congressional testimony in 2015, Director Watt emphasized that mortgage insurance is critical to the Enterprises’ efforts to provide increased housing access for lower-wealth borrowers through 97% LTV loans.

During the financial crisis, some mortgage insurers faced severe financial difficulties due to the precipitous drop in housing prices and increased defaults that required the insurers to pay more claims. State regulators placed three mortgage insurers into “run-off,” prohibiting them from writing new insurance, but allowing them to continue collecting renewal premiums and processing claims on existing business. Some mortgage insurers rescinded coverage on more loans, canceling the policies and returning the premiums.  Currently, the mortgage insurance industry consists of six private mortgage insurers.

In our 2017 Audit and Evaluation Plan, we identified the four areas that we believe pose the most significant risks to FHFA and the entities it supervises. One of those four areas is counterparty risk – the risk created by persons or entities that provide services to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. According to FHFA, mortgage insurers represent the largest counterparty exposure for the Enterprises. The Enterprises acknowledge that, although the financial condition of their mortgage insurer counterparties approved to write new business has improved in recent years, the risk remains that some of them may fail to fully meet their obligations. While recent financial and operational requirements may enhance the resiliency of mortgage insurers, other industry features and emerging trends point to continuing risk.

We undertook this white paper to understand and explain the current and emerging risks associated with private mortgage insurers that insure loan payments on single-family mortgages with LTVs greater than 80% purchased by the Enterprises. (2)

It is a truism that the next crisis won’t look like the last one. It is worth heeding the Inspector General’s warning about the

risks from private mortgage insurance as a credit enhancement, including increasing volume, high concentrations, an inability by the Enterprises to manage concentration risk, mortgage insurers with credit ratings below the Enterprises’ historic requirements and investment grade, the challenges inherent in a monoline business and the cyclic housing market, and remaining unpaid mortgage insurer deferred obligations. (13)

One could easily imagine a taxpayer bailout of Fannie and Freddie driven by the insolvency of the some or all of the six private mortgage insurers that do business with them. Let’s hope that the FHFA addresses that risk now, while the mortgage market is still healthy.

March 6, 2018 | Permalink | No Comments

March 5, 2018

The Homeownership Rate and The Kerner Commission

By David Reiss

 

photo by Marion S. Trikosko

President Johnson with some members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission

The Economic Policy Institute released a report, 50 Years After The Kerner Commission.  It finds that “African Americans are better off in many ways but are still disadvantaged by racial inequality.” (1) The report opens,

The year 1968 was a watershed in American history and black America’s ongoing fight for equality. In April of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and riots broke out in cities around the country. Rising against this tragedy, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 outlawing housing discrimination was signed into law. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute as they received their medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Arthur Ashe became the first African American to win the U.S. Open singles title, and Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives.

The same year, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, delivered a report to President Johnson examining the causes of civil unrest in African American communities. The report named “white racism”—leading to “pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing”—as the culprit, and the report’s authors called for a commitment to “the realization of  common opportunities for all within a single [racially undivided] society.” The Kerner Commission report pulled together a comprehensive array of data to assess the specific economic and social inequities confronting African Americans in 1968.

Where do we stand as a society today? In this brief report, we compare the state of black workers and their families in 1968 with the circumstances of their descendants today, 50 years after the Kerner report was released. We find both good news and bad news. While African Americans are in many ways better off in absolute terms than they were in 1968, they are still disadvantaged in important ways relative to whites. In several important respects, African Americans have actually lost ground relative to whites, and, in a few cases, even relative to African Americans in 1968. (1, footnote omitted)

I was particularly shocked by one figure in the report:

One of the most important forms of wealth for working and middle-class families is home equity. Yet, the share of black households that owned their own home remained virtually unchanged between 1968 (41.1 percent) and today (41.2 percent). Over the same period, homeownership for white households increased 5.2 percentage points to 71.1 percent, about 30 percentage points higher than the ownership rate for black households. (4)

It is pretty extraordinary that the homeownership rate for African Americans has not really gone up, given all of the resources that were directed to increasing it. The FHA, Fannie, Freddie and other government programs have all focused on increasing that rate for decades. People of different political stripes will read what they want into this state of affairs. My own take is that wage instability has driven down homeownership rates across the board, but that it has hit African American households particularly hard. Households cannot commit to homeownership if they cannot reasonably depend on getting their wages month-in, month-out.

