Credit Risk Transfer and Financial Crises

photo by Dean Hochman

Susan Wachter posted Credit Risk Transfer, Informed Markets, and Securitization to SSRN. It opens,

Across countries and over time, credit expansions have led to episodes of real estate booms and busts. Ten years ago, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the most recent of these, began with the Panic of 2007. The pricing of MBS had given no indication of rising credit risk. Nor had market indicators such as early payment default or delinquency – higher house prices censored the growing underlying credit risk. Myopic lenders, who believed that house prices would continue to increase, underpriced credit risk.

In the aftermath of the crisis, under the Dodd Frank Act, Congress put into place a new financial regulatory architecture with increased capital requirements and stress tests to limit the banking sector’s role in the amplification of real estate price bubbles. There remains, however, a major piece of unfinished business: the reform of the US housing finance system whose failure was central to the GFC. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), put into conservatorship under the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA) of 2008, await a mandate for a new securitization structure. The future state of the housing finance system in the US is still not resolved.

Currently, US taxpayers back almost all securitized mortgages through the GSEs and Ginnie Mae. While pre-crisis, private label securitization (PLS) had provided a significant share of funding for mortgages, since 2007, PLS has withdrawn from the market.

The appropriate pricing of mortgage backed securities can discourage lending if risk rises, and, potentially, can limit housing bubbles that are enabled by excess credit. Securitization markets, including the over the counter market for residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) and the ABX securitization index, failed to do this in the housing bubble years 2003-2007.

GSEs have recently developed Credit Risk Transfers (CRTs) to trade and price credit risk. The objective is to bring private market discipline to bear on risk taking in securitized lending. For the CRT market to accomplish this, it must avoid the failures of financial assets to price risk. Are prerequisites for this in place? (2, references omitted)

Wachter partially answers this question in her conclusion:

CRT markets, if appropriately structured, can signal a heightened likelihood of systemic risk. Capital markets failed to do this in the run-up to the financial crisis, due to misaligned incentives and shrouded information. With sufficiently informed and appropriately structured markets, CRTs can provide market based discovery of the pricing of risk, and, with appropriate regulatory and guarantor response, can advance the stability of mortgage finance markets. (10)

Credit risk transfer has not yet been tested by a serious financial crisis. Wachter is right to bring a spotlight on it now, before events in the mortgage market overtake us.

Relegating Consumer Protection To The Shadows

The Department of the Treasury released its report on Asset Management and Insurance, which follows on the heels of its report on the capital markets. The latest report calls for replacing the term “shadow banking” with “market based finance.” (63) The term “shadow banking” reflected a belief that there was a less regulated sector of the financial services industry that operated in the shadows of heavily regulated financial services sectors like banking.

While innocent enough as a matter of nomenclature, retiring “shadow banking” reflects the Trump Administration’s desire to reduce regulation across the financial services industry and to put an end to any negative connotations that the term shadow banking carries. The report makes this crystal clear:  “Applying the term “shadow banking” to registered investment companies is particularly inappropriate as the word “shadow” could be interpreted as implying insufficient regulatory oversight, or disclosure.” (63)

Given that the Trump Administration is focused on rolling back many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, it is worth reviewing the changes that this report advocates. I focus here on how the report seeks to limit the regulatory oversight role of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau:

Title X of Dodd-Frank expressly excludes the “business of insurance” from the list of financial products and services within the CFPB’s jurisdiction. Dodd-Frank also prohibits the CFPB from exercising enforcement authority over “a person regulated by a State insurance regulator.” A “person” is defined to be “any person that is engaged in the business of insurance and subject to regulation by any State insurance regulator, but only to the extent that such person acts in such capacity.”

There are, however, a limited number of exceptions where the CFPB may exercise its authority over the business of insurance and persons regulated by state insurance regulators:

• If an insurer offers a financial product or service to the extent that the insurer is engaged in the offering or provision of a consumer financial product or service (e.g., debt protection contracts that are administered by insurers on behalf of a bank); To supervise and enforce violations of federal consumer laws (e.g., violations of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act that relate to insurers);

• If persons knowingly or recklessly provide substantial assistance in an Unfair, Deceptive, or Abusive Acts and Practices (UDAAP) violation (i.e., if an insurer knowingly or recklessly supports a covered person or service provider in violation of the UDAAP provisions of Dodd-Frank); or

• To request information from a person regulated by a state insurance regulator in connection with the CFPB’s rulemaking, investigative, subpoena, or hearing powers.

Despite the general exclusions, these statutory exceptions create considerable uncertainty concerning what the CFPB can examine or regulate. Insurers are concerned that, if the CFPB interprets the exceptions broadly, it could potentially regulate insurers or the business of insurance in a manner more expansive than the statutory exceptions intend. Such regulatory actions could also be duplicative of actions undertaken by state insurance regulators.


