Housing Finance Reform Endgame?

The Hill published my column, There is Hope of Housing Finance Reform That Works for Americans.  It opens,

The Trump administration released its long awaited housing finance reform report and it is a game changer. The report makes clear that it is game over for the status quo of leaving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in their conservatorship limbo. Instead, it sets forth concrete steps to recapitalize and release the two entities. This has been a move that investors, particularly vulture investors who bought in after the two companies entered into their conservatorships, have clamored for.

It is not, however, one that is in the best interests of homeowners and taxpayers. The report recognizes that there are better alternatives. Indeed, it explicitly states that the “preference and recommendation is that Congress enact comprehensive housing finance reform legislation.” But the report also states that the conservatorships, which are more than a decade old, have gone on for too long. So the report throws down a gauntlet to Congress that if it does not take action, the administration will begin the formal process of implementing the next best solution.

Treasury’s Take on Housing Finance Reform

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Being Sworn In

The Department of the Treasury released its Strategic Plan for 2018-2022. One of its 17 Strategic Objectives is to promote housing finance reform:

Support housing finance reform to resolve Government-Sponsored Enterprise (GSE) conservatorships and prevent taxpayer bailouts of public and private mortgage finance entities, while promoting consumer choice within the mortgage market.

Desired Outcomes

Increased share of mortgage credit supported by private capital; Resolution of GSE conservatorships; Appropriate level of sustainable homeownership.

Why Does This Matter?

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been in federal conservatorship for nine years. Taxpayers continue to stand behind their obligations through capital support agreements while there is no clear path for the resolution of their conservatorship. The GSEs, combined with federal housing programs such as those at the Federal Housing Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, support more than 70 percent of new mortgage originations. Changes should encourage the entry of greater private capital in the U.S. housing finance system. Resolution of the GSE conservatorships and right-sizing of federal housing programs is necessary to support a more sustainable U.S. housing finance system. (16)

The Plan states that Treasury’s strategies to achieve these objectives are to engage “stakeholders to develop housing finance reform recommendations.” (17) These stakeholders include Congress, the FHFA, Fed, SEC, CFPB, FDIC, HUD (including the FHA), VA, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Association of State Banking Regulators as well as “The Public.” Treasury further intends to disseminate “principles and recommendations for housing finance reform” and plan “for the resolution of current GSE conservatorships.” (Id.)

This is all to the good of course, but it is at such a high level of generality that it tells us next to nothing. In this regard, Trump’s Treasury is not all that different from Obama and George W. Bush’s. Treasury has not taken a lead on housing finance reform since the financial crisis began. While there is nothing wrong with letting Congress take the lead on this issue, it would move things forward if Treasury created an environment in which housing finance reform was clearly identified as a priority in Washington. Nothing good will come from letting Fannie and Freddie limp along in conservatorship for a decade or more.

The Miraculous Continuous Workout Mortgage

Professor Robert Shiller

Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller et al. have posted Continuous Workout Mortgages: Efficient Pricing and Systemic Implications to SSRN. The paper opens,

The ad hoc measures taken to resolve the subprime crisis involved expending financial resources to bail out banks without addressing the wave of foreclosures. These short-term amendments negate parts of mortgage contracts and question the disciplining mechanism of finance. Moreover, the increase in volatility of house prices in recent years exacerbated the crisis. In contrast to ad hoc approaches, we propose a mortgage contract, the Continuous Workout Mortgage (CWM), which is robust to downturns. We demonstrate how CWMs can be offered to homeowners as an ex ante solution to non-anticipated real estate price declines.

The Continuous Workout Mortgage (CWM, Shiller (2008b)) is a two-in-one product: a fixed rate home loan coupled with negative equity insurance. More importantly its payments are linked to home prices and adjusted downward when necessary to prevent negative equity. CWMs eliminate the expensive workout of defaulting on a plain vanilla mortgage. This subsequently reduces the risk exposure of financial institutions and thus the government to bailouts. CWMs share the price risk of a home with the lender and thus provide automatic adjustments for changes in home prices. This feature eliminates the rational incentive to exercise the costly option to default which is embedded in the loan contract. Despite sharing the underlying risk, the lender continues to receive an uninterrupted stream of monthly payments. Moreover, this can occur without multiple and costly negotiations. (1, references omitted)

If it is not obvious, this is a radical idea.  It was not even contemplated before the financial crisis. That being said, it is pretty brilliant financial innovation, one that should not just be discussed by academics. The paper provides a lot more detail about the proposal for those who are interested. And if you want to avoid taxpayer bailouts of the housing market in the future, you should be interested.

Time Is Ripe For GSE Reform

photo by Valerie Everett

Banker and Tradesman quoted me in Time Is Ripe For GSE Reform (behind a paywall). It opens,

Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) Director Melvin L. Watt told the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs last month that “Congress urgently needs to act on housing finance reform” and bring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac out of conservatorship after almost nine years.

