An Inquest into the Subprime Crisis

, image by Paul Townsend

Coroners Inquests in Gloucestershire from The Gloucester Journal 1814

Juan Ospina and Harald Uhlig have posted Mortgage-Backed Securities and the Financial Crisis of 2008: A Post-Mortem to SSRN. Given that the market for private-label MBS pretty much died by 2008, the title is apt. The paper presents a challenge to many of the standard narratives that have developed to explain the causes of the subprime crisis and the broader financial crisis that followed. Other researchers in this area will surely take up the gauntlet thrown down by this paper. Hopefully, we will collectively come up with the right narrative to explain the whole mess. The paper opens,

Gradually, the deep financial crisis of 2008 is in the rearview mirror. With that, standard narratives have emerged, which will inform and influence policy choices and public perception in the future for a long time to come. For that reason, it is all the more important to examine these narratives with the distance of time and available data, as many of these narratives were created in the heat of the moment.

One such standard narrative has it that the financial meltdown of 2008 was caused by an overextension of mortgages to weak borrowers, repackaged and then sold to willing lenders drawn in by faulty risk ratings for these mortgage back securities. To many, mortgage backed securities and rating agencies became the key villains of that financial crisis. In particular, rating agencies were blamed for assigning the coveted AAA rating to many securities, which did not deserve it, particularly in the subprime segment of the market, and that these ratings then lead to substantial losses for institutional investors, who needed to invest in safe assets and who mistakenly put their trust in these misguided ratings.

In this paper, we re-examine this narrative. We seek to address two questions in particular. First, were these mortgage backed securities bad investments? Second, were the ratings wrong? We answer these questions, using a new and detailed data set on the universe of non-agency residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS), obtained by devoting considerable work to carefully assembling data from Bloomberg and other sources. This data set allows us to examine the actual repayment stream and losses on principal on these securities up to 2014, and thus with a considerable distance since the crisis events. In essence, we provide a post-mortem on a market that many believe to have died in 2008. We find that the conventional narrative needs substantial rewriting: the ratings and the losses were not nearly as bad as this narrative would lead one to believe.

Specifically, we calculate the ex-post realized losses as well as ex-post realized return on investing on par in these mortgage backed securities, under various assumptions of the losses for the remaining life time of the securities. We compare these realized returns to their ratings in 2008 and their promised loss distributions, according to tables available from the rating agencies. We shall investigate, whether ratings were a sufficient statistic (to the degree that a discretized rating can be) or whether they were, essentially, just “noise”, given information already available to market participants at the time of investing such as ratings of borrowers.

We establish seven facts. First, the bulk of these securities was rated AAA. Second, AAA securities did ok: on average, their total cumulated losses up to 2013 are 2.3 percent. Third, the subprime AAA-rated segment did particularly well. Fourth, later vintages did worse than earlier vintages, except for subprime AAA securities. Fifth, the bulk of the losses were concentrated on a small share of all securities. Sixth, the misrating for AAA securities was modest. Seventh, controlling for a home price bust, a home price boom was good for the repayment on these securities. (1-2)

Nonbanks and The Next Crisis



Researchers at the Fed and UC Berkeley have posted Liquidity Crises in the Mortgage Markets. The authors conclusions are particularly troubling:

The nonbank mortgage sector has boomed in recent years. The combination of low interest rates, well-functioning GSE and Ginnie Mae securitization markets, and streamlined FHA and VA programs have created ample opportunities for nonbanks to generate revenue by refinancing mortgages. Commercial banks have been happy to supply warehouse lines of credit to nonbanks at favorable rates. Delinquency rates have been low, and so nonbanks have not needed to finance servicing advances.

In this paper, we ask “What happens next?” What happens if interest rates rise and nonbank revenue drops? What happens if commercial banks or other financial institutions lose their taste for extending credit to nonbanks? What happens if delinquency rates rise and servicers have to advance payments to investors—advances that, in the case of Ginnie Mae pools, the servicer cannot finance, and on which they might take a sizable capital loss?

