December 15, 2014

Reiss on Fair Housing Falsehood

By David Reiss

The Providence (R.I.) Journal quoted me in its Truth-O-Meter column:  Mike Stenhouse: According to HUD, It’s Unfair, Unjust for Wealthy to Live in Exclusive Neighborhoods. The column reads, in part,

For more than three years, the Rhode Island Division of Planning has been working on RhodeMap RI, a long-term economic development plan meant to help guide efforts to improve the state’s economy.

The process, partly financed by a $1.9-million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD),  didn’t get much notice until a nearly 200-page draft of the plan was released in mid-September, igniting a firestorm of controversy.

Critics of the plan denounced it as a thinly disguised blueprint for social engineering. If it is implemented, they say, local communities will be forced to cede authority to the federal government on issues such as affordable housing and land use, and individual property rights will be under threat.

Supporters, including Governor Chafee and the planners and community leaders who drafted the plan, say it’s a well crafted, comprehensive guide that will help move the state’s economy forward over the decades ahead. They say there’s nothing in the plan that would infringe on individual property rights or local home rule.

The debate grew so heated at one meeting a shouting match broke out, with charges of racism and bigotry hurled. And last week, at a meeting of the Statewide Planning Council, opponents called it unconstitutional, socialist and even treasonous. Nonetheless, the council voted unanimously to adopt it.

Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a conservative research group, has led the opposition. A few weeks ago, he talked about the plan on WPRO-AM’s “The Dan Yorke Show.”

Yorke asked Stenhouse to cite a component of the plan “that highlights what you think is problematic.”

“I’m going to give you my interpretation,” Stenhouse responded. “I don’t have their plan in front of me. What we believe, for instance, take Poppasquash Point in Bristol. According to HUD, it is patently unfair and socially unjust that wealthy people can live in an exclusive neighborhood.”

We wondered whether Stenhouse was right about HUD’s view of wealthy neighborhoods such as Poppasquash Point, one of the state’s priciest enclaves.

When we asked Stenhouse about his statement, he told us he was not directly quoting HUD, but said that his statement was “an accurate interpretation of HUD’s openly stated intent.” He provided links to multiple documents to support his position.

While we don’t view Stenhouse’s statement as a direct quote of HUD policy, we do  believe that listeners who heard Stenhouse’s preface — “according to HUD” — would assume he was summarizing HUD’s policy.

Stenhouse’s backup is comprised primarily of links to a news story and an editorial in Investor’s Business Daily and links to various legal  documents and HUD regulations.

*    *    *

According to David Reiss, a professor of real estate and housing policy at Brooklyn Law School, “HUD does not interpret the FHA [Fair Housing Act] to mean that `wealthy people’ can’t `live in an exclusive neighborhood.’”

“An exclusive neighborhood is an expensive one – the FHA does not ban expensive neighborhoods.” Reiss continued in an email statement. “What it does do is ban exclusionary practices.  Exclusionary practices are those that exclude people based on certain of their characteristics such as their race, sex or religion.  To my knowledge, HUD has never taken the position that merely living in an exclusive – that is, expensive — neighborhood violates the FHA.”

We also asked HUD whether Stenhouse had accurately characterized its rules.

“There are simply no policies, practices, regulations or anything that can validate such hyper hyperbole,” Brian Sullivan, a public affairs officer with HUD, said in an email statement.

Our ruling

Mike Stenhouse said “According to HUD, it is patently unfair and socially unjust that wealthy people can live in an exclusive neighborhood.”

There’s no doubt that HUD has challenged what it considers to be discriminatory practices at the community level, including exclusionary zoning ordinances.

But that’s not nearly the same as objecting to the right of wealthy people to live in expensive neighborhoods.

We rule Stenhouse’s claim False.

