Hope for GSE Shareholders

Judge Lamberth issued an opinion in Fairholme Funds, Inc. v. FHFA (Civ. No.13-1439) (Sept. 28, 2018) that gives some hope to the private shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These shareholders have been on the losing end of nearly every case brought against the government relating to its handling of the conservatorships of the two companies.  Readers of this blog know that I have long been a skeptic of the shareholders’ claims because of the broad powers granted the government by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, passed during the height of the financial crisis, as well as the highly regulated environment in which the two companies operate. This highly regulated environment means that GSE profits are driven by regulatory decisions much more than those of other financial institutions. As such, Fannie and Freddie live and die by the sword of government intervention in the mortgage market.

Judge Lamberth had dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims in their entirety, but was reversed in part on appeal. In this case, he revisits the issues arising from the reversal of his earlier dismissal. Once again, Judge Lamberth dismisses a number of the plaintiffs’ claims, but he finds that that their claim that the government breached the duty of good faith survives.

The opinion gives a road map that shareholders can follow to success. The judge identifies allegations that, if true, would be a sufficient factual basis for a holding that the government breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. It is plausible that the preponderance of proof may support these allegations. Some evidence has already come to light that indicates that at least some government actors had good reason to believe that Fannie and Freddie were on the cusp of sustained profitability when the government implemented the net worth sweep. The net worth sweep had redirected the net profits of the two companies to the U.S. Treasury.

Judge Lamberth highlights some of aspects of the plaintiffs’ argument that he found compelling at the motion to dismiss phase of this litigation. First, he notes that absence of “any increased funding commitment” is atypical when senior shareholders receive “enhanced disbursement rights,” as was the case when the government implemented the net worth sweep. (21) He also states that the plaintiffs would not have expected that the GSEs would have extinguished “the possibility of dividends arbitrarily or unreasonably.” (22)

While this opinion is good news for the plaintiffs, it is still unclear what their endgame would be if they were to get a final judgment that the net worth sweep was invalid. Depending on the outcome of regulatory and legislative debates about the future of the two companies, the win may be a pyrrhic one. Time will tell. In the interim, expect more discovery battles, motions for summary judgment and even a trial in this case. So, while this opinion gives shareholders some hope of ultimate success, and perhaps some leverage in political and regulatory debates, I do not see it as a game changer in itself.

In terms of the bigger picture, there are a lot of changes on the horizon regarding the future of the housing finance system. The midterm elections; Hensarling and Corker’s departure from Congress; and the Trump Administration’s priorities are all bigger drivers of the housing finance reform train, at least for now.

Taking Apart The CFPB, Bit by Bit

graphic by Matt Shirk

Mick Mulvaney’s Message in the CFPB’s latest Semi-Annual Report is crystal clear regarding his plans for the Bureau:

As has been evident since the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act, the Bureau is far too powerful, and with precious little oversight of its activities. Per the statute, in the normal course the Bureau’s Director simultaneously serves in three roles: as a one-man legislature empowered to write rules to bind parties in new ways; as an executive officer subject to limited control by the President; and as an appellate judge presiding over the Bureau’s in-house court-like adjudications. In Federalist No. 47, James Madison famously wrote that “[t]he accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands … may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Constitutional separation of powers and related checks and balances protect us from government overreach. And while Congress may not have transgressed any constraints established by the Supreme Court, the structure and powers of this agency are not something the Founders and Framers would recognize. By structuring the Bureau the way it has, Congress established an agency primed to ignore due process and abandon the rule of law in favor of bureaucratic fiat and administrative absolutism.

The best that any Bureau Director can do on his own is to fulfill his responsibilities with humility and prudence, and to temper his decisions with the knowledge that the power he wields could all too easily be used to harm consumers, destroy businesses, or arbitrarily remake American financial markets. But all human beings are imperfect, and history shows that the temptation of power is strong. Our laws should be written to restrain that human weakness, not empower it.

I have no doubt that many Members of Congress disagree with my actions as the Acting Director of the Bureau, just as many Members disagreed with the actions of my predecessor. Such continued frustration with the Bureau’s lack of accountability to any representative branch of government should be a warning sign that a lapse in democratic structure and republican principles has occurred. This cycle will repeat ad infinitum unless Congress acts to make it accountable to the American people.

