Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

November 10, 2017

How Important Is Skin in The Game?

By David Reiss

Haoyang Liu has posted a paper to SSRN that challenges the effectiveness of skin-in-the-game market discipline: Does Skin-in-the-Game Discipline Risk Management? Evidence from Mortgage Insurance. The abstract reads,

Many mortgage reform proposals suggest replacing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the GSEs) with private entities. A common assumption underlying these proposals is that unlike the GSEs, private insurers will properly manage risk and set fair prices. Inconsistent with this assumption, this paper presents evidence that private insurers less effectively managed home price risks during the 2000-2006 housing boom than the GSEs did. Mortgage origination data reveal that the GSEs were selecting loans with increasingly higher percentages of down payments, or lower loan to value ratios (LTVs), in boom areas than in other areas. These lower LTVs in boom areas reduced the GSEs’ exposure to overheated markets. Furthermore, the decline of LTVs in boom areas stems entirely from the segment insured by the GSEs only, and none of the decline stems from the segment where private mortgage insurers take the first loss position. Private insurers also did not lower their exposure to home price risks along other dimensions, including the percentage of high LTV GSE loans they insured and the percentage of insured mortgage balance. My results highlight that post-crisis reform of the mortgage insurance industry should carefully consider additional factors besides moral hazard induced by the government guarantees, such as mortgage insurers’ future home price assumptions and the industry organization of the mortgage origination chain.

The paper’s conclusions are sobering for those interested in increasing the role of private capital in the mortgage market (including yours truly):

Many mortgage market reform proposals assume that private insurers will set fair prices and properly manage risk. Evidence from this paper suggests that private insurers less effectively managed home price risk during the 2000-2006 housing boom than Fannie and Freddie did.

These somewhat surprising results are nevertheless consistent with the history of the private mortgage insurance industry, including its repeated and concentrated failures. Most recently in the 2008 crash, three out of the eight largest private mortgage insurers failed. However, perhaps 31 overshadowed by the highly publicized and controversial bailout of the GSEs, private mortgage insurers’ failures have received relatively little attention from academics and the popular press. Many post-crisis proposals also assume that replacing the GSEs by private insurers would be a panacea. My results suggest that privatizing the GSEs alone is unlikely to ensure sufficient risk management in the mortgage insurance industry. Additional factors besides private capital, such as assumptions about future house prices and bargaining power of private insurers in front of large lenders, are important in shaping risk management practices. One way to establish reasonable house price assumptions is to stress test mortgage insurers, forcing the industry to consider their exposure to the housing downturn scenarios proposed by regulators.

The mortgage insurance industry plays a crucial role in financing Americans’ mortgages. Their insurance reduces or removes mortgage default risks, thereby enhancing the liquidity of mortgage backed securities and lowering homebuyers’ borrowing costs. The risks they face and the optimal regulatory structure for them deserve more study to prevent them from being a source of systemic risk in the financial system. (31-32)

The paper suggests that we should not expect that private mortgage insurers can play an outsized role in keeping us safe from booms and busts. They have succumbed to bubble thinking in the past and there is no reason to think that they would not in the future as well.

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