What’s the CFPB Ever Done for Housing?

TheStreet.com quoted me in What’s the CFPB Ever Done For Housing? Quite A Lot. It reads, in part,

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau grew out of the housing market crash of 2008 and subsequent Dodd-Frank legislation. As a watchdog with teeth, the CFPB’s job is to protect homebuyers from the predatory mortgages that helped sink the economy nine years ago. And it worked.

In theory.

Problem is, for some would-be homeowners, the CFPB is an inconvenient middle-man, adding more red tape to an already impossible situation. In short, it isn’t perfect. But with the Trump administration threatening to tear the whole damn thing down, you’ve got to wonder, is the CFPB really doing more harm to the housing market than good?

How we got here

Pre-housing market crash, the mortgage lending world was a vastly different, Wild West sort of landscape. Dodd-Frank and the CFPB entered the scene, in part, for lending oversight in that uncontrolled housing market. For example, once not-uncommon ‘liar loans,’ which were largely based on the borrower’s word and not much else-for instance, someone saying they made $100,000 a year to qualify for a huge home even though they made $30,000-are now illegal thanks to Dodd-Frank and the CFPB. Mortgage companies cashing in at the expensive of uneducated buyers happened, and it happened a lot.

“Just about everybody I talked to prior to 2008 thought the lending climate was out of control,” says Chandler Crouch, broker and owner of Chandler Crouch Realtors in Dallas-Fort Worth. “People were saying it couldn’t last. It just didn’t make sense. Lending requirements were too loose. Everybody, from Wall Street to the banks to the loan officers to the consumers, was being rewarded for making bad decisions. Lending needed to tighten.”

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“The CFPB has been criticized for restricting mortgage credit too much with its Qualified Mortgage and ability to repay rules,” says David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School who has practiced real estate law since 1998.

This was all done to ensure buyers could afford their home and not end up in foreclosure or short sale (and also avoid another economic collapse). These rules also bar lenders from predatory loans like massive balloon loans and shady adjustable rate mortgages.

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Will no CFPB = housing hellscape?

Let’s say the Republicans get their way and the CFPB goes poof. What happens?

“You’d see an expansion of the credit box-more people would be approved for credit,” says Reiss. “To the extent that credit is offered on good terms, that would be a good development. I think you would see more potential homebuyers being approved for mortgages which would drive up home prices in the short term as there would be more competition.”

But then there’s the opportunity for those really bad loans to come swinging back, which harm homeowners would have in the past and also trigger fears of another housing collapse.

“Liar loans would definitely have a comeback if the CFPB and Dodd-Frank were dismantled,” says Reiss. “The Qualified Mortgage and ability to repay rules were implemented as part of the broader Dodd-Frank rulemaking agenda; without those rules, credit would quickly return to its extreme boom and bust cycle, with liar loans a product that would pick up steam just as the boom reaches its heights…We would bemoan them once again as soon as the bust hits its depths.”

Dodd-Frank Repeal Unappealing for Homeowners

photo by Gage Skidmore

Congressman Jeb Hensarling

The Hill published my latest column, Why Repealing Dodd-Frank Is Unappealing if You Own a Home. It opens, 

President Trump has made it clear that he wished to dismantle the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Just two weeks after his inauguration, he issued an executive order to get the ball rolling by means of agency action, an effort that will be led by the Department of the Treasury. Trump will have lots of allies in Congress as he pursues this agenda. A recent memo by House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) to his committee’s leadership team outlines a legislative path that leads to much the same goal.

One of the key components of the Dodd-Frank regulatory regime was the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The bureau is responsible for administering a range of consumer protection regulations, some of which predate Dodd-Frank and some of which were mandated by it. Homeowners should sit up and take notice because a lot of protections they can now take for granted will be stripped away if this push is successful.

Many of these regulations protect homeowners as they obtain mortgages for their homes. Others protect homeowners over the life of the mortgages, particularly when they are having trouble keeping up with their mortgage payments because of those common life events that still knock us for a loop when they happen to us: job loss, divorce, medical bills, a death in the family.