December 15, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

December 12, 2014

Hockett on NYC Eminent Domain

By David Reiss

Bob Hockett has posted ‘We Don’t Follow, We Lead': How New York City Will Save Mortgage Loans by Condemning Them to SSRN. The abstract reads,

This brief invited essay lays out in summary form the eminent domain plan for securitized underwater mortgage loans that the author has been advocating and helping to implement for some years now. It does so with particular attention in this case to New York City, which is now actively considering the plan. The essay’s first part addresses the plan’s necessity. Its second part lays out the plan’s basic mechanics. The third part then systematically addresses and dispatches the battery of remarkably weak legal and policy arguments commonly proffered by opponents of the plan.

Hockett has been advocating this plan for some time in the face of concerted opposition from the financial industry. One industry argument that I have found to be over the top is that lenders will refuse to lend in communities that employ eminent domain to address the foreclosure crisis. Hockett writes,

Another policy argument made by some members of the securitization industry is that using eminent domain to purchase loans will dry up the sources of mortgage credit, rendering the American dream of homeownership unattainable. The financial services industry and its legislative supporters have made this kind of claim against regulatory and consumer protection proposals emerging from national, state, or municipal legislatures.

One problem with this argument is that private credit has not flowed to non-wealthy mortgage borrowers since the crash. Federal lenders and guarantors are nearly the only game in town, and they are likely to remain so until the underwater PLS loan logjam is cleared.

Another problem with the credit withdrawal argument is that it characterizes a benefit as a burden. The housing bubble was, like most of the more devastating bubbles through history, the upshot of an over-extension of credit. Lenders extended excess credit through reverse redlining and other predatory lending practices perpetrated or aided and abetted by participants in the securitization industry itself. Hence the securitization industry’s warning that credit might not be overextended in the future is a warning of something that might well be desirable. (142-43, footnotes omitted)

Given that lenders always rush to lend to countries that have recently defaulted on their sovereign debt, I don’t find the credit withdrawal argument to be particularly convincing here. But it may succeed in convincing some local governments not to proceed with their eminent domain strategies. I do hope, however, that at least one locality will follow through during the current foreclosure crisis. That way, we will at least have a proof of concept for the next foreclosure crisis.

 

December 12, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

December 11, 2014

Fannie and Freddie Begin a New Stage

By David Reiss

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has ordered Fannie and Freddie to begin making contributions to the Housing Trust Fund and to the Capital Magnet Fund.  These two funds were created pursuant to the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, the same statute that authorized placing the two companies in conservatorship. In 2008, FHFA Acting Director DeMarco suspended payments into the two funds because the two companies were being bailed out by the federal government. Now that the two companies are on firmer financial footing, the FHFA has lifted the suspension. The suspension will go back into effect for a company if it has to make a draw from Treasury under the Senior Preferred Stock Purchase Agreement, that is if the company does not have enough excess monies to make the payments into the two funds from its own income.

This action is not so surprising, given Watt’s past statements. It does, however, have some interesting implications. In terms of the GSE shareholder litigation, these allocations reduce the enterprises’ capital by a not insignificant amount; if shareholders were to win one of their lawsuits, monies placed in these two funds would be unavailable to them. In terms of housing finance reform, this action signals that the companies have moved beyond their crisis stage into a more stable one. It also emphasizes that the FHFA can take big steps on its own when it comes to housing finance reform, notwithstanding Congressional gridlock. All in all, it feels like the beginning of a new stage in the lives of the two companies.

The FHFA has issued an Interim Final Rule and Request for Comments relating to the payments into the two funds. The rule “implements a statutory prohibition against the Enterprises passing the cost of such allocations through to the originators of loans they purchase or securitize.” (1) Comments are due 30 days after the interim final rule is published in the Federal Register.

