September 4, 2014

Hope for Housing Finance Reform?

By David Reiss

The former Acting Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Edward Demarco, has issued a short policy brief from his new perch at the Milken Institute’s Center for Financial Markets.While there is nothing that is really new in this policy brief, Twelve Things You Need to Know About the Housing Market, it does set forth a lot of commonsensical views about the housing markets. I do take issue, however, with his optimism about the structural improvements in the housing finance sector. He writes,

The crisis showed that numerous structural improvements were needed in housing—and such improvements have been under way for several years. Poor data, misuse of specialty mortgage products, lagging technologies, weak servicing standards, and an inadequate securitization infrastructure became evident during the financial crisis. A multi-year effort to fix and rebuild this infrastructure has been quietly under way, with notable improvements already in place.The mortgage industry has been working since 2010 to overhaul mortgage data standards and the supporting technology. New data standards have emerged and are in use, with more on the way. These standards should improve risk management while lowering origination costs and barriers to entry.

*     *     *

Structural improvements will take several more years. A new securitization infrastructure has been in development for more than two years. This ongoing work should be a cornerstone for the future secondary mortgage market. Other structural improvements will include updated quality assurance (rep and warrant) systems for the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie and Freddie, revamped private mortgage insurance eligibility standards, and completion and implementation of remaining Dodd-Frank rulemakings. (2)

DeMarco himself had led the charge to develop a common securitization platform while at the FHFA, so I take care in critiquing his views about structural change. Nonetheless, I am worried that he is striking too optimistic of a note about the state of Fannie and Freddie. They have been in a state of limbo for far too long (which DeMarco acknowledges). 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. I think commentators should be striking a far more ominous tone about our housing finance system — something this big should not be treated as an afterthought by our elected officials.

September 4, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

September 3, 2014

Top Ten Issues for Housing Finance Reform

By David Reiss

Laurie Goodman of the Urban Institute has posted A Realistic Assessment of Housing Finance Reform. This paper is quite helpful, given the incredible complexity of the topic. The paper includes a lot of background, but I assume that readers of this blog are familiar with that.  Rather, let me share her Top Ten Design Issues:

  1. What form will the private capital that absorbs the first loss take: A single guarantor (a utility), multiple guarantors, or multiple guarantors along with capital markets execution? How much capital will be required?
  2. Who will play what role in the system? Will the same entity be permitted to be an originator, aggregator, and guarantor?
  3. How will the system ensure that historically underserved borrowers and communities are well served? To what extent will the pricing be cross subsidized?
  4. Who will have access to the new government-backed system (loan limits)? How big should the credit box be, and how does that box relate to FHA?
  5. Will mortgage insurance be separate from the guarantor function? (It is separate under most proposals, but in reality both sets of institutions are guaranteeing credit risk. The separation is a relic of the present system, in which, by charter, the GSEs can’t take the first loss on any mortgage above 80 LTV. However, if you allow the mortgage insurers and the guarantors to be the same entity, capital requirements must be higher to adequately protect the government and, ultimately, the taxpayers.)
  6. How will small lenders access the system? (All proposals attempt to ensure access, some through an aggregator dedicated to smaller lenders—a role that the Home Loan Banks can play.)
  7. What countercyclical features should be included? If the insurance costs provided by the guarantors are “too high” should the regulatory authority be able to adjust capital levels down to bring down mortgage rates? Should the regulatory authority be able to step in as an insurance provider?
  8. Will multifamily finance be included? How will that system be designed? Will it be separate from the single-family business? (The multifamily features embedded in Johnson-Crapo had widespread bipartisan support, but the level of support for a stand-alone multifamily legislation is unclear.)
  9. The regulatory structure for any new system is inevitably complex. Who charters new guarantors? What are the approval standards? Who does the stress tests? How does the new regulator interact with existing regulators? What enforcement authority will it have concerning equal access goals? What is the extent of data collection and publication?
  10. What does the transition look like? How do we move from a duopoly to more guarantors? Will Fannie and Freddie turn back to private entities and operate as guarantors alongside the new entrants? How will the new entities be seeded? What is the “right” number of guarantors, and how do we achieve that? How quickly does the catastrophic insurance fund build? (16-17)

None of this is new, but it is nice to see it all in one place. These design issues need to thought about in the context of the politics of housing reform as well — what system is likely to maintain its long-term financial health and stay true to its mission, given the political realities of Washington, D.C.?