Hensarling’s memo makes clear the extent to which he wants to weaken the CFPB. Among many other things, he wants to eliminate the bureau’s consumer education functions, bar it from commencing actions involving unfair, deceptive or abusive acts and practices, end its practice of tracking consumer complaints, and stop if from monitoring and conducting research on the consumer credit market.

Before the financial crisis, homeowners suffered from a range of abusive and predatory behaviors that were prevalent in the mortgage industry for years and years. Lenders would lend without regard to a borrower’s ability to repay a loan, so long as there was sufficient equity in the home to make the lender whole after a foreclosure. Dodd-Frank’s ability-to-repay rule keeps lenders from doing that now. Lenders would make loans that had large balloon payments at the end of the term, forcing unsophisticated borrowers to refinance with all of the fees and costs that that entails. The lenders would look at those refinancing costs as another profit center. Dodd-Frank’s qualified mortgage rule banned those abusive balloon payments for the most part.

While Hensarling claims that Dodd-Frank “clogs the arteries of capitalism,” he seems to forget that unfettered capitalism nearly gave us a fatal heart attack just 10 years ago, when the subprime mortgage crisis led us to the brink of a second Great Depression. He seems to forget that predatory mortgage lending is not only bad for the individuals affected by it, but also for the housing market and economy in general. Housing prices did not just fall for those with unsustainable mortgages—they fell for all of us.

The push to get rid of the CFPB is not being driven by the consumer finance industry. The industry has learned to live with the bureau. It has come to see that there are some benefits that accrue from primarily dealing with one regulator, in place of the patchwork of regulators that was the norm before Dodd-Frank. Rather, the push is being driven by an unfettered free market ideology that is out of step with the workings of the modern economy.

Getting rid of the CFPB will be bad for homeowners. They will no longer be able to assume that a mortgage they receive is one that has payments they can make month-in and month-out. They will need to treat lenders as predators because predatory lending will certainly return to the mortgage market. Caveat emptor.

The Jumbo/Conforming Spread

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Standard & Poor’s issued a research report, What Drives the Variation Between Conforming and Jumbo Mortgage Rates? It opens,

What drives the variation between the conforming and jumbo mortgage rates for the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) product offered in the U.S. residential housing market? While credit and interest rate risk are the main factors at play, S&P Global Ratings explores how these risks relate to capital market execution and whether this relationship translates into additional liquidity risk. In our study, we compare the historical spreads between the two average note rates over time, and we also examine the impact of certain loan credit characteristics. Our data indicate that the rate difference grows in periods for which the opportunity for securitization declines as a viable exit strategy for lenders. (1)

My main takeaways from the report are that (1) the decrease in securitization since the financial crisis has contributed to a wider spread between jumbo and conforming mortgages; (2) the high guaranty fee for conforming mortgages pushes down the spread between jumbo and conforming mortgages; and (3) the credit box appears to be loosening a bit, which should mean that jumbos will become available to more than the “super-prime” slice of the market.

Optimizing Mortgage Availability

"Barack Obama speaks to press in Diplomatic Reception Room 2-25-09" by Pete Souza - http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/09/02/25/Overhaul/. Licensed via ttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barack_Obama_speaks_to_press_in_Diplomatic_Reception_Room_2-25-09.jpg#/media/File:Barack_Obama_speaks_to_press_in_Diplomatic_Reception_Room_2-25-09.jpg

The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report, Mortgage Reforms: Actions Needed to Help Assess Effects of New Regulations. The GAO did this study to predict the effects of the Qualified Mortgage (QM) and Qualified Residential Mortgage (QRM) regulations. The GAO found

Federal agency officials, market participants, and observers estimated that the qualified mortgage (QM) and qualified residential mortgage (QRM) regulations would have limited initial effects because most loans originated in recent years largely conformed with QM criteria.

