“Modernizing” the Community Reinvestment Act

President Carter signs the Housing and Community Development Act of 1977, which contains the Community Reinvestment Act

The Trump Administration has been signaling its intent to do a makeover of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 (CRA) for quite a while, describing it as a much needed update.  Last June, Treasury stated in its Banks and Credit Unions report (one of a series of reports on A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities which I discuss here),

The CRA statute is in need of modernization, regulatory oversight must be harmonized, and greater clarity in remediating deficiencies is called for. It is very important to better align the benefits arising from banks’ CRA investments with the interest and needs of the communities that they serve and to improve the current supervisory and regulatory framework for CRA. . . . Aligning the regulatory oversight of CRA activities with a heightened focus on community investments is a high priority for the Secretary. (9)

Well, the modernization effort has now taken off with a Treasury Memorandum for The Office of The Comptroller of the Currency, The Board of Governors of The Federal Reserve System, The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. By way of background, the memorandum notes that

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977 was enacted to encourage banks to meet the credit and deposit needs of communities that they serve, including low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities, consistent with safe and sound operations. Banks are periodically assigned a CRA rating by one of the primary regulators – the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (FRB), and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), collectively the CRA regulators – based on the bank’s performance under the appropriate CRA tests or approved Strategic Plan. CRA was enacted in response to concerns about disinvestment and redlining as well as a desire to have financial institutions “play the leading role” in providing the “capital required for local housing and economic development needs.”

The U.S. banking industry has experienced substantial organizational and technological changes; however, the regulatory and performance expectations under CRA have not kept pace. Interstate banking, mortgage securitization, and internet and mobile banking are just a few of the major changes that have come about in the past four decades. In this evolving banking environment, changes should be made to the administration of CRA in order for it to achieve its intended purpose. (1, footnotes omitted)

The bank that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin used to head up, OneWest, had its own run-ins with CRA compliance. As a result, we should look carefully at how Treasury seeks to “modernize” the CRA. The Treasury memo has four recommendations:

  • Assessment Areas. The concept of assessment areas originated within the banking environment that existed in 1977, when there was no interstate banking and deposits almost always came from the community surrounding a branch. Treasury offers recommendations for updating the definitions of geographic assessment areas to reflect the changing nature of banking arising from changing technology, customer behavior, and other factors.
  • Examination Clarity and Flexibility. Both banks and communities would benefit from additional flexibility in the CRA performance evaluation process, including increasing clarity in the examination guidance. Treasury recommends improvements that could be made to CRA performance evaluation criteria that would increase the transparency and effectiveness of CRA rating determinations.
  • Examination Process. Certain aspects of the examination process need to be addressed in order to improve the timeliness of performance evaluations and to allow banks to be more accountable in planning their CRA activity. Treasury recommends improvements that could be made with respect to the timing of CRA examinations and issuance of performance evaluations, and to the consistent use of census data throughout an assessment period.
  • Performance. The purpose of CRA is to encourage banks to meet the credit and deposit needs of their entire community. The law does not have explicit penalties for nonperformance. However, performance is incentivized as regulators must consider CRA ratings as a part of various bank application processes and performance evaluation reports are made available to the public. Treasury offers recommendations as to how the current regulatory approach to downgrades for violations of consumer protection laws and various applications from banks with less than a Satisfactory rating could be improved to incentivize CRA performance. (2, footnotes omitted)

While there is lot to chew on here, I think a key issue will be the scope of the Assessment Areas. As banks move from straight ‘bricks and mortar’ to ‘bricks and clicks’ or even to pure clicks, it is harder to identify the community each bank serves.

While the memo does not offer a new definition for Assessment Areas, one could imagine alternative definitions that are either loose or stringent as far as CRA compliance is concerned. Because the CRA was intended to ensure that low and moderate-income communities had access to mortgage credit after years of redlining, any new definition of Assessment Areas should be designed to support that goal. We’ll have to see how the Trump Administration proceeds in this regard, but given its attitudes toward fair housing enforcement, I am not hopeful that the Administration will take the CRA’s goals seriously.