Speaking of politics, her prognosis for reform in the near term is not too hopeful:

The current state of the GSEs can best be summed up in a single word: limbo. Despite the fact that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were placed in conservatorship in 2008, with the clear intent that they not emerge, there is little progress on a new system, with a large role for private capital, to take their place. Legislators have realized it is easy to agree on a set of principles for a new system but much harder to agree on the system’s design. It is unclear whether any legislation will emerge from Congress before the 2016 election; there is a good chance there will be none. (26)

She does allow that the FHFA can administratively move housing finance reform forward to some extent on its own, but she rightly notes that reform is really the responsibility of Congress. Like Goodman, I am not too hopeful that Congress will act in the near term. But it is crystal clear that there is a cost of doing nothing. In all likelihood, it will be the taxpayer will pay that cost, one way or another.

September 3, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

September 2, 2014

Insuring Mortgages Through the Business Cycle

By David Reiss

Mark Zandi and Cristian deRitis of Moody’s, along with Jim Parrott of the Urban Institute, have posted Putting Mortgage Insurers on Solid Ground. They wrote this in response to the Private Mortgage Insurance Eligibility Requirements set forth by the FHFA. While generally approving of the requirements, they argue that

Several features of the rules as currently written, however, would likely
unnecessarily increase costs and cyclicality in the mortgage and housing markets.
With a few modest changes, these flaws can be remedied without sacrificing the
considerable benefits of the new standards. (1)

I would first start by reviewing their disclosure:  “Mark Zandi is a director of one mortgage insurance company, and Jim Parrott is an advisor to another. The authors do not believe that their analysis has been impacted by these relationships, however. Their work reflects the authors’ independent beliefs regarding the appropriate financial requirements for the industry.” While, I understand that the authors believe that their views are not impacted by their financial relationships with private mortgage insurers, readers will certainly want to take them into account when evaluating those views.

The authors argue that FHFA’s requirements are procyclical, that is they become more burdensome just as mortgage insurers are facing a distressed environment. This could contribute to a vicious cycle where mortgage credit tightens because of regulatory causes just when we might want credit to loosen up. This is certainly something we should look out for.

They also argue that the FHFA’s requirements will increase mortgage insurance premiums unnecessarily because they increase capital reserves too much. I find this argument less compelling. The Private Mortgage Insurance industry has typically done terribly in distressed environments from the Great Depression through the 2000s. Not only have there been failures but they have also reduced their underwriting of new insurance just when the market was most fragile.

But there are certain shaky assumptions built into this analysis. For instance, they argue that Private Mortgage Insurance companies will need to maintain their historical after-tax return on capital of 15%. But if the business model is shored up with higher capital reserves, investors should be satisfied with a lower return on capital because the companies are less likely to go bust. That is, instead of increasing premiums for homeowners, it is possible that higher capital requirements might just reduce profits.

The authors write that while “the increase in capital requirements is clearly warranted, there are certain features of the requirements as currently drafted that will increase mortgage insurance premiums unnecessarily, running counter to the aim of policymakers, including the FHFA, to encourage greater use of private capital in housing finance.” (2-4) Policymakers have lots of goals for private mortgage insurance, including having it not implode during down markets. An unthinking reliance on private capital is not what we should be after. Rather, we should seek to promote a thoughtful reliance on private capital, taking into account how we it can best help us maintain a healthy mortgage market throughout the business cycle.

September 2, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

September 1, 2014

Commemorating Labor Day

By David Reiss

PSALM OF LIFE
     Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream! —
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real ! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate ;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

September 1, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

August 29, 2014

Compact Units: Mountain or Molehill?

By David Reiss

NYU’s Furman Center has posted a short Research Brief, Compact Units:  Demand and Challenges. The brief notes that there is no formal definition of a compact or micro unit of housing, but

the term is typically used to refer to units that contain their own bathroom and a kitchen or kitchenette, but are significantly smaller than the standard studio apartment in a given city. Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are self-contained units located on the property of a single-family home. Sometimes ADUs are separate structures, like a cottage on the same lot as a primary dwelling; sometimes they are attached to the primary structure, located in a basement, in an extension, or over a garage.

Proponents of compact units argue that they allow seniors to live independently, respond to changing household sizes and demographics, reduce sprawl through urban infill, mitigate the environmental effects of larger developments by reducing energy consumption, free up larger units for families, and help cities provide housing affordable to a wider range of households. (2)

The brief is a very useful overview of the debate concerning compact units but my own take is that they represent a mere molehill of possibility when it comes to affordable housing. No new construction in cities, unless heavily subsidized, is geared toward low-income households and probably only a small portion of such new construction is geared to moderate-income households. The economics of new construction just don’t allow it.