Treasury recommends that Congress clarify the “business of insurance” exception to ensure that the CFPB does not engage in the oversight of activities already monitored by state insurance regulators. (108-09)

This recommendation seeks to further reduce consumer protection in the financial services industry. Republicans have been quite open with this goal, so there is really nothing hypocritical about this recommendation. It is just a bad one. There have been a lot of abusive debt protection contracts like credit life insurance products that are priced way higher than comparable life insurance products. Blocking the CFPB from regulating in this area will be bad news for consumers.


Treasury’s Overreach on Securitization Reform

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Being Sworn in by Vice President Pence

The Department of the Treasury released its report, A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities Capital Markets. I will leave it to others to dissect the broader implications of this important document and will just highlight what it has to say about the future of securitization:

Problems related to certain types of securitized products, primarily those backed by subprime mortgage loans, contributed to the financial crisis that precipitated the Great Recession. As a result, the securitization market has acquired a popular reputation as an inherently high-risk asset class and has been regulated as such through numerous post-crisis statutory and rulemaking changes. Such treatment of this market is counterproductive, as securitization, when undertaken in an appropriate manner, can be a vital financial tool to facilitate growth in our domestic economy. Securitization has the potential to help financial intermediaries better manage risk, enhance access to credit, and lower funding costs for both American businesses and consumers. Rather than restrict securitization through regulations, policymakers and regulators should view this component of our capital markets as a byproduct of, and safeguard to, America’s global financial leadership. (91-92, citations omitted)

This analysis of securitization veers toward the incoherent. It acknowledges that relatively unregulated subprime MBS contributed to the Great Recession but it argues that stripping away the regulations that were implemented in response to the financial crisis will safeguard our global financial leadership. How’s that? A full deregulatory push would return us to the pre-crisis environment where mortgage market players will act in their short-term interests, while exposing counter-parties and consumers to greater risks.

Notwithstanding that overreach, the report has some specific recommendations that could make securitization more attractive. These include aligning U.S. regulations with the Basel recommendations that govern the global securitization market; fine-tuning risk retention requirements; and rationalizing the multi-agency rulemaking process.

But it is disturbing when a government report contains a passage like the following, without evaluating whether it is true or not:  “issuers have stated that the increased cost and compliance burdens, lack of standardized definitions, and sometimes ambiguous regulatory guidance has had a negative impact on the issuance of new public securitizations.” (104) The report segues from these complaints right to a set of recommendations to reduce the disclosure requirements for securitizers. It is incumbent on Treasury to evaluate whether those complaints are valid are not, before making recommendations based upon them.

Securitization is here to stay and can meaningfully lower borrowing costs. But the financial crisis has demonstrated that it must be regulated to protect the financial system and the public. There is certainly room to revise the regulations that govern the securitization sector, but a wholesale push to deregulate would be foolish given the events of the 2000s.

Fannie, Freddie and Climate Change

NOAA / National Climatic Data Center

The Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute issued its September 2017 Housing Finance At A Glance Chartbook. The introduction asks what the recent hurricanes tell us about GSE credit risk transfer. But it also has broader implications regarding the impact of climate-change related natural disasters on the mortgage market:

The GSEs’ capital markets risk transfer programs that began in 2013 have proven to be very successful in bringing in private capital, reducing the government’s role in the mortgage market and reducing taxpayer risk. Investor demand for Fannie Mae’s CAS and Freddie Mac’s STACR securities overall has been robust, in large part because of an improving economy and extremely low delinquency rates for loans underlying these securities.

Enter hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. These three storms have inflicted substantial damage to homes in the affected areas. Many of these homes have mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and many of these mortgages in turn are in the reference pools of mortgages underlying CAS and STACR securities. It is too early to know what the eventual losses might look like – that will depend on the extent of the damage, insurance coverage (including flood insurance), and the degree to which loss mitigation will succeed in minimizing borrower defaults and foreclosures.

Depending on how all of these factors eventually play out, investors in the riskiest tranches of CAS and STACR securities could witness marginally higher than expected losses. Up until Harvey, CRT markets had not experienced a real shock that threatened to affect the credit performance of underlying mortgages (except after Brexit, whose impact on the US mortgage market proved to be minimal). The arrival of these storms therefore in some ways is the first real test of the resiliency of credit risk transfer market.

It is also the first test for the GSEs in balancing the needs of borrowers with those of CRT investors. In some of the earlier fixed severity deals, investor losses were triggered when a loan went 180 days delinquent (i.e. experienced a credit event). Hence, forbearance of more than six months could trigger a credit event. Fannie Mae put out a press release that it would wait 20 months from the point at which disaster relief was granted before evaluating whether a loan in a CAS deal experienced a credit event. While most of Freddie’s STACR deals had language that dealt with this issue, a few of the very early deals did not; no changes were made to these deals. Both Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae have provided investors with an exposure assessment of the volume of affected loans in order to allow them to better estimate their risk exposure.

So how has the market responded so far? In the immediate aftermath of the first storm, spreads on CRT bonds generally widened by about 40 basis points, meaning investors demanded a higher rate of return. But thereafter, spreads have tightened by about 20 basis points, suggesting that many investors saw this as a good buying opportunity. This is precisely how capital markets are intended to work. If spreads had continued to widen substantially, that would have signaled a breakdown in investor confidence in future performance of these securities. The fact that that did not happen is an encouraging sign for the continued evolution of the credit risk transfer market.

