GSE Shareholders Floored, Again

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued an opinion in Saxton v. FHFA (No. 17-1727, Aug. 23, 2018). The Eighth Circuit joins the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and D.C. Circuits in rejecting the arguments of Fannie and Freddie shareholders that the Federal Housing Finance Agency exceeded its authority as conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and acted arbitrarily and capriciously. The Court provides the following overview:

     The financial crisis of 2008 prompted Congress to take several actions to fend off economic disaster. One of those measures propped up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie and Freddie, which were founded by Congress back in 1938 and 1970, buy home mortgages from lenders, thereby freeing lenders to make more loans. See generally 12 U.S.C. § 4501. Although established by Congress, Fannie and Freddie operate like private companies: they have shareholders, boards of directors, and executives appointed by those boards. But Fannie and Freddie also have something most private businesses do not: the backing of the United States Treasury. 

     In 2008, with the mortgage meltdown at full tilt, Congress enacted the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA or the Act). HERA created the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), and gave it the power to appoint itself either conservator or receiver of Fannie or Freddie should either company become critically undercapitalized. 12 U.S.C. § 4617(a)(2), (4). The Act includes a provision limiting judicial review: “Except as  provided in this section or at the request of the Director, no court may take any action to restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of the [FHFA] as a conservator or a receiver.” Id. § 4617(f). 

     Shortly after the Act’s passage, FHFA determined that both Fannie and Freddie were critically undercapitalized and appointed itself conservator. FHFA then entered an agreement with the U.S. Department of the Treasury whereby Treasury would acquire specially-created preferred stock and, in exchange, would make hundreds of billions of dollars in capital available to Fannie and Freddie. The idea was that Fannie and Freddie would exit conservatorship when they reimbursed the Treasury.

     But Fannie and Freddie remain under FHFA’s conservatorship today. Since the conservatorship began, FHFA and Treasury have amended their agreement several times. In the most recent amendment, FHFA agreed that, each quarter, Fannie and Freddie would pay to Treasury their entire net worth, minus a small buffer. This so-called “net worth sweep” is the basis of this litigation. 

     Three owners of Fannie and Freddie common stock sued FHFA and Treasury, claiming they had exceeded their powers under HERA and acted arbitrarily and capriciously by agreeing to the net worth sweep. The shareholders sought only an injunction setting aside the net worth sweep; they dismissed a claim seeking money damages. Relying on the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in Perry Capital LLC v. Mnuchin, 864 F.3d 591 (D.C. Cir. 2017), the district court dismissed the suit.

What amazes me as a longtime watcher of the GSE litigation is how supposedly dispassionate investors lose their heads when it comes to the GSE lawsuits. They cannot seem to fathom that judges will come to a different conclusion regarding HERA’s limitation on judicial review.

While I do not rule out that the Supreme Court could find otherwise, particularly if Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed, it seems like this unbroken string of losses should provide some sort of wake up call for GSE shareholders. But somehow, I doubt that it will.

Fannie and Freddie Visit the Supreme Court

Justice Gorsuch

Fannie and Fredddie investors have filed their petition for a writ of certiorari in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin. The question presented is

Whether 12 U.S.C. § 4617(f), which prohibits courts from issuing injunctions that “restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of” the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) “as a conservator,” bars judicial review of an action by FHFA and the Department of Treasury to seize for Treasury the net worth of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in perpetuity. (i)

What I find interesting about the brief is that relies so heavily on the narrative contained in Judge Brown’s dissent in the Court of Appeals decision. As I had noted previously, I do not find that narrative compelling, but I believe that some members of the court would, particularly Justice Gorsuch. The petition’s statement reads in part,

In August 2012—nearly four years after the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac1 in conservatorship during the 2008 financial crisis—FHFA, acting as conservator to the Companies, agreed to surrender each Company’s net worth to the Treasury Department every quarter. This arrangement, referred to as the “Net Worth Sweep,” replaced a fixed-rate dividend to Treasury that was tied to Treasury’s purchase of senior preferred stock in the Companies during the financial crisis. FHFA and Treasury have provided justifications for the Net Worth Sweep that, as the Petition filed by Fairholme Funds, Inc. demonstrates, were pretextual. The Net Worth Sweep has enabled a massive confiscation by the government, allowing Treasury thus far to seize $130 billion more than it was entitled to receive under the pre-2012 financial arrangement—a fact that neither Treasury nor FHFA denies. As was intended, these massive capital outflows have brought the Companies to the edge of insolvency, and all but guaranteed that they will never exit FHFA’s conservatorship.