Getting CAMELS Past Regulators

photo by Max Pixel

Bloomberg BNA Banking Daily quoted me in Court Asked to Second-Guess Bank Capital, Earnings, Risk Ratings (behind a paywall). It reads, in part,

A now-shuttered Chicago bank is taking on the proverbial giant in a fight to give banks the right to challenge safety and soundness ratings by federal regulators.
Builders Bank, an Illinois-chartered community bank that technically closed its doors in April, wants a federal judge to review a so-called CAMELS rating of 4 it got from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a rating it said triggered higher costs for insurance premiums (Builders Bank v. Federal Dep. Ins. Corp., N.D. Ill., 15-cv-06033, response 9/13/17). The rating should be reviewed by a court, it said, because it didn’t accurately reflect the bank’s risk profile. A 3 rating would have been more appropriate, it said.
It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of the awkwardly-named CAMELS ratings, which also are used by the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The ratings — which measure capital, assets, management, earnings, liquidity, and sensitivity to market risk on a range of 1 to 5, with 1 being the best rating — can mean thumbs-up or thumbs-down on business plans by banks and affiliates.
Want to merge with or buy another bank? Don’t bet on it if your bank has a low CAMELS rating. Want to pay lower premiums for federal deposit insurance? A high rating may mean yes, a low rating probably not. Want to lower your capital costs? Endure fewer examinations? Open new branches? Hold on to a profitable business unit or face regulatory demands to divest it? All of those business decisions and others can turn on how well a bank scores under the CAMELS system.
Pinchus D. Raice, a partner with Pryor Cashman LLP in New York who represents the New York League of Independent Bankers, said judges should be able to look over those rating decisions.
Judicial review would enhance the integrity of bank examinations, he said. “I think it would increase confidence in the process,” Raice told Bloomberg BNA. “Somebody should be looking over the shoulders of the agency, because CAMELS ratings are critical to the life of an institution.” The New York trade group has filed a brief in the suit urging the court to rule against the FDIC.
FDIC Rating Challenged
The FDIC has asked Judge Sharon J. Coleman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois to dismiss the case on several grounds.
For one, the FDIC said, Builders Bank no longer exists. It voluntarily dissolved itself earlier this year and in April transferred its assets to Builders NAB LLC, a nonbank limited liability company in Evanston, Ill., that couldn’t be reached for comment. In a Sept. 13 filing, the bank said Illinois law allows it to continue the suit even though it’s now merged with the LCC, and that it’s seeking damages in the amount of the excessive deposit insurance premiums it says were paid.
Bank Groups Join
The next likely step is a ruling on the FDIC’s motion to dismiss, though it’s not clear when the court might make a decision. Meanwhile, the case has attracted briefs from several banking groups — a joint brief filed in August by the Clearing House Association, the American Bankers Association, and the Independent Community Bankers of America, and a separate brief a few weeks later by the New York League of Independent Bankers.
None of the four groups is wading into the actual dispute between Builders Bank and the FDIC, and their briefs explicitly said they’re not supporting either party. However, all four groups urged the court not to issue a sweeping decision that says CAMELS ratings are exempt from outside review.
According to the Clearing House, the ABA, and the ICBA, banks should be able to seek judicial review in exceptional cases “where such review is necessary and appropriate,” such as if regulators get their calculations wrong, or if regulators use ratings to retaliate against banks that criticize FDIC policies or personnel.
“At a minimum, given the complexity of the CAMELS rating system and the consequences of CAMELS ratings, this court should not issue a ruling that is broader than necessary to decide this dispute and that may undermine the ability of other banks to obtain judicial review,” the brief said.
*     *      *
David Reiss, professor of finance law at Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, N.Y., called the case a signal that the banking industry believes a range of agency actions might be held to be unreviewable. “As a general philosophy, unless Congress has made unreviewability crystal clear, I think we want to be careful,” Reiss told Bloomberg BNA. “This does seem intuitively overbroad to me.”
He also said the case, because it involves a bank that no longer exists, raises the possibility of a result that might not be welcomed by the banking industry. “The bank groups may be somewhat worried that a now-dissolved bank may get a court ruling that could have unintended consequences for banks still doing business,” he said.

Community Bankers and GSE Reform

The Independent Community Bankers of America have release ICBA Principles for GSE Reform and a Way Forward. Although this paper is not as well thought-out as that of the Mortgage Bankers Association, it is worth a look in order to understand what drives community bankers.

The paper states that the smaller community banks

depend on the GSEs for direct access to the secondary market without having to sell their loans through a larger financial institution that competes with them. The GSEs help support the community bank business model of good local service by allowing them to retain the servicing on the loans they sell, which helps keep delinquencies and foreclosures low. And unlike other private investors or aggregators, the GSEs have a mandate to serve all markets at all times. This they have done, in contrast to some private investors and aggregators that severely curtailed their business in smaller and economically distressed markets, leaving those community bank sellers to find other outlets for their loan sales. (1)

The ICBA sets forth a set of principles to guide GSE reform, including

  • The GSEs must be allowed to rebuild their capital buffers.
  • Lenders should have competitive, equal, direct access on a single-
    loan basis.
  • Capital, liquidity, and reliability are essential.
  • Credit risk transfers must meet targeted economic returns.
  • An explicit government guarantee on GSE MBS is needed.
  • The TBA market for GSE MBS must be preserved.
  • Strong oversight from a single regulator will promote sound operation.
  • Originators must have the option to retain servicing, and servicing fees must be reasonable.
  • Complexity should not force consolidation.
  • GSE assets must not be sold or transferred to the private market.
  • The purpose and activities of the GSEs should be appropriately limited.
  • GSE shareholder rights must be upheld.