March 5, 2018 | Permalink | No Comments

March 2, 2018

The Regulation of Residential Real Estate Finance Under Trump

By David Reiss

I published a short article in the American College of Real Estate Lawyers (ACREL)  (ACREL) News & Notes, The Regulation of Residential Real Estate Finance Under Trump. The abstract reads,

Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs was one of President Trump’s first Executive Orders. He signed it on January 30, 2017, just days after his inauguration. It states that it “is the policy of the executive branch to be prudent and financially responsible in the expenditure of funds, from both public and private sources. . . . [I]t is essential to manage the costs associated with the governmental imposition of private expenditures required to comply with Federal regulations.” The Reducing Regulation Executive Order outlined a broad deregulatory agenda, but was short on details other than the requirement that every new regulation be accompanied by the elimination of two existing ones.

A few days later, Trump issued another Executive Order that was focused on financial services regulation in particular, Core Principles for Regulating the United States Financial System. Pursuant to this second Executive Order, the Trump Administration’s first core principle for financial services regulation is to “empower Americans to make independent financial decisions and informed choices in the marketplace, save for retirement, and build individual wealth.” The Core Principles Executive Order was also short on details.

Since Trump signed these two broad Executive Orders, the Trump Administration has been issuing a series of reports that fill in many of the details for financial institutions. The Department of Treasury has issued three of four reports that are collectively titled A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities that are directly responsive to the Core Principles Executive Order. While these documents cover a broad of topics, they offer a glimpse into how the Administration intends to regulate or more properly, deregulate, residential real estate finance in particular.

This is a shorter version of The Trump Administration And Residential Real Estate Finance, published earlier this year in the Westlaw Journal: Derivatives.

March 2, 2018 | Permalink | No Comments

March 1, 2018

The Housing Market Since the Great Recession

By David Reiss

photo by Robert J Heath

CoreLogic has posted a special report on Evaluating the Housing Market Since the Great Recession. It opens,

From December 2007 to June 2009, the U.S. economy lost over 8.7 million jobs. In the months after the recession began, the unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent, reaching double digits for the first time since September 1982, and American households lost over $16 trillion in net worth.

After a number of economic stimulus measures, the economy began to grow in 2010. GDP grew 19 percent from 2010 to 2017; the economy added jobs for 88 consecutive months – the longest period on record – and as of December 2017, unemployment was down to 4 percent.

The economy has widely recovered and so, too, has the housing market. After falling 33 percent during the recession, housing prices have returned to peak levels, growing 51 percent since hitting the bottom of the market. The average house price is now 1 percent higher than it was at the peak in 2006, and the average annual equity gain was $14,888 in the third quarter of 2017.

However, in some states – including Illinois, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida – housing prices have failed to reach pre-recession levels, and today nearly 2.5 million residential properties with a mortgage are still in negative equity. (4, footnotes omitted)

By the end of 2017, ” the most populated metro areas in the U.S. remained at an almost even split between markets that are undervalued, overvalued and at value, indicating that while housing markets have recovered, many homes have surpassed the at-value [supported by local market fundamentals] price.” (10) This even split between undervalued and overvalued metro areas is hiding all sorts of ups and downs in what looks like a stable national average.  You can get a sense of this by comparing the current situation to what existing at the beginning of 2000, when 87% of metro areas were at-value.

And what does this all mean for housing finance reform? I think it means that we should not get complacent about the state of our housing markets just because the national average looks okay. Congress should continue working on a bipartisan fix for a broken system.

 

March 1, 2018 | Permalink | No Comments

February 28, 2018

A Fix Already in Place for Housing Finance?

By David Reiss

photo byy George Becker

Executives at Pimco, the world’s largest bond fund manager, have posted U.S. Housing Finance Reform: Why Fix What Isn’t Broken? I think their analysis is interesting, but seriously flawed:

The topic of housing finance reform has come in and out of focus on Capitol Hill since Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs) were taken into conservatorship back in 2008. As one of the largest participants in the mortgage-backed securities (MBS) market, and given our fiduciary role as a steward of other people’s assets, we at PIMCO are devoted to a liquid and stable mortgage market. Not surprisingly, we have taken a keen interest in the various reform proposals introduced over the past several years.

Housing finance reform need not be revolutionary

While we have refrained from commenting on specific plans, we believe housing finance reform must be comprehensive, above all else. And while we agree with a focus on shrinking the government’s role in housing finance, we believe similar attention must be paid to a responsible and thoughtful rebuilding of the private mortgage market – the alternative to the government balance sheet.

When it comes to the GSEs, we think policymakers should take a “do no harm” approach to reform that contains several key elements:

  • An explicit government guarantee for both future and legacy MBS
  • A continuation of the national mortgage rate (e.g., a borrower in Spartanburg, SC, can access a similar mortgage rate to a borrower in San Francisco, CA)
  • A guarantee fee that is counter-cyclical (versus a pro-cyclical, floating fee)
  • A continuation of the GSEs’ current credit risk transfer (CRT) program
  • Loan limits transitioned thoughtfully to be based on income levels, not housing prices

So far, so good. But they continue,

What you do not hear PIMCO calling for is a wholesale change or even an end to the status quo for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Indeed, from our perspective as a large market participant, the delivery of mortgage credit has never been so efficient or so fair, nor has the market for MBS ever been so deep, liquid and stable as it has been during the years that Fannie and Freddie have been under conservatorship. What’s more, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)’s heightened oversight has put an end to the pernicious activities that gave rise to the GSEs’ conservatorship – namely, buying subprime private-label securities collateralized by poor-credit-quality loans and putting them on their balance sheets – thereby mitigating the threat they pose to taxpayers.

The authors call for the formal “folding” in of Fannie and Freddie into the U.S. government. This would result in the Ginnie-fication of Fannie and Freddie, converting them to a government instrumentality that would be subject to the whims of the congressional budgetary process. That has not worked out so well for Ginnie Mae which has suffered from antediluvian technology and operational challenges for much of its history. Fannie and Freddie have historically been far more innovative and responsive to changes in market conditions than Ginnie. We should expect to lose those characteristics if the two companies were nationalized.

There is certainly an argument for keeping part of Fannie and Freddie’s existing operations within the federal government. But keeping the whole thing there will cause a new set of problems that we will likely bemoan a few years down the line. This proposal may appear to be a bright idea on first glance, but if you look at it the cracks show right away.

February 28, 2018 | Permalink | No Comments

February 27, 2018

Reducing Enforcement at The CFPB

By David Reiss

Mick Mulvaney’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has released a Request for Information Regarding Bureau Enforcement Activities (available on the upper right corner of this page), its third in a series of RFIs that seek to dramatically restrict the Bureau’s activities. The Bureau seeks

feedback on all aspects of its enforcement processes, including but not limited to:

1. Communication between the Bureau and the subjects of investigations, including the timing and frequency of those communications, and information provided by the Bureau on the status of its investigation;

2. The length of Bureau investigations;

3. The Bureau’s Notice and Opportunity to Respond and Advise process, including:

a. CFPB Bulletin 2011–04, Notice and Opportunity to Respond and Advise (NORA), issued November 7, 2011 (updated January 18, 2012) and available at http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/2012/01/
Bulletin10.pdf, including whether invocation of the NORA process should be mandatory rather than discretionary;and

b. The information contained in the letters that the Bureau may send to subjects of potential enforcement actions pursuant to the NORA process, as exemplified by the sample letter available at http://www.consumerfinance.gov/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/NORA-Letter1.pdf;