December 11, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

December 10, 2014

Mortgage Leverage and Bubbles

By David Reiss

Albert Alex Zevelev has posted Regulating Mortgage Leverage: Fire Sales, Foreclosure Spirals and Pecuniary Externalities to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The US housing boom was accompanied by a rise in mortgage leverage. The subsequent bust was accompanied by a rise in foreclosure. This paper introduces a dynamic general equilibrium model to study how leverage and foreclosure affect house prices. The model shows how foreclosure sales, through their effect on housing supply, amplify and propagate house price drops. A calibration to match the bust shows consumption and housing need to be sufficiently complementary to fit the data. Since leverage plays a key role in foreclosure, a regulator can reduce systemic risk by placing a cap on leverage. Counterfactual experiments show that in a world with less leverage, the same economic shock leads to less foreclosure and less severe, shorter busts in house prices. A 90% cap on loan-to-value ratios in 2006 predicts house prices would have fallen 12% rather than 18% as in the data. The regulator faces a trade-off in that less leverage means less housing for constrained households, but also fewer foreclosures and less severe busts in house prices. A regulator with reasonable preference parameters would choose a cap of 95%.

This is pretty important stuff as it attempts to model the impact of different LTV ratios on prices and foreclosure rates. Now Zevelev is not the first to see these interactions, but it is important to  model how consumer finance regulation (for instance, loan to value ratios) can impact systemic risk. This is particularly important because many commentators downplay that relationship.

I am not in a position to evaluate the model in this paper, but its conclusion is certainly right: “Leverage makes our economy fragile by increasing the risk of default. It is clear that
foreclosure has many externalities and they are quantitatively significant. Since borrowers
and lenders do not fully internalize these externalities, there is a case for regulating mortgage leverage.” (31)

December 10, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

December 9, 2014

Transit-Oriented Development No Panacea

By David Reiss

The Government Accountability Office issued a report, Multiple Factors Influence Extent of Transit-Oriented Development. The GAO writes that

From 2004 to 2014, FTA [Federal Transit Administration] allocated $18.9 billion to build new or expanded transit systems through the Capital Investment Grant program. One of the key goals for many local governments when planning major capital-transit projects is to encourage transit-oriented development as a way to focus future regional population growth along transit corridors. Transit-oriented development is generally described as a compact and “walkable” neighborhood near transit with a mix of residential and commercial uses.
GAO was asked to examine transit-oriented development. This report addresses (1) the extent to which transit-oriented development has occurred near select transit lines that received federal funds and the factors and local policies that affect transit-oriented development, and (2) the extent to which FTA considers factors related to the potential for transit-oriented development when assessing proposed projects and the extent to which FTA’s assessment of these factors is consistent with the factors that local stakeholders told GAO affect a project’s results. To address these issues, GAO reviewed relevant literature and visited six federally funded case study transit projects in Baltimore, MD; Washington, DC; Charlotte, NC; Santa Clara County, CA; San Francisco, CA; and Houston, TX, selected for diversity in local programs, markets, and geography. During these visits, GAO met with stakeholders, such as local officials and developers. GAO also interviewed FTA officials. In commenting on a draft of this report, DOT noted FTA’s longstanding commitment to encourage transit-oriented development.
The GAO’s findings are quite mixed, but it did note that “many of the factors or local government policies that supported or hindered transit-oriented development are generally consistent with FTA’s summary assessment for economic development and land use.” Some promote transit-oriented design as a panacea for what ails American communities and others argue that we are too developed and too dispersed for it to make much of a difference in how we live and work. This report does not really move the debate one way or the other, but it does provide some interesting case studies that can help to inform the debate.

December 9, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

December 8, 2014

Solving Complexity in Consumer Credit

By David Reiss

Kathleen Engel posted Can Consumer Law Solve the Problem of Complexity in U.S. Consumer Credit Products? to SSRN. The abstract reads,

People like to know and understand the total cost of credit products they are considering. They also like to know and understand products’ terms and features. Given these preferences, issuers of credit should market products with transparent features and simple pricing. That is not the case. In fact, over the last few decades we have seen a plethora of complex terms in products such as mortgage loans, credit cards, and prepaid debit cards.

As credit products have become ever more complex, consumers have more choices and can select products that satisfy their particular needs and preferences. No longer are borrowers limited to a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage. If they know they will be moving in a few years, a 3-year fixed-rate mortgage with a low interest rate that converts to a 27-year adjustable rate mortgage based on the LIBOR might be the right product for them. However, for borrowers who do not understand the complexities of a 3-27 mortgage loan, the low, initial interest rate could be a costly lure. Confusion is commonplace. In one study giving consumers a choice between two credit cards that varied only in terms of the annual fee and the interest rate, forty percent of the participants chose the more expensive card.