This paper does not really provide a path forward for GSE reform, but it does clearly state the needs of community bankers. That is valuable in itself. There is also a lot of common sense behind the principles they espouse. But it is a pretty conservative document, working from the premise that the current system is pretty good so if it ain’t broke, why fix it? I think other stakeholders believe the system is way more broke than community bankers believe it to be.

There are also some puzzlers in it this paper. Why the focus on GSE shareholder rights? Is it because many community banks held GSE stock before the financial crisis? Are there other reasons that this is one of their main principles?

Hopefully, over time community bankers will flesh out the thinking that went into this paper in order to fuel an informed debate on the future of the housing finance market.

 

 

What is the Debt to Income Ratio?

OppLoans.com quoted me in What is the Debt to Income Ratio? It opens,

One of the great things about credit is that it lets you make purchases you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford at one time. But this arrangement only works if you are able to make your monthly payments. That’s why lenders look at something called your debt to income ratio. It’s a number that indicates what kind of debt load you’ll be able to afford. And if you’re looking to borrow, it’s a number you’ll want to know.

Unless your rich eccentric uncle suddenly dies and leave you a giant pile of money, making any large purchase, like a car or a home, is going to mean taking out a loan. Legitimate loans spread the repayment process over time (or a longer term), which makes owning these incredibly expensive items possible for regular folks.

But not all loans are affordable. If the loan’s monthly payments take up too much of your budget, then you’re likely to default. And as much as you, the borrower, do not want that to happen, it’s also something that lenders want to avoid at all costs.

It doesn’t matter how much you want that cute, three-bedroom Victorian or that sweet, two-door muscle car (or even if you’re just looking for a personal loan to consolidate your higher interest credit card debt). If you can’t afford your monthly payments, reputable lenders aren’t going to want to do business with you. (Predatory payday lenders are a different story, they actually want you to be unable to afford your loan. You can read more about that shadiness in our personal loans guide.)

So how do mortgage, car, and personal lenders determine what a person can afford before they lend them? Well, they usually do it by looking at their debt to income ratio.

What is the debt to income ratio?

Basically, it’s the amount of your monthly budget that goes towards paying debts—including rent or mortgage payments.

“Your debt to income ratio is benchmark metric used to measure an individual’s ability to repay debt and manage their monthly payments,” says Brian Woltman, branch manager at Embrace Home Loans (@EmbraceHomeLoan).

“Your ‘DTI’ as it’s commonly referred to is exactly what it sounds like. It’s calculated by dividing your total current recurring monthly debt by your gross monthly income—the amount you make before any taxes are taken out,” says Woltman. “It’s important because it helps a lender to determine the proper amount of money that someone can borrow, and reasonably expect to be paid back, based on the terms agreed upon.”

According to Gerri Detweiler (@gerridetweiler), head of market education for Nav (@navSMB), “Your debt to income ratio provides important information about whether you can afford the payment on your new loan.”

“On some consumer loans, like mortgages or auto loans, your debt to income ratio can make or break your loan application,” says Detweiler. “This ratio typically compares your monthly recurring debt payments, such as credit card minimum payments, student loan payments, mortgage or auto loans to your monthly gross (before tax) income.”

Here’s an example…

Larry has a monthly income of $5,000 and a list of the following monthly debt obligations:

Rent: $1,200

Credit Card: $150

Student Loan: $400

Installment Loan: $250

Total: $2,000

To calculate Larry’s DTI we need to divide his total monthly debt payments by his monthly income:

$2,000 / $5,000 = .40

Larry’s debt to income ratio is 40 percent.

David Reiss (@REFinBlog), is a professor of real estate finance at Brooklyn Law School. He says that the debt to income ratio is an important metric for lenders because “It is one of the three “C’s” of loan underwriting:

Character: Does a person have a history of repaying debts?

Capacity: Does a person have the income to repay debts?

Capital: Does the person have assets that can be used to retire debt if income should prove insufficient?

What is a good debt to income ratio?

“If you listen to Ben Franklin, who subscribed to the saying ‘neither a borrower nor lender be,’ the ideal ratio is 0,” says Reiss. But he adds that only lending to people with no debt whatsoever would put home ownership out of reach for, well, almost everyone. Besides, a person can have some debt on-hand and still be a responsible borrower.