To be clear, it is still very early to reasonably estimate what eventual investor losses will look like. As the process of damage assessment continues and more robust loss estimates come in, one can expect CAS/STACR pricing to fluctuate. But early pricing strongly indicates that investors’ underlying belief in these securities is largely intact. This matters because it tells the GSEs that the CRT market is resilient enough to withstand shocks and gives them confidence to further expand these offerings.

The Jumbo/Conforming Spread


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.

Why Credit Rating Agencies Exist


Robert Rhee has posted Why Credit Rating Agencies Exist to SSRN. The abstract reads,

Although credit rating agencies exist and are important to the capital markets, there remains a question of why they should exist. Two standard theories are that rating agencies correct a problem of information asymmetry and that they de facto regulate investments. These theories do not fully answer the question. This paper suggests an alternative explanation. While rating agencies produce little new information, they sort information available in the credit market. This sorting function is needed due to the large volume of information in the credit market. Sorting facilitates better credit analysis and investment selection, but bond investors or a cooperative of them cannot easily replicate this function. Outside of their information intermediary and regulatory roles, rating agencies serve a useful market purpose even if credit ratings inherently provide little new information. This alternative explanation has policy implications for the regulation of the industry.

I do not think that there is much new in this short paper, but it does summarize recent research on the function of rating agencies. Rhee’s takeaway is that, “given their dominant public function, rating agencies should be subject to greater regulatory scrutiny and supervision qualitatively on levels similar to the regulation of auditors and securities exchanges.” (15) Amen to that.

Top Ten Issues for Housing Finance Reform

Laurie Goodman of the Urban Institute has posted A Realistic Assessment of Housing Finance Reform. This paper is quite helpful, given the incredible complexity of the topic. The paper includes a lot of background, but I assume that readers of this blog are familiar with that.  Rather, let me share her Top Ten Design Issues:

  1. What form will the private capital that absorbs the first loss take: A single guarantor (a utility), multiple guarantors, or multiple guarantors along with capital markets execution? How much capital will be required?
  2. Who will play what role in the system? Will the same entity be permitted to be an originator, aggregator, and guarantor?
  3. How will the system ensure that historically underserved borrowers and communities are well served? To what extent will the pricing be cross subsidized?
  4. Who will have access to the new government-backed system (loan limits)? How big should the credit box be, and how does that box relate to FHA?
  5. Will mortgage insurance be separate from the guarantor function? (It is separate under most proposals, but in reality both sets of institutions are guaranteeing credit risk. The separation is a relic of the present system, in which, by charter, the GSEs can’t take the first loss on any mortgage above 80 LTV. However, if you allow the mortgage insurers and the guarantors to be the same entity, capital requirements must be higher to adequately protect the government and, ultimately, the taxpayers.)
  6. How will small lenders access the system? (All proposals attempt to ensure access, some through an aggregator dedicated to smaller lenders—a role that the Home Loan Banks can play.)
  7. What countercyclical features should be included? If the insurance costs provided by the guarantors are “too high” should the regulatory authority be able to adjust capital levels down to bring down mortgage rates? Should the regulatory authority be able to step in as an insurance provider?
  8. Will multifamily finance be included? How will that system be designed? Will it be separate from the single-family business? (The multifamily features embedded in Johnson-Crapo had widespread bipartisan support, but the level of support for a stand-alone multifamily legislation is unclear.)
  9. The regulatory structure for any new system is inevitably complex. Who charters new guarantors? What are the approval standards? Who does the stress tests? How does the new regulator interact with existing regulators? What enforcement authority will it have concerning equal access goals? What is the extent of data collection and publication?
  10. What does the transition look like? How do we move from a duopoly to more guarantors? Will Fannie and Freddie turn back to private entities and operate as guarantors alongside the new entrants? How will the new entities be seeded? What is the “right” number of guarantors, and how do we achieve that? How quickly does the catastrophic insurance fund build? (16-17)

None of this is new, but it is nice to see it all in one place. These design issues need to thought about in the context of the politics of housing reform as well — what system is likely to maintain its long-term financial health and stay true to its mission, given the political realities of Washington, D.C.?

Speaking of politics, her prognosis for reform in the near term is not too hopeful:

The current state of the GSEs can best be summed up in a single word: limbo. Despite the fact that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were placed in conservatorship in 2008, with the clear intent that they not emerge, there is little progress on a new system, with a large role for private capital, to take their place. Legislators have realized it is easy to agree on a set of principles for a new system but much harder to agree on the system’s design. It is unclear whether any legislation will emerge from Congress before the 2016 election; there is a good chance there will be none. (26)

She does allow that the FHFA can administratively move housing finance reform forward to some extent on its own, but she rightly notes that reform is really the responsibility of Congress. Like Goodman, I am not too hopeful that Congress will act in the near term. But it is crystal clear that there is a cost of doing nothing. In all likelihood, it will be the taxpayer will pay that cost, one way or another.