One would expect that consumers, who cannot decipher terms and calculate the cost of complex products, would turn to those with easy-to-understand terms. There are some simple products on the market. Instead, consumers often misperceive that the more complex products are less expensive than the simple ones. They, thus, shun the products that would be in their best interest.

In this paper, I explain why borrowers make sub-optimal choices when selecting credit products. I then analyze whether extant laws could be used to address obfuscating complexity. I ultimately conclude that policy-makers should look to extra-legal remedies to protect consumers against exploitative complexity.

I find those “extra-legal remedies” to be the most interesting part of this paper. Engel writes,

The approach I find most appealing is to use digital technology to help consumers make decisions. A software program would act like an agent, helping consumers determine what they could afford, what product would best meet their needs, and, lastly, would generate bids from providers of the product. Several goals motivate this idea: (1) the approach is preventative; (2) it does not require the courts to interpret vague standards; (3) it is less costly than litigation; (4) it protects unsophisticated consumers without requiring them to become sophisticated; and (5) it permits consumers to “pull” the information they need to select a product, rather than having issuers “push” hundreds of pages of information to them on multiple products. (24-25)

The paper does not explore how consumers would access this “choice agent,” but it is certainly an idea worth exploring. As some of my recent posts suggest, it is hard to rationally regulate for the entire population of consumers as they are a heterogeneous bunch. But it is important that we keep trying. Engel’s paper has some interesting ideas that are worth pursuing further.

December 8, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

December 5, 2014

Regulating Rationally for Consumers

By David Reiss

Alan Schwartz has posted Regulating for Rationality to SSRN. The abstract reads,

Traditional consumer protection law responds with various forms of disclosure to market imperfections that are the consequence of consumers being imperfectly informed or unsophisticated. This regulation assumes that consumers can rationally act on the information that it is disclosure’s goal to produce. Experimental results in psychology and behavorial economics question this rationality premise. The numerous reasoning defects consumers exhibit in the experiments would vitiate disclosure solutions if those defects also presented in markets. To assume that consumers behave as badly in markets as they do in the lab implies new regulatory responses. This Essay sets out the novel and difficult challenges that such “regulating for rationality” — intervening to cure or to overcome cognitive error — poses for regulators. Much of the novelty exists because the contracting choices of rational and irrational consumers often are observationally equivalent: both consumer types prefer the same contracts. Hence, the regulator seldom can infer from contract terms themselves that reasoning errors produced those terms. Rather, the regulator needs a theory of cognitive function that would permit him to predict when actual consumers would make the mistakes that laboratory subjects make: that is, to know which fraction of observed contracts are the product of bias rather than rational choice.

The difficulties exist because the psychologists lack such a theory. Hence, cognitive based regulatory interventions often are poorly grounded. A particular concern is that consumers suffer from numerous biases, and not every consumer suffers from the same ones. Current theory cannot tell how these biases interact within the person and how markets aggregate differing biased consumer preferences. The Essay then makes three further claims. First, regulating for rationality should be more evidence based than regulating for traditional market imperfections: in the absence of a theory the regulator needs to see what actual people do. Second, when the facts are unobtainable or ambiguous regulators should assume that bias did not affect the consumer’s contracting choice because the assumption is autonomy preserving, administerable and coherent. Third, disclosure regulation can ameliorate some reasoning errors. Hence, abandoning disclosure strategies in favor of substantive regulation sometimes would be premature.

This essay adds to a growing literature that challenges the ability of regulators to effectively incorporate the lessons of behavioral economics into consumer protection regimes. I take no position at this time on the particular claims of this essay, but I certainly think that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should grapple with this growing body of literature. The only thing worse than no consumer protection regime at all, would be one that was designed all wrong.

December 5, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments