August 8, 2014
Conservative Underwriting or Regulatory Uncertainty?
Jordan Rappaport (Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City) and Paul Willen (Federal Reserve Bank of Boston) have posted a Current Policy Perspectives,Tight Credit Conditions Continue to Constrain The Housing Recovery. They write,
Rather than cutting off access to mortgage credit for a subset of households, ongoing credit tightness more likely takes the form of strict underwriting procedures applied to all households. Lenders require conservative appraisals, meticulous documentation, and the curing of even the slightest questions of title. To the extent that these standards constitute sound lending practices, adhering to them is a positive development. But the level of vigilance suggests that regulatory uncertainty may also be playing a role.
Since the housing crisis, the FHA, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and other government and private organizations have been continually developing a new regulatory framework. Lenders fear that departures from the evolving standards will result in considerable costs, including the forced buyback of loans sold to Fannie and Freddie and the rescinding of FHA mortgage guarantees. The associated uncertainty has caused lenders to act as if strict interpretations of possible restrictive future standards will apply. (2-3)
The authors raise an important question: has the federal government distorted the mortgage market in its pursuit of past wrongdoing and its regulation of behavior going forward? Anecdotal reports such as those about Chase’s withdrawal from the FHA market seem to suggest that the answer is yes. But it appears to me that Rappaport and Willen may be jumping the gun based on the limited data that they analyze in their paper.
Markets cycle from greed to fear, from boom to bust. The mortgage market is still in the fear part of the cycle and government interventions are undoubtedly fierce (just ask BoA). But the government should not chart its course based on short-term market conditions. Rather, it should identify fundamentals and stick to them. Its enforcement approach should reflect clear expectations about compliance with the law. And its regulatory approach should reflect an attempt to align incentives of market actors with government policies regarding appropriate underwriting and sustainable access to credit. The market will adapt to these constraints. These constraints should then help the market remain vibrant throughout the entire business cycle.| Permalink