We cannot provide reassuring answers to any of these questions. The typical nonbank has few resources with which to weather these shocks. Nonbanks with servicing portfolios concentrated in Ginnie Mae pools are exposed to a higher risk of borrower default and higher potential losses in the event of such a default, and yet, as far as we can tell from our limited data, have even less liquidity on hand than other nonbanks. Failure of these nonbanks in particular would have a disproportionate effect on lower-income and minority borrowers.

In the event of the failure of a nonbank, the government (through Ginnie Mae and the GSEs) will probably bear the majority of the increased credit and operational losses that will follow. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the government shared some mortgage credit losses with the banking system through putbacks and False Claims Act prosecutions. Now, however, the banks have largely retreated from lending to borrowers with lower credit scores and instead lend to nonbanks through warehouse lines of credit, which provide banks with numerous protections in the event of nonbank failure.

Although the monitoring of nonbanks on the part of the GSEs, Ginnie Mae, and the state regulators has increased substantially over the past few years, the prudential regulatory minimums, available data, and staff resources still seem somewhat lacking relative to the risks. Meanwhile, researchers and analysts without access to regulatory data have almost no way to assess the risks. In addition, although various regulators are engaged in micro-prudential supervision of individual nonbanks, less thought is being given, in the housing finance reform discussions and elsewhere, to the question of whether it is wise to concentrate so much risk in a sector with such little capacity to bear it, and a history, at least during the financial crisis, of going out of business. We write this paper with the hope of elevating this question in the national mortgage debate. (52-53)

As with last week’s paper on Mortgage Insurers and The Next Housing Crisis, this paper is a wake-up call to mortgage-market policymakers to pay attention to where the seeds of the next mortgage crisis may be hibernating, awaiting just the right conditions to sprout up.

Preparing for the Next Housing Tsunami

Greg Kaplan et al. posted The Housing Boom and Bust: Model Meets Evidence to SSRN. The abstract reads,

We build a model of the U.S. economy with multiple aggregate shocks (income, housing finance conditions, and beliefs about future housing demand) that generate fluctuations in equilibrium house prices. Through a series of counterfactual experiments, we study the housing boom and bust around the Great Recession and obtain three main results. First, we find that the main driver of movements in house prices and rents was a shift in beliefs. Shifts in credit conditions do not move house prices but are important for the dynamics of home ownership, leverage, and foreclosures. The role of housing rental markets and long-term mortgages in alleviating credit constraints is central to these findings. Second, our model suggests that the boom-bust in house prices explains half of the corresponding swings in non-durable expenditures and that the transmission mechanism is a wealth effect through household balance sheets. Third, we find that a large-scale debt forgiveness program would have done little to temper the collapse of house prices and expenditures, but would have dramatically reduced foreclosures and induced a small, but persistent, increase in consumption during the recovery.

I think the last sentence is worth pondering a bit:  “a large-scale debt forgiveness program would have done little to temper the collapse of house prices and expenditures, but would have dramatically reduced foreclosures and induced a small, but persistent, increase in consumption during the recovery.” During the Great Depression, the federal government took steps that relieved the debt burden of over a million households by extending the terms of their mortgages and lowering the interest rates on them.

While this was no panacea, it did let millions stay in their homes during a period of great financial stress. The steps taken to help struggling homeowners during the recent Great Recession were much more timid than those taken during the Great Depression. This paper adds to a body of literature that suggests we should not be so timid the next time we are hit by an economic tsunami.

American Bankers on Mortgage Market Reform

The American Bankers Association has issued a white paper, Mortgage Lending Rules: Sensible Reforms for Banks and Consumers. The white paper contains a lot of common sense suggestions but its lack of sensitivity to consumer concerns greatly undercuts its value. It opens,

The Core Principles for Regulating the United States Financial System, enumerated in Executive Order 13772, include the following that are particularly relevant to an evaluation of current U.S. rules and regulatory practices affecting residential mortgage finance:

(a) empower Americans to make independent financial decisions and informed choices in the marketplace, save for retirement, and build individual wealth;

(c) foster economic growth and vibrant financial markets through more rigorous regulatory impact analysis that addresses systemic risk and market failures, such as moral hazard and information asymmetry; and

(f) make regulation efficient, effective, and appropriately tailored.