Accordingly, I request that Congress make four changes to the law to establish meaningful accountability for the Bureau :

1. Fund the Bureau through Congressional appropriations;

2. Require legislative approval of major Bureau rules;

3. Ensure that the Director answers to the President in the exercise of executive authority; and

4. Create an independent Inspector General for the Bureau. (2-3)

Mulvaney gets points for speaking clearly, but a lot of what he says is wrong and at odds with how the federal government has operated for nearly one hundred years. He is wrong in stating that the CFPB Director acts without judicial oversight. The Director’s decisions are appealable and his predecessor’s have, in fact, been overturned. And his call to a return to the federal government of the type recognizable to the Framers has a hollow ring since at least 1935 when the Supreme Court decided Humphrey’s Executor v. United States.

I would think that it should go without saying that the federal government has grown exponentially since its founding in the 18th century. The Supreme Court has acknowledged as much in Humphrey’s Executor which held that Congress could create independent agencies.  Independent agencies are now fundamental to the operation of the federal government.

Mulvaney and others are seeking to chip away at the legitimacy of the modern administrative state. That is certainly their prerogative. But they should not ignore the history of the last hundred years and skip all the way back to 18th century if they want their arguments to sound like anything more than a bit of sophistry.

The Housing Market Since the Great Recession

photo by Robert J Heath

CoreLogic has posted a special report on Evaluating the Housing Market Since the Great Recession. It opens,

From December 2007 to June 2009, the U.S. economy lost over 8.7 million jobs. In the months after the recession began, the unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent, reaching double digits for the first time since September 1982, and American households lost over $16 trillion in net worth.

After a number of economic stimulus measures, the economy began to grow in 2010. GDP grew 19 percent from 2010 to 2017; the economy added jobs for 88 consecutive months – the longest period on record – and as of December 2017, unemployment was down to 4 percent.

The economy has widely recovered and so, too, has the housing market. After falling 33 percent during the recession, housing prices have returned to peak levels, growing 51 percent since hitting the bottom of the market. The average house price is now 1 percent higher than it was at the peak in 2006, and the average annual equity gain was $14,888 in the third quarter of 2017.

However, in some states – including Illinois, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida – housing prices have failed to reach pre-recession levels, and today nearly 2.5 million residential properties with a mortgage are still in negative equity. (4, footnotes omitted)

By the end of 2017, ” the most populated metro areas in the U.S. remained at an almost even split between markets that are undervalued, overvalued and at value, indicating that while housing markets have recovered, many homes have surpassed the at-value [supported by local market fundamentals] price.” (10) This even split between undervalued and overvalued metro areas is hiding all sorts of ups and downs in what looks like a stable national average.  You can get a sense of this by comparing the current situation to what existing at the beginning of 2000, when 87% of metro areas were at-value.

And what does this all mean for housing finance reform? I think it means that we should not get complacent about the state of our housing markets just because the national average looks okay. Congress should continue working on a bipartisan fix for a broken system.

 

The Budgetary Impact on Housing Finance

slide by MIT Golub

The MIT Golub Center for Finance and Policy has posted some interesting infographics on The President’s 2019 Budget: Proposals Affecting Credit, Insurance and Financial Regulators:

The White House released the President’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 on February 12, just days after President Trump signed a bill extending spending caps for military and domestic spending and suspending the debt ceiling. While the new law has already established government-wide tax and spending levels for the coming fiscal year, the specific proposals contained in the budget request reflect Administration priorities and may still be considered by the Congress. Here, we consider how such proposals may affect the Federal Government in its role as a lender, insurer, and financial regulator.

Between its lending and insurance balances, it is apparent that the U.S. Government has more assets and insured obligations than the five largest bank holding companies combined.

Through various agencies, the US government is deeply involved in the extension of credit and the provision of insurance. It also plays an active regulatory and oversight role in the financial marketplace. While individual credit and insurance programs serve different target populations, they collectively reach into the lives of most Americans, from homeowners to small business owners to bank account holders and students. Note that this graphic does not reflect social insurance, such as Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid.