Petitioners here, investors that own preferred stock in the Companies, challenged the Net Worth Sweep as exceeding both FHFA’s and Treasury’s respective statutory powers. But the court of appeals held that the Net Worth Sweep was within FHFA’s statutory authority, and that keeping Treasury within the boundaries of its statutory mandate would impermissibly intrude on FHFA’s authority as conservator.

The decision of the court of appeals adopts an erroneous view of conservatorship unknown to our legal system. Conservators operate as fiduciaries to care for the interests of the entities or individuals under their supervision. Yet in the decision below, the D.C. Circuit held that FHFA acts within its conservatorship authority so long as it is not actually liquidating the Companies. In dissent, Judge Brown aptly described that holding as “dangerously far-reaching,” Pet.App. 88a, empowering a conservator even “to loot the Companies,” Pet.App. 104a.

The D.C. Circuit’s test for policing the bounds of FHFA’s statutory authority as conservator—if one can call it a test at all—breaks sharply from those of the Eleventh and Ninth Circuits, which have held that FHFA cannot evade judicial review merely by disguising its actions in the cloak of a conservator. And it likewise patently violates centuries of common-law understandings of the meaning of a conservatorship, including views held by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”), whose conservatorship authority under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (“FIRREA”), served as the template for FHFA’s own conservatorship authority. Judge Brown correctly noted that the decision below thus “establish[es] a dangerous precedent” for FDIC-regulated financial institutions with trillions of dollars in assets. Pet.App. 109a. If the decision below is correct, then the FDIC as conservator could seize depositor funds from one bank and give them away—to another institution as equity, or to Treasury, or even to itself—as long as it is not actually liquidating the bank. The notion that the law permits a regulator appointed as conservator to act in a way so manifestly contrary to the interests of its conservatee is deeply destabilizing to our financial regulatory system. (1-2)

We shall see if this narrative of government overreach finds a sympathetic ear at the Court.

FHFA’s Strategic Plan for Fannie and Freddie

The Federal Housing Finance Agency released its Strategic Plan for fiscal years 2018-2022 for public input. As discussed in yesterday’s post, Director Watt is very focused on maintaining the health of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Strategic Plan reiterates that focus:

As conservator of the Enterprises, FHFA will also promote stability by working to preserve and conserve the Enterprises’ assets and business operations. Additionally, FHFA will encourage the Enterprises and the housing industry to adopt standards and practices that promote market and stakeholder confidence. (8)

The Plan goes into depth to describe the FHFA’s role as conservator:

The Enterprises were placed into conservatorships in September 2008 in the midst of a severe financial crisis. Their ongoing participation in the housing finance market has been an important factor in maintaining market liquidity and stability. Conservatorship permitted the U.S. Government to take greater control over management of the Enterprises and gave investors in the Enterprises’ debt and MBS confidence that the Enterprises would have the capacity to honor their financial obligations. As conservator, FHFA establishes restrictions and expectations for the Enterprises’ boards and for their managements while authorizing them to conduct the Enterprises’ day-to-day operations.

As detailed earlier, FHFA’s authority as both regulator and conservator of the Enterprises is based upon statutory mandates. FHFA, acting as regulator and conservator, must follow the mandates assigned to it by statute and the missions assigned to the Enterprises by their charters. Congress may choose to revise the statutory mandates governing the Enterprises at any time.

*      *     *

The Enterprises are also parties to PSPAs with the Treasury Department. Under the PSPAs, the Enterprises are provided U.S. taxpayer backing with explicit dollar limits. The PSPA commitment still available to Fannie Mae is $117.6 billion and the commitment still available to Freddie Mac is $140.5 billion. Additional draws would reduce these commitments, and dividend payments do not replenish or increase the commitments under the terms of the PSPAs. Starting in 2013, the PSPAs provided each Enterprise with a capital buffer of $3 billion to protect each Enterprise against making additional draws of taxpayer support in the event of an operating loss in any quarter, and the PSPAs provide mandated declines of $600 million each year to these capital buffers. On January 1, 2017, each Enterprise’s capital buffer declined to $600 million and the capital buffer is scheduled to decline to zero on January 1, 2018.

FHFA continues to encourage Congress to complete the important work of housing finance reform. FHFA has reiterated the urgency of reform and that it is up to Congress to determine what future, if any, the Enterprises will have in the future housing finance system. (16-17)

Reading between the lines, I see the FHFA under Watt doing whatever it has to in order to maintain stability and liquidity in the mortgage markets. If Congress does not act, if the Treasury does not act, I think that Director Watt will go it alone and do what it takes to maintain Fannie and Freddie’s reputation with mortgage lenders and MBS investors.

Watt’s Happening with Fannie and Freddie?