Conservatorship is temporary by its very nature. There is universal agreement that it can’t go on forever, but there is widespread disagreement about what the government-sponsored entities (GSEs) should look like after coming out of conservatorship – and how to get there.

“Only a legislative solution can provide political legitimacy and long term market certainty for the housing finance system,” according to a recent Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) white paper on GSE reform. MBA President and CEO Dave Stevens said now is the time for Congress to tackle the changes that will maintain liquidity, but protect taxpayers and homebuyers.

“The last recession destroyed many communities throughout the country,” he said. “The GSEs played a large role in that. They fueled a lot of the capital that allowed all varieties of lenders to make risky loans and then received the single-largest bailout in the history of this nation. They are not innocent.”

Connecticut Mortgage Bankers Association President Kevin Moran said his organization supports the positions of the MBA.

“There’s going to be change no matter what,” Stevens said. “We’re stuck with this problem. It’s technical and complicated and needs to be done. They can’t stay in conservatorship forever.”

Taxpayers Need Protection

Professor David Reiss at Brooklyn Law School said that future delays are not out of the question.

“Change is coming, but the Treasury and FHFA can amend the PSPA [agreement] again,” Reiss said. “It’s been amended three times already. There’s a little bit of political theatre going on here. It’s incredibly important for the economy. You really hope that the broad middle of the government can come to a compromise. If there isn’t the political will to move forward, they can simply kick the can down the road.”

Reiss said the fact that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are both going to run out of money by January 2018 is a factor in why reform is needed soon, but the GSEs aren’t in danger of imminent collapse.

“They are literally going to run out of money,” Reiss said. “But keep in mind they will continue to have a $2.5 billion line of credit. It’s partially political. They’re trying to get the public conscious of this. I don’t think anyone in the broad middle of the political establishment thinks it’s good that they’ve been in limbo for nine years.”
The MBA’s proposal to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac aims to ensure that crashes like the one in 2007-2008 never happen again, in part by raising the minimum capital balance GSEs have to maintain to a level at least as high as banks and other lenders.

“They have a capital standard that is absurd,” Stevens said. “Pre-conservatorship they had to have less than 0.5 percent capital. Banks are required to maintain 4 percent of their loan value against mortgages. That’s a regulated standard. Fannie and Freddie are not as diversified as banks are. Our view is to make sure they are sustainable; they should at least a 4 to 5 percent buffer to protect them against failure.”

To put that into context, a 3.5 percent buffer would have been just large enough for the GSEs to weather the last housing crash without the need for a taxpayer-funded bailout. Stevens said the MBA would go even further.

“They should also pay a fee for every loan that goes into an insurance fund in the event all else fails,” he said. “In the event of a catastrophic failure, that would be the last barrier before having to rely on taxpayers. Keep in mind: for years, shareholders made billions and when they failed taxpayers took 100 percent of the losses.”

Stevens said the MBA would like to see more competition in the secondary market, and that the current duopoly isn’t much better than a monopoly.

“There should be more competitors,” he said. “If either one [Fannie or Freddie] fails, you almost have to bail them out. Our goal is to have a highly regulated industry to support the American finance system without using the portfolio to make bets on the marketplace.”

A Bipartisan Issue

While some conservatives like Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) have called for getting the government out of the mortgage business altogether, Stevens said that would likely mean the end of the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage.

Furthermore, GSEs are required to serve underserved communities. Private companies would be more likely to back the most profitable loans.

“The GSEs play a really important role in counter-cyclical markets,” Stevens said. “When credit conditions shift, private money disappears. We saw that in 2007. It put extraordinary demands on Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae. You need a continuous flow of capital. You can put controls in place so it can expand and contract when needed.”

Reiss said getting the government out of the mortgage business would certainly mean some big changes.

“I think there is some evidence that some 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages could still exist,” Reiss said. “It would dramatically change their availability, though. Interest rates would go up somewhere between one-half and 1 percent. Some people might like that because it reflects the actual risk of a residential mortgage, but it would also make housing more expensive.”

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.

AIG Suit Strengthens Government Powers

photo by Tim Evanson

Law360 quoted me in Greenberg’s AIG Loss Strengthens Gov’t’s Crisis Powers (behind a paywall). It reads, in part,

The Federal Circuit’s decision reversing Maurice R. “Hank” Greenberg’s win in his campaign against the U.S. government over its bailout of American International Group Inc. was the latest in a string of defeats for investors challenging financial crisis bailouts, and could further strengthen the government’s hand in future crises, experts say.

The Federal Circuit on Tuesday rejected claims by Greenberg, AIG’s former chief executive, and his current company, Starr International Co. Inc., that the government engaged in an unconstitutional taking of property when it demanded and received 80 percent of the giant insurance company’s stock in exchange for an $85 billion bailout in September 2008.