This is not to say that New York City shouldn’t change its larger-than-average minimum unit size regulations (400 square feet) so that they are in line with those of other cities (220 square feet). These small units could work well for all sorts of one-person households, which, by the way, make up more than half of all households in NYC. They just wouldn’t be low-income households. But, by expanding the total number of units available, they can put at least some downward pressure on rents.

My bottom line: compact units are good, but they will not provide the mountain of affordable housing that some claim they can.

August 29, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

August 28, 2014

Location Affordability in NYC

By David Reiss

Following up on two earlier posts (here and here) about Citizens Budget Commission policy briefs on housing affordability, I turn to a third one, Location Affordability in Large U.S. Cities. As a refresher, “Location affordability recognizes that the costs of housing and transportation, usually the two largest items in household budgets, are inextricably linked, and considering them together in relation to income gives a good sense of a city’s location affordability.” (1) the CBC’s key findings are that,

  • For moderate- and middle-income households, location costs in New York City are below the 45 percent affordability threshold due mostly to low commuting costs. New York City ranks well—ranging from second to sixth most affordable—among the 22 large cities.
  • For low-income households, location costs in New York City exceed the affordability threshold. A low-income family requires 47 percent of income for these costs and a single worker household requires 56 percent; for a single person earning a wage at the national poverty line, location costs in New York City are particularly burdensome at 101 percent of income. Almost all cities examined were unaffordable to low-income households. (1, citation omitted)

There are a lot of interesting implications that arise from these policy briefs.  Most important, they provide another (if it were even necessary) argument that scarce affordable housing dollars should be concentrated on low-income households. After all, NYC moderate- and middle-income households are doing better than in most other large American cities when transportation expenses are taken into account in an affordability index.

It would be most worthwhile for the de Blasio Administration to incorporate something like HUD’s Location Affordability Index into its housing plan.

August 28, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments

August 27, 2014

Reiss on FIRREA Storm

By David Reiss

Law360 quoted me in Bold 10th Circ. Opinion Muddies FIRREA Challenges. The article opens,

The Tenth Circuit last week gave a strong argument as to why a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has no bearing on one federal agency’s ability to sue over soured mortgage-backed securities, but that won’t stop big banks from trying to convince different courts otherwise, legal experts say.

The appeals court’s opinion said a June high court ruling did not alter its original ruling that the National Credit Union Administration Board’s suit against Nomura Home Equity Loan Inc. and a number of other MBS originators was not time-barred.

The Supreme Court had found that a lawsuit by North Carolina residents under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act was time-barred by the state’s statute of repose

But the regulator of federally chartered credit unions is bringing its claim under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act, and the appeals court said that law’s so-called extender statute was not subject to the same limitations the Supreme Court had found in the Superfund pollution cleanup law at the heart of CTS Corp. v. Waldburger.

Rather, the language of FIRREA and its legislative history made it clear Congress had intended the law to have its own statute of limitations and not be bound by other statutes of repose, the appeals panel wrote, responding to a Supreme Court order that it take a second look at its earlier decision.

Before the Tenth Circuit issued its decision, defense attorneys had looked to the Supreme Court’s remand as a chance to give banks some relief from the lingering hangover of government lawsuits, many of which have ended with banks coughing up hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in damages.

And it’s clear banks will still fight for that relief. In a motion for summary judgment Friday, attorneys for RBS told a Connecticut district court judge he should toss an FHFA suit brought under the extender statute of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act, in light of the time bar established by the Supreme Court in Waldburger.

In doing so, the attorneys also urged the judge to disregard the Tenth Circuit’s opinion, arguing it was flawed.

“Nomura, of course, is not controlling in this circuit, and the opinion on remand fails to faithfully apply the analytical framework established in Waldburger, instead sidestepping Waldburger by focusing on superficial distinctions between the CERCLA and NCUA extender statutes,” the attorneys wrote.

Experts say such disputes will continue on.

“The debate is not over by any stretch of the imagination,” David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, said. “There’s enough at stake for powerful and well-financed institutions that this will be played out to the fullest.”

While legal experts say they can’t predict how other jurisdictions will move on similar questions about timeliness under FIRREA, they say the Tenth Circuit approached the task of reaffirming its earlier opinion in a way that appeared designed to withstand high court scrutiny.

“It is a thorough opinion. I think that other courts will take this opinion very seriously,” Reiss said.

August 27, 2014 | Permalink | No Comments