4. Whether the Bureau should afford subjects of potential enforcement actions the right to make an in-person presentation to Bureau personnel prior to the Bureau determining whether it should initiate legal proceedings;

5. The calculation of civil money penalties, consistent with the penalty amounts and mitigating factors set out in 12 U.S.C. 5565(c), including whether the Bureau should adopt a civil money penalty matrix, and, if it does adopt such a matrix, what that matrix should include;

6. The standard provisions in Bureau consent orders, including conduct, compliance, monetary relief, and administrative provisions; and

7. The manner and extent to which the Bureau can and should coordinate its enforcement activity with other Federal and/or State agencies that may  have overlapping jurisdiction. (83 F.R. 6000) (Feb. 12, 2018)

The not-so-subtext of this RFI is that Mulvaney is seeking to hamstring the Bureau’s enforcement authority which Republicans have found to be too zealous since the Bureau was first started up.

Comments are due April 13, 2018, so get crackin’.

February 27, 2018 | Permalink | No Comments

February 26, 2018

Housing Affordability and GSE Reform

By David Reiss

Jim Parrott and Laurie Goodman of the Urban Institute have posted Making Sure the Senate’s Access and Affordability Proposal Works. It opens,

One of the most consequential and possibly promising components of the draft bill being considered in the Senate Banking Committee is the way in which it reduces the cost of a mortgage for those who need it. In the current system, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs) deliver subsidy primarily through the level pricing of their guarantee fees, overcharging lower-risk borrowers in order to undercharge higher-risk borrowers. While providing support for homeownership through cross-subsidy makes good economic and social sense, there are a number of shortcomings to the way it is done in the current system.

First, it does not effectively target those who need the help. While Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are both pushed to provide secondary market liquidity for the loans of low- and moderate-income (LMI) borrowers in order to comply with their affordable housing goals and duty to serve obligations, almost one in four beneficiaries of the subsidy are not LMI borrowers (Parrott et al. 2018). These borrowers receive the subsidy simply because their credit is poorer than the average GSE borrower and thus more costly than the average guarantee fee pricing covers. And LMI borrowers who pose less than average risk to the GSEs are picking up part of that tab, paying more in the average guarantee fee than their lower-than-average risk warrants.

Second, the subsidy is provided almost exclusively through lower mortgage rates, even though that is not the form of help all LMI borrowers need. For many, the size of their monthly mortgage is not the barrier to homeownership, but the lack of savings needed for a down payment and closing costs or to cover emergency expenses once the purchase is made. For those borrowers, the lower rate provided in the current system simply does not help.

And third, the opacity of the subsidy makes it difficult to determine who is benefiting, by how much, and whether it is actually helping. The GSEs are allocating more than $4 billion a year in subsidy, yet policymakers cannot tell how it has affected the homeownership rate of those who receive it, much less how the means of allocation compares with other means of support. We thus cannot adjust course to better allocate the support so that it provides more help those who need it.

The Senate proposal remedies each of these shortcomings, charging an explicit mortgage access fee to pay for the Housing Trust Fund, the Capital Magnet Fund, and a mortgage access fund that supports LMI borrowers, and only LMI borrowers, with one of five forms of subsidy: a mortgage rate buy-down, assistance with down payment and closing costs, funding for savings for housing-related expenses, housing counseling, and funding to offset the cost of servicing delinquent loans. Unlike the current system, the support is well targeted, helps address the entire range of impediments to homeownership, and is transparent. As a means of delivering subsidy to those who need it, the proposed system is likely to be more effective than what we have today.

If, that is, it can be designed in a way that overcomes two central challenges: determining who qualifies for the support and delivering the subsidy effectively to those who do. (1-2, footnote omitted)

This paper provides a clear framework for determining whether a housing finance reform proposal actually furthers housing affordability for those who need it most. It is unclear where things stand with the Senate housing finance reform bill as of now, but it seems like the current version of the bill is a step in the right direction.

February 26, 2018 | Permalink | No Comments