Although the appellate panel overturned a lower court ruling by rejecting Greenberg’s standing to sue, it came in the wake of a series of rulings against shareholders in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Those shareholders are seeking to overturn a President Barack Obama-era move to sweep profits from the bailed out mortgage giants back to the U.S. Department of the Treasury rather than into shareholder dividends, cases courts have repeatedly rejected.

Those wins mean that courts are giving the government wide latitude to respond to a financial crisis, even if some shareholders are harmed, said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

“There’s now a lot of judges who have come down to effectively say, ‘The government had very broad authority to address the financial crisis, and we’re not going to second-guess that,'” he said.

Greenberg’s campaign against the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department and other arms of the U.S. government stems from the effort to bail out AIG in 2008 after it was brought to the brink of insolvency due to the failure of credit default swaps held by its structured finance unit.

In exchange for the $85 billion loan that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York ultimately extended, AIG and its board agreed to hand over nearly 80 percent of its equity and fire its top executives.

Greenberg, who left AIG in 2005 under a cloud, and his current firm Starr International were the largest shareholders in the world’s largest insurer, and argued in a 2011 lawsuit that the government had engaged in an illegal taking of shareholder property.

Federal Claims Judge Thomas C. Wheeler agreed with at least part of Greenberg’s argument in a June 2015 decision, saying that the Fed had placed unduly tough terms on AIG in exchange for the bailout loan, with those terms exceeding the central bank’s authority under Section 13(3) of the Bank Holding Company Act.

However, Judge Wheeler did not award any damages to Greenberg and shareholders in the class action, arguing that their shares would have been worth nothing without the government’s action.

Both Greenberg and the government appealed, and the Federal Circuit on Tuesday reversed Judge Wheeler’s holding on the question of whether the government exceeded its authority by placing tough terms on the bailout.

However, the opinion did not focus on the government’s actions but on the question of standing. Greenberg and his company did not have it, so the rest of his argument was moot, the panel said.

    *     *     *

While the Federal Circuit did not address the substance of Greenberg’s claims, the U.S. Supreme Court might.

Greenberg and Starr said Tuesday they plan to take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the high court takes up the case, despite a lack of a circuit split on the issue of lawsuits over financial crisis-era bailouts, they could set the terms under which the government acts in a future financial crisis.

But even without a Supreme Court ruling in their favor, the government should feel that it is on stronger legal ground during a financial crisis with its two wins at the appellate court level, Reiss said.

“Companies who are looking to reverse government actions at the height of the financial crisis … are having a really tough row to hoe,” he said.

Budding GSE Reform

The Mortgage Bankers Association has released a paper on GSE Reform: Creating a Sustainable, More Vibrant Secondary Mortgage Market (link to paper on this page). This paper builds on a shorter version that the MBA released a few months ago. Jim Parrott of the Urban Institute has provided a helpful comparison of the basic MBA proposal to two other leading proposals. This longer paper explains in detail

MBA’s recommended approach to GSE reform, the last piece of unfinished business from the 2008 financial crisis. It outlines the key principles and guardrails that should guide the reform effort and provides a detailed picture of a new secondary-market end state. It also attempts to shed light on two critical areas that have tested past reform efforts — the appropriate transition to the post-GSE system and the role of the secondary market in advancing an affordable-housing strategy. GSE reform holds the potential to help stabilize the housing market for decades to come. The time to take action is now. (1)

Basically, the MBA proposes that Fannie and Freddie be rechartered into two of a number of competitors that would guarantee mortgage-backed securities (MBS).  All of these guarantors would be specialized mortgage companies that are to be treated as regulated utilities owned by private shareholders. These guarantors would issue standardized MBS through the Common Securitization Platform that is currently being designed by Fannie and Freddie pursuant to the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s instructions.

These MBS would be backed by the full faith and credit of the the federal government as well as by a federal mortgage insurance fund (MIF), which would be similar to the Federal Housing Administration’s MMI fund. This MIF would cover catastrophic losses. Like the FHA’s MMI fund, the MIF could be restored by means of higher premiums after the catastrophe had been dealt with.  This model would protect taxpayers from having to bail out the guarantors, as they did with Fannie and Freddie at the onset of the most recent financial crisis.

The MBA proposal is well thought out and should be taken very seriously by Congress and the Administration. That is not to say that it is the obvious best choice among the three that Parrott reviewed. But it clearly addresses the issues of concern to the broad middle of decision-makers and housing policy analysts.

Not everyone is in that broad middle of course. But there is a lot for the Warren wing of the Democratic party to like about this proposal as it includes affordable housing goals and subsidies. The Hensarling wing of the Republican party, on the other hand, is not likely to embrace this proposal because it still contemplates a significant role for the federal government in housing finance. We’ll see if a plan of this type can move forward without the support of the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee.