Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

February 28, 2014

Appraisals in the Coal Mine

By David Reiss

The Federal Housing Finance Agency Office of Inspector General released an Audit Report, FHFA’s Oversight of the Enterprises’ Use of Appraisal Data Before They Buy Single-Family Mortgages. As the IG notes,

Assessing the value of collateral securing mortgage loans is one of the pillars in making sound underwriting decisions. Since September 2008, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) has operated Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae (the Enterprises) in conservatorship, due to poor business decisions and risk management that led to enormous losses. While in conservatorship, the Enterprises have relied on Treasury’s financial support to operate in the secondary mortgage market, buying loans in order to provide needed liquidity to lenders. In 2010, FHFA directed the Enterprises to improve single-family residential loan quality and risk management through, among other things, developing a uniform collateral data portal (portal).

Unfortunately, the IG found that

  • from January 2013 through June 2013, Fannie Mae spent $13 billion buying over 56,000 loans even though the portal’s analysis of the associated appraisals warned the Enterprise that the appraisals were potentially in violation of its underwriting requirements.
  • from June 2013 through September 2013, Freddie Mac spent $6.7 billion buying over 29,000 loans despite the portal warning the Enterprise that either no property value could be provided or the value of the property was in question.
  • the Enterprises bought nearly $88 billion in loans when system logic errors in the portal did not allow them to determine if the appraiser was properly licensed to assess the value of the properties, which served as collateral for the loans.

The IG did not characterize these problems as particularly worrisome, but I wonder if they are somewhat symbolic of the limbo state that the Enterprises find themselves in. Like canaries in a coal mine, they alert us to a serious problem.

Neither private companies nor government instrumentalities, the Enterprises must stagger on until the federal government decides what to do with them. Let’s hope that the Enterprises are not silently building up to another crisis, one not driven by the profit-motive as the last one was, but driven by bureaucratic incompetence. “Bureaucratic” in the sense of the “rule of no one,” as Mary McCarthy defined it.

Fannie and Freddie’s current profitability should not be used as an excuse to delay reform further. They are too important to have been left in limbo for so long.


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