I was particularly interested, of course, in the slides that focused on housing finance, but I found this one slide about all federal loans outstanding to be eye-opening:

The overall amount is huge, $4.34 trillion, and housing finance’s share is also huge, well over half of that amount.

As we slowly proceed down the path to housing finance reform, we should try to determine a principled way to evaluate just how big of a role the federal government needs to have in the housing finance market in order to serve the broad swath of American households. Personally, I think there is a lot of room for private investors to take on more credit risk so long as underserved markets are addressed and consumers are protected.

Treasury’s Take on Housing Finance Reform

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Being Sworn In

The Department of the Treasury released its Strategic Plan for 2018-2022. One of its 17 Strategic Objectives is to promote housing finance reform:

Support housing finance reform to resolve Government-Sponsored Enterprise (GSE) conservatorships and prevent taxpayer bailouts of public and private mortgage finance entities, while promoting consumer choice within the mortgage market.

Desired Outcomes

Increased share of mortgage credit supported by private capital; Resolution of GSE conservatorships; Appropriate level of sustainable homeownership.

Why Does This Matter?

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been in federal conservatorship for nine years. Taxpayers continue to stand behind their obligations through capital support agreements while there is no clear path for the resolution of their conservatorship. The GSEs, combined with federal housing programs such as those at the Federal Housing Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, support more than 70 percent of new mortgage originations. Changes should encourage the entry of greater private capital in the U.S. housing finance system. Resolution of the GSE conservatorships and right-sizing of federal housing programs is necessary to support a more sustainable U.S. housing finance system. (16)

The Plan states that Treasury’s strategies to achieve these objectives are to engage “stakeholders to develop housing finance reform recommendations.” (17) These stakeholders include Congress, the FHFA, Fed, SEC, CFPB, FDIC, HUD (including the FHA), VA, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Association of State Banking Regulators as well as “The Public.” Treasury further intends to disseminate “principles and recommendations for housing finance reform” and plan “for the resolution of current GSE conservatorships.” (Id.)

This is all to the good of course, but it is at such a high level of generality that it tells us next to nothing. In this regard, Trump’s Treasury is not all that different from Obama and George W. Bush’s. Treasury has not taken a lead on housing finance reform since the financial crisis began. While there is nothing wrong with letting Congress take the lead on this issue, it would move things forward if Treasury created an environment in which housing finance reform was clearly identified as a priority in Washington. Nothing good will come from letting Fannie and Freddie limp along in conservatorship for a decade or more.

The “Humbled” Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

photo by Lilla Frerichs

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is changing directions in a big way under the leadership of Mick Mulvaney as seen in its Strategic Plan for FY 2018-2022. In his opening message to the Plan, Mulvaney writes that the Plan

presents an opportunity to explain to the public how the Bureau intends to fulfill its statutory duties consistent with the strategic vision of its new leadership. In reviewing the draft Strategic Plan released by the Bureau in October 2017, it became clear to me that the Bureau needed a more coherent strategic direction. If there is one way to summarize the strategic changes occurring at the Bureau, it is this: we have committed to fulfill the Bureau’s statutory responsibilities, but go no further. Indeed, this should be an ironclad promise for any federal agency; pushing the envelope in pursuit of other objectives ignores the will of the American people, as established in law by their representatives in Congress and the White House. Pushing the envelope also risks trampling upon the liberties of our citizens, or interfering with the sovereignty or autonomy of the states or Indian tribes. I have resolved that this will not happen at the Bureau.

So how do we refocus the Bureau’s efforts to better protect consumers? How do we succinctly define the Bureau’s unique mission, goals, and objectives? Fortunately, the necessary tools are already set forth in statute. We have drawn the strategic plan’s mission statement directly from Sections 1011 and 1013 of the Dodd-Frank Act: “to regulate the offering and provision of consumer financial products or services under the Federal consumer financial laws” and “to educate and empower consumers to make better informed financial decisions.” We have similarly drawn the strategic plan’s first two strategic goals and its five strategic objectives from Section 1021 of the Dodd-Frank Act. By hewing to the statute, this Strategic Plan provides the Bureau a ready roadmap, a touchstone with a fixed meaning that should serve as a bulwark against the misuse of our unparalleled powers. Just as important, it provides clarity and certainty to market participants. (2)

The subtext of this change in direction is not that “sub” at all. The Trump Administration wants to rein in the Bureau after it aggressively pursued financial services companies for violating a broad range of consumer protection statutes.

