GSE Investors Propose Reform Blueprint

Moelis & Company, financial advisors to some of Fannie and Freddie investors including Paulson & Co. and Blackstone GSO Capital Partners, has release a Blueprint for Restoring Safety and Soundness to the GSEs. The blueprint is a version of a “recap and release” plan that greatly favors the interests of Fannie and Freddie’s private shareholders over the public interest. The blueprint contains the following elements:

1. Protects Taxpayers from Future Bailouts. This Blueprint protects taxpayers by restoring safety and soundness to two of the largest insurance companies in the United States, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This is achieved by (a) rebuilding a substantial amount of first-loss private capital, (b) imposing rigorous new risk and leverage-based capital standards, (c) facilitating the government’s exit from ownership in both companies, and (d) providing a mechanism to substantially reduce the government’s explicit backstop commitment facility over time.

2. Promotes Homeownership and Preserves the 30-Year Mortgage. This Blueprint ensures that adequate mortgage market liquidity is maintained, the GSE debt markets continue to function without interruption, and the affordable 30-year fixed-rate conventional mortgage remains widely accessible for every eligible American.

3. Repositions the GSEs as Single-Purpose Insurers. Given the substantial reforms implemented by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) since 2008, the GSEs can now be repositioned and safely operated as single-purpose insurers, bearing mortgage credit risk in exchange for guarantee fees with limited retained investment portfolios beyond that necessary for securitization “inventory” and loan purchases.

4. Enables Rebuild of Equity Capital while Winding Down the Government Backstop. The Net Worth Sweep served the purpose of dramatically accelerating the payback of Treasury’s investment in both companies. The focus must now turn to protecting taxpayers by rebuilding Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s equity capital and winding down the government’s backstop.

5. Repays the Government in Full for its Investment during the Great Recession. Treasury has retained all funds received to date during the conservatorships. The government has recouped the entire $187.5 billion that it originally invested, plus an additional $78.3 billion in profit, for total proceeds of $265.8 billion. Treasury’s profits to date on its investment in the GSEs are five times greater than the combined profit on all other investments initiated by Treasury during the financial crisis.

6. Produces an Additional $75 to $100 Billion of Profits for Taxpayers. Treasury can realize an estimated $75 to $100 billion in additional cash profits by exercising its warrants for 79.9% of each company’s common stock and subsequently selling those shares through secondary offerings. This monetization process, which follows the proven path of Treasury’s AIG and Ally Bank (GMAC) stock dispositions, could bring total government profits to $150 to $175 billion, the largest single U.S. government financial investment return in history.

7. Implements Reform Under Existing Authority. This Blueprint articulates a feasible path to achieving the Administration’s GSE reform objectives with the least amount of execution risk. It can be fully implemented during the current presidential term by FHFA in collaboration with Treasury utilizing their existing legal authorities. Congress could build on these reforms to develop an integrated national housing finance policy that accounts for the Federal Housing Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Rural Housing Service, and emphasizes (i) affordable housing, (ii) safety and soundness, and (iii) universal and fair access to mortgage credit for all Americans. (1)

As can be seen from the last paragraph, GSE investors are trying to use the logjam in the Capitol to their own advantage. They are arguing that because Congress has not been able to get real reform bill passed, it makes sense to implement a reform plan administratively. There is nothing wrong with such an approach, but this plan would benefit investors more than the public.

My takeaway from this blueprint is that the longer Fannie and Freddie remain in limbo, the more likely it is that special interests will win the day and the public interest will fall by the wayside.

Federalizing Monoline Mortgage Insurance

The Federal Insurance Office of the Department of Treasury issued a report required pursuant to Dodd-Frank, How To Modernize And Improve The System Of Insurance Regulation In The United States, which addresses among other things the state of the monoline mortgage insurance industry:

Recommendation: Federal standards and oversight for mortgage insurers should be developed and implemented.

Like financial guarantors, private mortgage insurers are monoline companies that experienced devastating losses during the financial crisis. A business predominantly focused on providing credit enhancement to mortgages guaranteed by the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, mortgage insurers migrated from the core business of insuring conventional, well-underwritten mortgage loans to providing insurance on pools of Alt-A and subprime mortgages in the years leading up to the financial crisis. The dramatic decline in housing prices and the impact of the change in underwriting practices required mortgage insurers to draw down capital and reserves to pay claims resulting in the failure of three out of the eight mortgage insurers in the United States. Historically high levels of claim denials, including policy rescissions, helped put taxpayers at risk.

Regulatory oversight of mortgage insurance varies state by state. Though mortgage insurance coverage is provided nationally, only 16 states impose specific requirements on private mortgage insurers. Of these requirements, two govern the solvency regime and, therefore, are of particular significance: (1) a limit on total liability, net of reinsurance, for all policies of 25 times the sum of capital, surplus, and contingency reserves, (known as a 25:1 risk-to-capital ratio); and (2) a requirement of annual contributions to a contingency reserve equal to 50 percent of the mortgage insurer’s earned premium. In addition to the states, the GSEs (and through conservatorship, the Federal Housing Finance Agency) establish uniform standards and eligibility requirements that in some cases are more stringent than those required by state regulators. As the financial crisis unfolded, mortgage insurers no longer met state or contractual capital requirements. State regulators granted waivers in order to allow mortgage insurers to continue to write new business while the GSEs loosened other standards that were applicable to mortgage insurers.

The private mortgage insurance sector is interconnected with other aspects of the federal housing finance system and, therefore, is an issue of significant national interest. As the United States continues to recover from the financial crisis and works to reform aspects of the housing finance system, private mortgage insurance may be an important component of any reform package as an alternative way to place private capital in front of any government or taxpayer risk. Robust national solvency and business practice standards, with uniform implementation, for mortgage insurers would help foster greater confidence in the solvency and performance of housing finance. To achieve this objective, it is necessary to establish federal oversight of federally developed standards applicable to mortgage insurance. (31-32)

This critique of the monoline insurance industry seems accurate to me. The industry has a tendency to fail when it is needed most — during major financial crises. Having multiple states regulate monoline insurers allows this nationally (and globally) significant industry to engage in regulatory arbitrage — that is, finding the most pliable regulatory environment in which to operate. National regulation would solve that problem. As always, a single federal regulator is more prone to capture by the industry it regulates than a bunch of state regulators. We have, however, tried the alternative and it has not worked so well. I think a federal approach is worth a try.