November 2, 2015
Michael Stegman, a White House Senior Policy Advisor, offered up the Obama Administration’s “perspective on critical housing issues” recently. (1) I found the remarks on the future of Fannie and Freddie to be of particular interest:
Before discussing what we would like to see happen in this Congress on GSE reform, you should be aware that last week the Administration made clear its opposition to taking any action in support of what has become known as “recap and release.” We believe that recapitalizing the GSEs with taxpayer funds and administratively- or legislatively-releasing them from conservatorship with a business model that conﬂicts with their public mission— in essence turning back the clock to the run up to the crisis~ would be both bad policy and poor stewardship of the taxpayers’ interest; willfully recreating the very system that helped do this nation so much harm.
ln remarks I presented two weeks ago at the Mortgage Bankers Association conference, I cautioned that no one should be misled by the increasingly noisy chorus of the advocates of recap and release, many of whom have placed big bets against reform so they can make a‘profit, and are doing everything they can to make sure that those bets pay off.
Nor, I said, should their promise that recap and release would generate a pot of money for affordable housing be taken seriously.
Despite claims to the contrary, recapitalizing the GSEs would not itself provide any resources for affordable housing. Nor can a related — or even unrelated — sale of Treasury’s investment in the GSEs provide any resources for affordable housing. The proceeds of the sale of any GSE obligations acquired by Treasury must by law be “dedicated for the sole purpose of deﬁcit reduction.”
Rather than freeing recapitalized GSEs from conservatorship with their flawed charters intact, we should pursue more comprehensive approaches to reform such as those that members of Congress have introduced over the past two years including mutualizing Fannie and Freddie, or build upon bipartisan agreements on the features of a future secondary market system that were hammered out in the Senate Banking Committee last year:
Preservation of the TBA market; an explicit, paid for government guarantee of catastrophic losses for investors in qualifying MBS; maintaining a clear separation of the primary and secondary markets; ensuring the flow of mortgage credit in both good times and bad; separating the securitization plumbing from private credit risk taking; ensuring that community lenders have the same access to the secondary market as big banks; and making the benefits of government guaranteed MBS available to all households — both those who choose to rent and those with the ability and desire to own.
Members in Congress also reached bipartisan consensus on a transparent way to serve those the private market cannot serve without subsidy, through an annual 10 basis point assessment on the outstanding balance of government-guaranteed MES—which once fully implemented, would generate about 15 times more resources a year for affordable housing than FHFA is expected to raise through the GSEs’ current affordable housing levy–though we were pleased to see the Director begin collections on the affordability fee and look forward to effectively implementing the dollars through the Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund that should become available for the first time in the early months of 2016.
But there is much more work to be done on ensuring a level playing field in the new system, including a robust role for community banks and credit unions who know how best to serve their customers, and ensuring that all communities are served fairly, which can be most effectively achieved through a statutory duty to serve. Regrettably, the Committee could not agree upon such a provision during last year’s negotiations, and we will continue to ﬁght for it. (3-4)
Much of these remarks are eminently reasonable but I have to say that the Obama Administration has not deployed much political capital on reforming the housing finance system. This has left the whole system in limbo and the longer it stays in limbo, the more likely it is that special interests will make inroads into the reform of the system, inroads that will not be in the public interest.
While the likelihood of reform coming out of the current Congress is incredibly small, the Administration should take all of the administrative steps it can to sketch out an outline of a housing finance system that can work for a broad range of borrowers through the credit cycle without putting excessive risk on taxpayers.
The Administration has taken some steps in the right direction, like off-loadling some risk
from Fannie and Freddie to private investors. But there is a lot more work to be done if we are to have a system that provides the optimal amount of credit through the 21st century.