The American Bankers Association offers these views to the Secretary of the Treasury in relation to the Directive that he has received under Section 2 of the Executive Order.

 Recent regulatory activity in mortgage lending has severely affected real estate finance. The existing regulatory regime is voluminous, extremely technical, and needlessly prescriptive. The current regulatory regimen is restricting choice, eliminating financial options, and forcing a standardization of products such that community banks are no longer able to meet their communities’ needs.

 ABA recommends a broad review of mortgage rules to refine and simplify their application. This white paper advances a series of specific areas that require immediate modifications to incentivize an expansion of safe lending activities: (i) streamline and clarify disclosure timing and methodologies, (ii) add flexibility to underwriting mandates, and (iii) fix the servicing rules.

 ABA advises that focused attention be devoted to clarifying the liability provisions in mortgage regulations to eliminate uncertainties that endanger participation and innovation in the real estate finance sector. (1, footnote omitted)

Its useful suggestions include streamlining regulations to reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens; clarifying legal liabilities that lenders face so that they can act more freely without triggering outsized criminal and civil liability in the ordinary course of business; and creating more safe harbors for products that are not prone to abuse.

But the white paper is written as if the subprime boom and bust of the early 2000s never happened. It pays not much more than lip service to consumer protection regulation, but it seeks to roll it back significantly:

ABA is fully supportive of well-regulated markets where well-crafted rules are effective in protecting consumers against abuse. Banks support clear disclosures and processes to assure that consumers receive clear and comprehensive information that enables them to understand the transaction and make the best decision for their families. ABA does not, therefore, advocate for a wholesale deconstruction of existing consumer protection regulations . . . (4)

If we learned anything from the subprime crisis it is that disclosure is not enough.  That is why the rules.  Could these rules be tweaked? Sure.  Should they be dramatically weakened? No. Until the ABA grapples with the real harm done to consumers during the subprime era, their position on mortgage market reform should be taken as a special interest position paper, not a white paper in the public interest.

Minority Homeownership During the Great Recession

photo by Daniel X. O'Neil

Print by Andy Kane

Carlos Garriga et al. have posted The Homeownership Experience of Minorities During the Great Recession to SSRN. The paper concludes,

The Great Recession wiped out much of the homeownership gains attained during the housing boom. However, the homeownership experience was very different across racial and ethnic groups. Black and Hispanic borrowers experienced substantial repayment difficulties that ultimately led to a greater share of homes in foreclosure.

Given that home equity often represents a substantial share of household wealth, these foreclosure events severely damaged the balance sheets of minority families. The dynamics of delinquency and foreclosure functioned differently across the income distribution within racial and ethnic groups.

For the majority, higher income was associated with lower delinquency rates and fewer foreclosures as a group. However, for Hispanic families this relationship was surprisingly reversed. Hispanics with the highest incomes fared worse than those with the lowest incomes. This counterintuitive finding suggests how college-educated Hispanic families may have had worse wealth outcomes than their non-college-educated peers: Hispanic families with high income (potentially the result of high educational attainment) had a greater share of home equity lost in foreclosure than lower-income Hispanic families.

Logit regressions suggest that underwriting standards and loan structure explain a significant amount of the greater likelihood of foreclosure among Black and Hispanic borrowers. However, underwriting standards explained more of the gap for Black borrowers, while loan structure was a stronger factor among Hispanic borrowers. Regional concentration and variation in housing markets explained more of the Hispanic-White foreclosure gap than any other group. This is understandable given that Hispanic borrowers in our sample were heavily concentrated in housing markets that experienced some of the largest volatility. Despite accounting for these important factors, sizable gaps remain in foreclosures among Blacks and Hispanics relative to Whites. Incorporating measures of labor market outcomes into the analysis may offer further insights.

