Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

January 16, 2014

Mortgage REITs and Other Frights

By David Reiss

The Office of Financial Research in the Department of the Treasury has released its 2013 Annual Report. It describes a number of things that should scare you as you put your head on your pillow at night and dream of the financial markets. It also describes some important steps that OFR is taking to get a handle on these potential nightmares.

One of the nightmares, relevant to readers of this blog, are Mortgage REITs. Mortgage Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) are “leveraged investment vehicles that borrow shorter-term funds in the repo market and invest in longer-term agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS).” (16) OFR identifies serious problems in this subsector:

Mortgage REITs have grown nearly fourfold since 2008 and now own about $350 billion of MBS, or 5 percent of the agency MBS market. Two firms dominate the sector, collectively holding two-thirds of assets. By leveraging investor funds about eight times, mortgage REITs returned annual dividend yields of about 15 percent to their investors over the past four years, when most fixed-income investments earned far less.Mortgage REITs obtain nearly all of their leverage in the repo market, secured by MBS collateral.

Lenders typically require that borrowers pledge 5 percent more collateral than the value of the loan,which implies that a mortgage REIT that is leveraged eight times must pledge more than 90 percent of its MBS portfolio to secure repo financing, leaving few unencumbered assets on its balance sheet. If repo lenders demand significantly more collateral or refuse to extend credit in adverse circumstances, mortgage REITs may be forced to sell MBS holdings. Timely asset liquidation and settlement may not be feasible in some cases, since a large portion of agency MBS trades occurs in a market that settles only once a month . . ..

Although their MBS holdings account for a relatively small share of the market, distress among mortgage REITs could have impacts on the broader repo market because agency MBS accounts for roughly one-third of the collateral in the triparty repo market. Mortgage REITs also embody interest rate and convexity risks, concentration risk, and leverage. For these reasons, forced-asset sales by mortgage REITs could amplify price declines and volatility in the MBS market and  broader funding markets, particularly in an already stressed market. (17)

Sounds like systemic risk to me.

Happily, the report also contains policy proposals to address some of these systemic risk concerns. First and foremost, it proposes the adoption of a Financial Stability Monitor tool to track financial threats. The OFR also proposes mortgage-specific tools. Reiterating the findings in a recent OFR white paper, the report calls for the creation of a universal mortgage identifier so that regulators and researchers can more quickly identify patterns in the mortgage market. Predicting financial crises is still more of an art than a science but it is a good development that OFR is trying to improve the quality of the data that regulators and researchers have about the financial market.

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