Banker and Tradesman quoted me in Time Is Ripe For GSE Reform (behind a paywall). It opens,
Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) Director Melvin L. Watt told the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs last month that “Congress urgently needs to act on housing finance reform” and bring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac out of conservatorship after almost nine years.
Conservatorship is temporary by its very nature. There is universal agreement that it can’t go on forever, but there is widespread disagreement about what the government-sponsored entities (GSEs) should look like after coming out of conservatorship – and how to get there.
“Only a legislative solution can provide political legitimacy and long term market certainty for the housing finance system,” according to a recent Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) white paper on GSE reform. MBA President and CEO Dave Stevens said now is the time for Congress to tackle the changes that will maintain liquidity, but protect taxpayers and homebuyers.
“The last recession destroyed many communities throughout the country,” he said. “The GSEs played a large role in that. They fueled a lot of the capital that allowed all varieties of lenders to make risky loans and then received the single-largest bailout in the history of this nation. They are not innocent.”
Connecticut Mortgage Bankers Association President Kevin Moran said his organization supports the positions of the MBA.
“There’s going to be change no matter what,” Stevens said. “We’re stuck with this problem. It’s technical and complicated and needs to be done. They can’t stay in conservatorship forever.”
Taxpayers Need Protection
Professor David Reiss at Brooklyn Law School said that future delays are not out of the question.
“Change is coming, but the Treasury and FHFA can amend the PSPA [agreement] again,” Reiss said. “It’s been amended three times already. There’s a little bit of political theatre going on here. It’s incredibly important for the economy. You really hope that the broad middle of the government can come to a compromise. If there isn’t the political will to move forward, they can simply kick the can down the road.”
Reiss said the fact that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are both going to run out of money by January 2018 is a factor in why reform is needed soon, but the GSEs aren’t in danger of imminent collapse.
“They are literally going to run out of money,” Reiss said. “But keep in mind they will continue to have a $2.5 billion line of credit. It’s partially political. They’re trying to get the public conscious of this. I don’t think anyone in the broad middle of the political establishment thinks it’s good that they’ve been in limbo for nine years.”
The MBA’s proposal to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac aims to ensure that crashes like the one in 2007-2008 never happen again, in part by raising the minimum capital balance GSEs have to maintain to a level at least as high as banks and other lenders.
“They have a capital standard that is absurd,” Stevens said. “Pre-conservatorship they had to have less than 0.5 percent capital. Banks are required to maintain 4 percent of their loan value against mortgages. That’s a regulated standard. Fannie and Freddie are not as diversified as banks are. Our view is to make sure they are sustainable; they should at least a 4 to 5 percent buffer to protect them against failure.”
To put that into context, a 3.5 percent buffer would have been just large enough for the GSEs to weather the last housing crash without the need for a taxpayer-funded bailout. Stevens said the MBA would go even further.
“They should also pay a fee for every loan that goes into an insurance fund in the event all else fails,” he said. “In the event of a catastrophic failure, that would be the last barrier before having to rely on taxpayers. Keep in mind: for years, shareholders made billions and when they failed taxpayers took 100 percent of the losses.”
Stevens said the MBA would like to see more competition in the secondary market, and that the current duopoly isn’t much better than a monopoly.
“There should be more competitors,” he said. “If either one [Fannie or Freddie] fails, you almost have to bail them out. Our goal is to have a highly regulated industry to support the American finance system without using the portfolio to make bets on the marketplace.”
A Bipartisan Issue
While some conservatives like Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) have called for getting the government out of the mortgage business altogether, Stevens said that would likely mean the end of the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage.
Furthermore, GSEs are required to serve underserved communities. Private companies would be more likely to back the most profitable loans.
“The GSEs play a really important role in counter-cyclical markets,” Stevens said. “When credit conditions shift, private money disappears. We saw that in 2007. It put extraordinary demands on Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae. You need a continuous flow of capital. You can put controls in place so it can expand and contract when needed.”
Reiss said getting the government out of the mortgage business would certainly mean some big changes.
“I think there is some evidence that some 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages could still exist,” Reiss said. “It would dramatically change their availability, though. Interest rates would go up somewhere between one-half and 1 percent. Some people might like that because it reflects the actual risk of a residential mortgage, but it would also make housing more expensive.”