  • The QM regulations, which address lenders’ responsibilities to determine a borrower’s ability to repay a loan, set forth standards that include prohibitions on risky loan features (such as interest-only or balloon payments) and limits on points and fees. Lenders that originate QM loans receive certain liability protections.
  • Securities collateralized exclusively by residential mortgages that are “qualified residential mortgages” are exempt from risk-retention requirements. The QRM regulations align the QRM definition with QM; thus, securities collateralized solely by QM loans are not subject to risk-retention requirements.

The analyses GAO reviewed estimated limited effects on the availability of mortgages for most borrowers and that any cost increases (for borrowers, lenders, and investors) would mostly stem from litigation and compliance issues. According to agency officials and observers, the QRM regulations were unlikely to have a significant initial effect on the availability or securitization of mortgages in the current market, largely because the majority of loans originated were expected to be QM loans. However, questions remain about the size and viability of the secondary market for non-QRM-backed securities.

This last bit — questions about the non-QRM-backed market — is very important.

Some consumer advocates believe that there should not be any non-QRM mortgages. I disagree. There should be some sort of market for mortgages that do not comply with the strict (and, in the main, beneficial) QRM limitations.

Some homeowners will not be eligible for a plain vanilla QM/QRM mortgage but could still handle a mortgage responsibly. The mortgage markets would not be healthy without some kind of non-QRM-backed securities market for those consumers.

So far, that non-QRM market has been very small, smaller than expected. Regulators should continue to study the effects of the new mortgage regulations to ensure that they incentivize making the socially optimal amount of non-QRM mortgage credit available to homeowners.

The (R)evolution of Single-Family Rental Securitization

Kroll Bond Rating Agency distributed its Single-Family Rental Securitization Methodology. Because this is a new asset class, it is interesting to watch how rating agency’s assess the risks inherent in it. And it will be interesting, of course, to evaluate down the road whether they got it right or not. The Methodology states that

Single-family Rental (SFR) securitizations are a new class of asset-backed securities with characteristics of both commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) and residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS). Like CMBS, the primary source of certificateholder distributions during the term of an SFR transaction are loan debt service payments that are generated by income producing real estate collateral. Also like CMBS, there is an element of balloon risk, as SFR loans do not fully amortize over their terms, and the repayment of ultimate principal on the certificates is dependent upon a successful refinance of the loan or loans that serve as trust collateral. However, there is a broader source of demand for the single-family homes underlying an SFR securitization, which can be sold into the vast market for owner-occupied homes, totaling approximately 79 million units. In the event that the pool of single-family homes backing an SFR securitization needs to be partially or entirely liquidated due to an event of default either during the loan’s term or at the loan’s maturity, the expected recovery from such a distressed sale of homes would be largely determined by the conditions in the larger market for single-family homes, which is a primary focus of RMBS analysis.

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the SFR securitization market is currently characterized by large institutional sponsors that have engaged in purchasing and refurbishing large numbers of single-family homes in distressed markets over relatively short periods of time.

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As this is an evolving asset class, we will modify or adjust our methodology to address new transaction features as they emerge. SFR securitizations to date have been collateralized by a single large loan that is in turn secured by mortgages on several thousand income producing single-family homes. While this methodology is designed for this structure, it is also applicable to securitizations secured by a few large loans. Structures featuring a larger number of loans to distinct borrowers, many of whom may be non-institutional in nature, pose additional credit considerations that are not addressed herein. (3)

This summary demonstrates that there are a lot of new characteristics for this asset-class that Kroll is trying to capture in its rating methodology. These include the hybrid nature of the security itself; the hybrid nature of the underlying collateral for the security; the innovative business model of institutional investors entering the single-family market in a big way; and the possible entry of new players in that market, such as non-institutional ones; and changes in the type of collateral underlying the securities.

The takeaway for readers: don’t mistake the apparent simplicity of a rating (AAA, Aaa) as a signal of the solidity of the reasoning that went into it. Ratings, particularly those for new types of securities, are constantly evolving. To think otherwise is to risk being left holding a bag filled with all of lemons that the market has to offer to unsuspecting investors.