Housing Policy, Going Forward

Mark Calabria

The Hill published a column of mine, The Next Two Years of Federal Housing Policy Could Be Positive under Mark Calabria. it opens,

The Trump administration has been a nightmare for housing advocates. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Carson has stopped enforcing fair housing laws, with assists from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting. Those two have been working to scale back fair lending enforcement and the Community Reinvestment Act.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Acting Director Mulvaney has gutted consumer protection in the mortgage market. I am more hopeful though when it comes to housing finance reform. The administration has nominated Mark Calabria to be the next director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency; the FHFA is Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s regulator.

There have been three types of leaders on Trump’s team that have been working on housing issues. First are those who seek to explicitly undermine the work of the agency they lead, like Mulvaney. Leaders like Mulvaney are generally proponents of a radical conservative ideology that has been way out of step with American political norms until the Tea Party movement swept through Congress. Second are those who pay some lip service to the agency’s mission, but work to undermine it, like Carson. And third are those who are clearly industry favorites, like Mnuchin and Otting. They primarily seek to address concerns of the industry they regulate at the expense of their agency’s broader public mission.

Calabria represents a fourth type of leader, one who is more likely to implement a more traditional Republican agenda for the housing sector. For the last couple of years, he has been serving as Vice President Pence’s chief economist.

GSE Investors’ Hidden Win

Judge Brown

The big news yesterday was that the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in the main for the federal government in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin, one of the major cases that investors brought against the federal government over the terms of the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships.

In a measured and carefully reasoned opinion, the court rejected most but not all of the investors’ claims.  The reasoning was consistent with my own reading of the broad conservatorship provisions of the Housing and Economic Recover Act of 2008 (HERA).

Judge Brown’s dissent, however, reveals that the investors have crafted an alternative narrative that at least one judge finds compelling. This means that there is going to be some serious drama when this case ultimately wends its way to the Supreme Court. And there is some reason to believe that a Justice Gorsuch might be sympathetic to this narrative of government overreach.

Judge Brown’s opinion indicts many aspects of federal housing finance policy, broadly condemning it in the opening paragraph:

One critic has called it “wrecking-ball benevolence,” James Bovard, Editorial, Nothing Down: The Bush Administration’s Wrecking-Ball Benevolence, BARRONS, Aug. 23, 2004, http://tinyurl.com/Barrons-Bovard; while another, dismissing the compassionate rhetoric, dubs it “crony capitalism,” Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr., Commentary, Fannie/Freddie Bailout Baloney, CATO INST., http://tinyurl.com/Cato-O-Driscoll (last visited Feb. 13, 2017). But whether the road was paved with good intentions or greased by greed and indifference, affordable housing turned out to be the path to perdition for the U.S. mortgage market. And, because of the dominance of two so-called Government Sponsored Entities (“GSE”s)—the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae” or “Fannie”) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac” or “Freddie,” collectively with Fannie Mae, the “Companies”)—the trouble that began in the subprime mortgage market metastasized until it began to affect most debt markets, both domestic and international. (dissent at 1)

While acknowledging that the Fannie/Freddie crisis might justify “extraordinary actions by Congress,” Judge Brown states that

even in a time of exigency, a nation governed by the rule of law cannot transfer broad and unreviewable power to a government entity to do whatsoever it wishes with the assets of these Companies. Moreover, to remain within constitutional parameters, even a less-sweeping delegation of authority would require an explicit and comprehensive framework. See Whitman v. Am. Trucking Ass’ns, Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001) (“Congress . . . does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions—it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes.”) Here, Congress did not endow FHFA with unlimited authority to pursue its own ends; rather, it seized upon the statutory text that had governed the FDIC for decades and adapted it ever so slightly to confront the new challenge posed by Fannie and Freddie.