“More realistically, in today’s world,” says Reiss, “we might take guidance from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) which advises against having a DTI ratio of greater than 43 percent. If it creeps higher than that, you might have trouble paying for other important things like rent, food and clothing.”

“Requirements vary but usually if you can stay below a 33 percent debt-to-income ratio, you’re fine,” says Detweiler. “Some lenders will lend up to a 50 percent debt ratio, but the interest rate may be higher since that represents a higher risk.”

For Larry, the guy in our previous example, a 33 percent DTI would mean keeping his monthly debt obligations to $1650.

Let’s go back to that 43 percent number that Reiss mentioned because it isn’t just an arbitrary number. 43 percent DTI is the highest ratio that borrower can have and still receive a “Qualified Mortgage.”

The Capital/Labor Split

photo by Sue Gardner

Thomas Piketty

To commemorate Labor Day, a quote from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century:

On August 16, 2012, the South African police intervened in a labor conflict between workers at the Marikana platinum mine near Johannesburg and the mine’s owners: the stockholders of Lonmin, Inc., based in London. Police fired on the strikers with live ammunition. Thirty-four miners were killed. As often in such strikes, the conflict primarily concerned wages: the miners had asked for a doubling of their wage from 500 to 1,000 euros a month. After the tragic loss of life, the company finally proposed a monthly raise of 75 euros.

This episode reminds us, if we needed reminding, that the question of what share of output should go to wages and what share to profits— in other words, how should the income from production be divided between labor and capital?— has always been at the heart of distributional conflict. In traditional societies, the basis of social inequality and most common cause of rebellion was the conflict of interest between landlord and peasant, between those who owned land and those who cultivated it with their labor, those who received land rents and those who paid them. The Industrial Revolution exacerbated the conflict between capital and labor, perhaps because production became more capital intensive than in the past (making use of machinery and exploiting natural resources more than ever before) and perhaps, too, because hopes for a more equitable distribution of income and a more democratic social order were dashed. I will come back to this point.

The Marikana tragedy calls to mind earlier instances of violence. At Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 1, 1886, and then at Fourmies, in northern France, on May 1, 1891, police fired on workers striking for higher wages. Does this kind of violent clash between labor and capital belong to the past, or will it be an integral part of twenty- first- century history? (39, footnotes omitted)

P2P, Mortgage Market Messiah?

Monty Python's Life of Brian

As this is my last post of 2015, let me make a prediction about the 2016 mortgage market. Money’s Edge quoted me in Can P2P Lending Revive the Home Mortgage Market? It opens,

You just got turned down for a home mortgage – join the club. At one point the Mortgage Bankers Association estimated that about half of all applications were given the thumbs down. That was in the darkest housing days of 2008 but many still whisper that rejections remain plentiful as tougher qualifying rules – requiring more proof of income – stymie a lot of would be buyers.

And then there are the many millions who may not apply at all, out of fear of rejection.

Here’s the money question: is new-style P2P lending the solution for these would-be homeowners?

The question is easy, the answers are harder.

CPA Ravi Ramnarain pinpoints what’s going on: “Although it is well documented that banks and traditional mortgage lenders are extremely risk-averse in offering the average consumer an opportunity for a home loan, one must also consider that the recent Great Recession is still very fresh in the minds of a lot of people. Thus the fact that banks and traditional lenders are requiring regular customers to provide impeccable credit scores, low debt-to-income (DTI) ratios, and, in many cases, 20 percent down payments is not surprising. Person-to-person lending does indeed provide these potential customers with an alternate avenue to realize the ultimate dream of owning a home.”

Read that again: the CPA is saying that for some on whom traditional mortgage doors slammed shut there may be hope in the P2P, non-traditional route.

Meantime, David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law, sounded a downer note: “I am pretty skeptical of the ability of P2P lending to bring lots of new capital to residential real estate market in the short term. As opposed to sharing economy leaders Uber and Airbnb which ignore and fight local and state regulation of their businesses, residential lending is heavily regulated by the federal government. It is hard to imagine that an innovative and large stream of capital can just flow into this market without complying with the many, many federal regulations that govern residential mortgage lending. These regulations will increase costs and slow the rate of growth of such a new stream of capital. That being said, as the P2P industry matures, it may figure out a cost-effective way down the line to compete with traditional lenders.”

From the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to Fannie and Freddie, even the U.S. Treasury and the FDIC, a lot of federal fingers wrap around traditional mortgages. Much of it is well intended – the aims are heightened consumer protections while also controlling losses from defaults and foreclosures – but an upshot is a marketplace that is slow to embrace change.

Friday’s Government Reports Roundup