January 8, 2015
Law360 quoted me in FHA Premium Cut Sets Up Fight Over Future Of Housing (behind a paywall). It reads in part,
President Barack Obama’s plan to lower premiums on Federal Housing Administration insurance has rekindled a battle with Republicans over the rehabilitation of the recently bailed out government mortgage insurer and the government’s role in the U.S. housing market more broadly.
Obama on Thursday officially laid out a plan that would see the FHA charge borrowers half a percentage point less on mortgage insurance premiums beginning this month in a move to boost affordability for the low- and middle-income borrowers who traditionally rely on FHA-backed mortgages.
The announcement came as the FHA continues to recover from a post-financial crisis shortfall that saw the long-standing program receive a $1.7 billion bailout from the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 2013, the first time the FHA has needed federal support.
Obama’s move on mortgage insurance premiums could make the road to a secure FHA take that much longer, and, coupled with earlier policy changes by the Federal Housing Finance Agency on mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, set up a renewed fight with Republicans over government support for the housing market.
“What’s at stake is not just housing prices and mortgage rates,” Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss said. “What’s implicit of all of this is: What’s the appropriate role of the government in the housing market?”
The president’s plan would see the FHA charge borrowers 0.85 percent annual premiums on their mortgage insurance, down from the 1.35 percent they currently pay. First-time homebuyers will see a $900 drop in their mortgage payments each year under the new policy, according to a fact sheet released Wednesday by the White House.
“It’ll help make owning a home more affordable for millions” around the country, Obama said in a speech in Phoenix on Thursday.
Housing analysts said that the move could help boost the housing market at the margins but would not entice a large number of first-time buyers to get into the housing market.
The lower mortgage insurance premium will prove to be “marginally beneficial for the average borrower, in our opinion, and consequently, we do not believe this news … is a catalyst for higher housing demand and higher earnings estimates,” Sterne Agee analyst Jay McCanless said in a note Thursday.
But what the rate cut does is put in clear relief Obama’s plan to boost the housing market and provide a strong government role in that key economic sector, even if it means potentially putting added pressure on the agencies that provide government assistance to the housing market. Those agencies include the FHA as well as the Federal Housing Finance Agency and the two failed mortgage giants over which it has authority, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
“The tension is between financial responsibility and public policy about housing,” Reiss said.
In the FHA’s case, lowering the mortgage insurance premium is likely to increase the amount of time that the agency will need to get to a 2 percent capital level that is mandated by Congress.
An independent audit of the FHA’s finances released late last year found that the agency’s Mutual Mortgage Insurance Fund stood at a positive $4.8 billion as of the end of September after being as much as $16.3 billion in the hole in 2012.
Still, while the gain on the fund has been real, its capital ratio stood at only 0.41 percent in that period, far lower than the mandated 2 percent.
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Obama had backed congressional efforts to eliminate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and boost private capital in the mortgage market, but they failed amid disagreements between the Senate and House Republicans. The issue is now largely dormant.
That has left a vacuum for Obama to fill, Reiss said.
“Because Congress refused to act, Republicans are going to be stuck with a more activist government because they refused to come to the table and put together a proposal that can pass,” he said.| Permalink