*     *     *

[Congress] chose a well-understood and clearly-defined statutory framework—one that drew upon the common law to clearly delineate the outer boundaries of the Agency’s conservator or, alternatively, receiver powers. FHFA pole vaulted over those boundaries, disregarding the plain text of its authorizing statute and engaging in ultra vires conduct. Even now, FHFA continues to insist its authority is entirely without limit and argues for a complete ouster of federal courts’ power to grant injunctive relief to redress any action it takes while purporting to serve in the conservator role. See FHFA Br. 21  (2-3)

What amazes me about this dissent is how it adopts the decidedly non-mainstream history of the financial crisis that has been promoted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Peter Wallison.  It also takes its legislative history from an unpublished Cato Institute paper by Vice-President Pence’s newly selected chief economist, Mark Calabria and a co-author.  There is nothing wrong with a judge giving some context to an opinion, but it is of note when it seems as one-sided as this. The bottom line though is that this narrative clearly has some legs so we should not think that this case has played itself out, just because of this decision.

Krimminger and Calabria on Conservatorships

When the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) was appointed conservator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it was the first use of the conservatorship authority under the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (“HERA”), but it was not without precedent. For decades, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) has successfully and fairly resolved more than a thousand failing banks and thrifts using the virtually identical sections of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act (“FDIA”).
*     *     *
The predictability, fairness, and acceptance of this model led Congress to adopt it as the basis for authorizing the FHFA with conservatorship powers over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in HERA. Instead of following this precedent, however, FHFA and Treasury have radically departed from HERA and the principles underlying all other U.S. insolvency frameworks and sound international standards through a 2012 re-negotiation of the original conservatorship agreement.
*     *     *
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     This paper will:
  • Describe the historical precedent and resolution practice on which Congress based FHFA’s and Treasury’s statutory responsibilities over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac;
  • Explain the statutory requirements, as well as the procedural and substantive protections, in place so that all stakeholders are treated fairly during the conservatorship;
  • Detail the important policy reasons that underlie these statutory provisions and the established practice in their application, and the role these policies play in a sound market economy; and
  •  Demonstrate that the conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ignore that precedent and resolution practice, and do not comply with HERA. Among the Treasury and FHFA departures from HERA and established precedents are the following:
    • continuing the conservatorships for more than 6 years without any effort to comply with HERA’s requirements
      to “preserve and conserve” the assets and property of the Companies and return them to a “sound and solvent” condition or place them into receiverships;
    • rejecting any attempt to rebuild the capital of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac so that they can return to “sound and solvent” condition by meeting regulatory capital and other requirements, and thereby placing all risk of future losses on taxpayers;
    • stripping all net value from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac long after Treasury has been repaid when HERA, and precedent, limit this recovery to the funding actually provided;
    • ignoring HERA’s conservatorship requirements and transforming the purpose of the conservatorships from restoring or resolving the Companies into instruments of government housing policy and sources of revenue for
      Treasury;
    • repeatedly restructuring the terms of the initial assistance to further impair the financial interests of stakeholders contrary to HERA, fundamental principles of insolvency, and initial commitments by FHFA; and
    • disregarding HERA’s requirement to “maintain the corporation’s status as a private shareholder-owned company” and FHFA’s commitment to allow private investors to continue to benefit from the financial value of the company’s stock as determined by the market. (1-3, footnotes omitted)

I am intrigued by the recollections of these two former government officials who were involved in the drafting of HERA (much as I was by those contained in a related paper by Calabria). But I am not convinced that their version of events amounts to a legislative history of HERA, let alone one that should be given any kind of deference by decision-makers. The firmness of their opinions about the meaning of HERA is also in tension with the ambiguity of the text of the statute itself. The plaintiffs in the GSE conservatorship litigation will see this paper as a confirmation of their position. I do not think, however, that the judges hearing the cases will pay it much heed.

GSE Conservatorship History Lesson

Mark Calabria, the Director of Financial Regulation Studies at the Cato Institute, has posted a very interesting paper, The Resolution of Systemically Important Financial Institutions: Lessons from Fannie and Freddie. This is a more formal version of what he presented at the AALS meeting early this month. I do not agree with all of Mark’s analysis, but this paper certainly opened my eyes about what can happen in committee when important statutes are being drafted. It opens,