The Plan says that the Bureau will now act “with humility and moderation.” What that means is that the it will now be cutting financial services firms a lot of slack. Let’s see how a humbled Bureau works out for consumers.

Tax Reform and Home Equity Loans

photo by Kalmia

MortgageLoan.com quoted me in Tax Reform Just Made Home Equity Loans A Lot Less Attractive. It reads, in part,

Home equity loans have long been attractive ways for homeowners to borrow money to pay for everything from major home improvements to a child’s college education. But these loans just lost a major benefit: When filing their income taxes, homeowners can no longer deduct the interest they pay on home equity loans each year.

This might make these loans less popular. The loss of the interest deduction might persuade homeowners to look for other ways to tap the money in their homes.

“From what I see, there are very limited times that home equity loans would still come in as a benefit,” said Tristan Ahumada, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty in Westlake Village, California.

A rush to pay off home equity loans?

And she’s not alone. Donald Daly, managing partner of REIS Group LLC in New York City and a licensed real estate appraiser, said that since January 1 he has seen a higher level of requests for appraisals from homeowners seeking to refinance their existing mortgage loans. Many of these owners are doing this as a way of paying off their Home Equity Lines of Credit, a form of home equity loan.

The reason? These lines of credit, better known as HELOCs, are not nearly as attractive to homeowners when they don’t come with the bonus of a tax deduction.

“We fully expect this trend to grow over the next weeks and months as more and more homeowners learn of the effect these changes will have on their personal finances,” Daly said.

Goodbye, deduction

In the past, homeowners who took out home equity loans or HELOCs could deduct the interest they paid on up to $100,000 of these loans. If you took out a home equity loan for $50,000, then, you could deduct all the interest you paid during the year on that loan. If you took out a home equity loan for $150,000, you could deduct the interest you paid on the first $100,000 of that loan.

When Congress in December of last year signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act into law, this all changed. The big tax reform legislation eliminates the home equity loan deduction starting in 2018. You can still claim your tax deduction when you file your income taxes in April of this year. That’s because you’re paying taxes from 2017.

But you won’t be able to claim the home equity loan deduction when you file on your 2018 taxes and beyond. Most of the tax cuts impacting taxpayers, including the home equity deduction rules, are scheduled to expire after 2025. No one knows, though, whether Congress will vote to continue them past that date once that year rolls around.

Existing loans aren’t grandfathered in, either. If you took out a home equity loan in 2016 and you’re still paying it off this year, you won’t be able to deduct any interest you pay on it in 2018, even if you’ve already deducted interest payments in the past.

*     *      *

Home equity loans can still work, though

Just because the tax benefits of home equity loans are disappearing, though, doesn’t mean that these loans are no longer a viable option for all homeowners.

The deduction was a benefit, but the biggest advantage of home equity loans is that they are a relatively cheap way to borrow money. The mortgage rates attached to home equity loans tend to be low. That isn’t changing.

So if you do have equity in your home and you want money to help pay, say, for your children’s college tuition, a home equity loan or HELOC might still be a smart move.

“While tax deductions are important, they are not the only reason we take out home equity loans,” said David Reiss, professor law at Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, New York.

Reiss said that when considering whether a home equity loan or HELOC is right for them, homeowners need to ask several important questions.

First, why do they want to take out the loan? If it’s for home improvements or to reduce high-interest-rate debt, the loan might still be worthwhile, even with the tax changes.

Next, homeowners need to look at their monthly budgets to determine if they can afford the payments that come with these loans. Finally, homeowners should consider whether they can borrow money cheaper somewhere else, taking the loss of the deduction into consideration.

“If you are comfortable with your answers, there is no reason not to consider a home equity loan as a financing option,” Reiss said.