In sum, the homeownership experience during the Great Recession proved to be inimical for many families, but far more so for Black and Hispanic families. For these families, financially destructive foreclosure events delayed and potentially derailed the dream of homeownership. (164-65)

I am not sure what this all means for housing finance policy other than the obvious: consumer protection in the mortgage market is a good thing as it ensures that underwriting standards evaluate ability-to-repay and loan structures exclude abusive terms like teaser rates (thanks to the ATR and QM rules and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). There are probably other policies that we should consider to reduce the depths of our busts, but they do not seem likely to gain traction in the current political environment.

What’s the CFPB Ever Done for Housing? 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.”

*     *     *

“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.

*     *     *

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.”

Is Trump a Negative for the Housing Market? quoted me in Is Trump a Negative for the Housing Market? It opens,

At first blush, real estate industry professionals saw a lot to like with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Trump was and is pro-business, and he made his billions in the commercial real estate sector. This, real estate pro’s thought, is a guy who has the industry’s back.

But not every real estate specialist views the Trump presidency as a net positive.

Take Tommy Sowers, from GoldenKey, a real estate technology platform with locations in San Francisco and Durham, N.C.

Sowers holds a “strong belief” that President Donald Trump will actually be detrimental for the real estate industry, making it less affordable for Americans to buy homes.

“During the campaign, Donald Trump spoke about home ownership numbers being the lowest they have ever been since 1965 at 62.9%,” says Sowers. In a nation where homeownership is seen as synonymous with the American dream, it’s no surprise that he wanted to highlight this low rate and suggest ways to increase it, he says. “The reality is that his policies and actions indicate the opposite,” he says.

Sowers lists several reasons why Trump may not be the industry savior some real estate professionals might have counted on:

Rising interest rates – “While this responsibility sits with the Federal Reserve, which has kept interest rates low in recent years, Trump has blasted them for doing this stating that they are ‘creating a false economy,'” Sowers explains. “Most economists predict that interest rates will now rise in 2017.”

Dismantling Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs) – “During the 2008 financial crisis, the taxpayer bought out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and now under government control they play a greater role than before the crisis in sustaining real estate sales and providing liquidity to the housing market,” Sowers says. “Trump wants to privatize them – a shake up to this arrangement could mean that banks stop offering the lower cost 30-year fixed rate mortgages.”

Cutting FHA home insurance – This was one of Trump’s first acts in office, making it more expensive for borrowers to insure their homes, Sowers notes. “His pick for Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, wants to limit the mortgage interest deduction,” he adds. “This may not impact the average US homebuyer but in many areas across the country the average home is above the threshold of $500,000.”

Immigrant confidence – “We are a nation of immigrants and many are here legally with green cards,” Sowers states. “His latest immigration policy has sent shock waves to foreign investors and will likely stunt confidence in immigrants that are here legally from buying a home.” President Trump has said he hopes to encourage further building with the National Association of Home Builders, he adds. “However, with so many immigrants working in the construction industry, his policies are likely decrease the speed of development,” Sowers says. “With less new homes being built, people are likely to wait and not move or buy a new house.”

There are other areas of concern, experts say. For example, reducing government regulations may thrill real estate professionals, along with buyers and sellers, but industry experts say that will actually hurt the U.S. housing market.

“Trump’s commitment to weakening the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the consumer protection provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act will have a harmful impact on the housing market in the long run,” predicts David Reiss, a law professor at the Brooklyn Law School, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Reiss says Trump and his allies argue that Dodd-Frank has cut off credit, but the numbers don’t bear that out. “Mortgage rates are near their all-time lows,” he says. “Dodd-Frank, which created the CFPB and mandated the Qualified Mortgage and Ability-to-Repay rules, put a brake on most of the predatory behavior that characterized the mortgage market before the financial crisis. Getting rid of Dodd-Frank and the CFPB may loosen mortgage lending a bit in the short term, but in the long term it will allow predatory lenders to return to the mortgage market, big-time.”

“We will the see bigger booms followed by bigger busts,” he adds. “That kind of volatility is not good for the housing market in the long term.”