There was perhaps no issue of greater importance to the financial regulatory reforms of 2010 than the resolution, without taxpayer assistance, of large financial institutions. The rescue of firms such as AIG shocked the public conscience and provided the political force behind the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act. Such is reflected in the fact that Titles I and II of Dodd-Frank relate to the identification and resolution of large financial entities. How the tools established in Titles I and II are implemented are paramount to the success of Dodd-Frank. This paper attempts to gauge the likely success of these tools via the lens of similar tools created for the resolution of the housing government sponsored enterprises (GSEs), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
An additional purpose of this paper is to provide some additional “legislative history” to the resolution mechanisms contained in the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA), which established a resolution framework for the GSEs similar to that ultimately created in Title II of Dodd-Frank. The intent is to inform current debates over the resolution of systemically important financial institutions by revisiting how such issues were debated and agreed upon in HERA. (1-2)
As an outside-the-Beltway type, I found the “legislative history” very interesting, even if it wouldn’t qualify as any type of legislative history that a judge would consider in interpreting a statute. It does, however, offer policy wonks, bureaucrats and politicians an inside view of how a Congressional staffer helps to make the sausage that is legislation. It also shows that in the realm of legislation, as in the realm of fiction, author’s intent can play out in tricky ways.

Calabria concludes,

The neglect of HERA’s tools and the likely similar neglect of Dodd-Frank’s suggest a much deeper reform of our financial regulatory system is in order. The regulatory culture of “whatever it takes” must be abandoned. A respect for the rule of law and obedience to the letter of the law must be instilled in our regulatory culture. More important, the incentives facing regulators must be dramatically changed. If we hope to end “too-big-to-fail” and to curtail moral hazard more generally, significant penalties must be created for rescues as well as deviations from statute. A very difficult question is that lack of standing for any party to litigate to enforce statutory prohibitions against rescues. (19)

I take a couple of lessons from this paper. First, tight drafting of legislation that is supposed to kick in during a crisis is key. If a statute has wiggle room, decision makers are going to stretch it out as they see fit. And second, I agree with Mark that even tight drafting won’t necessarily keep government actors from acting as they see fit in a crisis.

If Congress really want to constrain the choices of future decision makers, it will need to grant a third party standing to enforce that decision as it is unlikely that crisis managers will have the self-restraint to forgo options that they would otherwise prefer. Congress should be very careful about constraining the choices of these future decision makers. But if it chooses to do so, that would be the way to go.

 

Housing Finance Reform at the AALS

The Financial Institutions and Consumer Financial Services Section and the Real Estate Transactions section of the American Association of Law Schools hosted a joint program at the AALS annual meeting on The Future of the Federal Housing Finance System. I moderated the session, along with Cornell’s Bob Hockett.
Former Representative Brad Miller (D-N.C.) keynoted.  Until recently he was a Senior Fellow, at the Center for American Progress and is now a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He was followed by four more great speakers:
The program overview was as follows:
The fate of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are subject to the vagaries of politics, regulation,public opinion, the economy, and not least of all the numerous cases that were filed in 2013 against various government entities arising from the placement of the two companies into conservatorship. All of these vagaries occur, moreover, against a backdrop of surprising public and political ignorance of the history and functions of the GSEs and their place in the broader American financial and housing economies. This panel will take the long view to identify how the American housing finance market should be structured, given all of these constraints. Invited speakers include academics, government officials and researchers affiliated to think tanks. They will discuss the various bills that have been proposed to reform that market including Corker-Warner and Johnson-Crapo. They will also address regulatory efforts by the Federal Housing Finance Agency to shape the federal housing finance system in the absence of Congressional reform.
During the presentations, I felt a bit of awe for the collective knowledge of the speakers.  The program also emphasized for me how much there always is to learn about a topic as complex as housing finance.
Laurie Goodman was kind enough to let me post her PowerPoint slides from the program. If you are looking for a good overview of the current state of housing finance reform, you will want to take a look at them.
I was a bit depressed by the slide titled, “Why GSE reform is unlikely before 2017:”
1. There is no sense of urgency: GSEs are profitable, current system is functioning.
2. Higher legislative priorities.
3. No easy answers as to what a new housing finance system should look like.
4. Bipartisan action requires compromise, and some believe they have more to lose than to gain by compromising in this arena.
While the slide depressed me, I think it offers a pretty realistic assessment of where we are. I hope Congress and the Obama Administration prove me wrong.