FHFA Director Watt

Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Watt testified before the House Committee on Financial Services today and gave a good overview of the decade-long conservatorship of Fannie and Freddie.  He also gave some sense of the urgency of coming up with at least a stopgap measure before the two companies’ capital buffer drops to zero at the end of the year pursuant to the terms of the Senior Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements (PSPAs) that govern the two companies’ relationship with the Treasury. He stated that it would

be a serious misconception for members of this Committee, or for anyone else, to consider any actions FHFA may take as conservator to avoid additional draws of taxpayer support either as interference with the prerogatives of Congress, as an effort to influence the outcome of housing finance reform, or as a step toward recap and release. FHFA’s actions would be taken solely to avoid a draw during conservatorship.

This signifies to me that he is planning on doing something other than reducing the capital buffer to $0.  As far as I can tell, Watt is playing a game of chicken with Congress — if you do not act, I will.

It is not clear to me clear how much authority Watt has or thinks he has to change the rules relating to the capital buffer. Does he think that he could act inconsistent with the PSPAa and withhold capital?  I have not seen a legal argument that says he could.  Is he willing to do it and be sued by Treasury?  These are speculative questions, but I do think that he has laid the groundwork for taking action if Congress and Treasury do not.

It does not seem to me that he was much wiggle room according to the terms of the PSPAs themselves, except perhaps to delay making the net worth sweep at the end of this year by converting it to an annual sweep or by some other mechanism.  That will be a short-term fix.

Given his strong language — “FHFA’s actions would be taken solely to avoid a draw during conservatorship” — I think he might be prepared to take an action that is inconsistent with the plain language of the PSPAs in order to act in a way that he thinks is consistent with his duty as the conservator.  This is less risky than it sounds because the only party that would seem to have standing to sue would be the Treasury, the counter-party to the PSPAs.  One could imagine that the Treasury would prefer to negotiate a response with the FHFA or await Watt’s departure rather than to have a judge decide the issue.  One could also imagine that Treasury would go along with the FHFA without explicitly condoning its actions, particularly if its actions soothed a turbulent market for Fannie and Freddie mortgage-backed securities.

Watt has consistently signaled that he will act if no other responsible party does and he emphasized that again today.

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.

Does Housing Finance Reform Still Matter?

Ed DeMarco and Michael Bright

Ed DeMarco and Michael Bright

The Milken Institute’s Michael Bright and Ed DeMarco have posted a white paper, Why Housing Reform Still Matters. Bright was the principal author of the Corker-Warner Fannie/Freddie reform bill and DeMarco is the former Acting Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. In short, they know housing finance. They write,

The 2008 financial crisis left a lot of challenges in its wake. The events of that year led to years of stagnant growth, a painful process of global deleveraging, and the emergence of new banking regulatory regimes across the globe.

But at the epicenter of the crisis was the American housing market. And while America’s housing finance system was fundamental to the financial crisis and the Great Recession, reform efforts have not altered America’s mortgage market structure or housing access paradigms in a material way.

This work must get done. Eventually, legislators will have to resolve their differences to chart a modernized course for housing in our country. Reflecting upon the progress made and the failures endured in this effort since 2008, we have set ourselves to the task of outlining a framework meant to advance the public debate and help lawmakers create an achievable plan. Through a series of upcoming papers, our goal will be to not just foster debate but to push that debate toward resolution.

Before setting forth solutions, however, it is important to frame the issues and state why we should do this in the first place. In light of the growing chorus urging surrender and going back to the failed model of the past, our objective in this paper is to remind policymakers why housing finance reform is needed and help distinguish aspects of the current system that are worth preserving from those that should be scrapped. (1)

I agree with a lot of what they have to say.  First, we should not go back to “the failed model of the past,” and it amazes me that that idea has any traction at all. I guess political memories are as short as people say they are.

Second, “until Congress acts, the FHFA is stuck in its role of regulator and conservator.” (3) They argue that it is wrong to allow one individual, the FHFA Director, to dramatically reform the housing finance system on his own. This is true, even if he is doing a pretty good job, as current Director Watt is.

Third, I agree that any reform plan must ensure that the mortgage-backed securities market remain liquid; credit remains available in all submarkets markets; competition is beneficial in the secondary mortgage market.

Finally, I agree with many of the goals of their reform agenda: reducing the likelihood of taxpayer bailouts of private actors; finding a consensus on access to credit; increasing the role of private capital in the mortgage market; increasing transparency in order to decrease rent-seeking behavior by market actors; and aligning incentives throughout the mortgage markets.

So where is my criticism? I think it is just that the paper is at such a high level of generality that it is hard to find much to disagree about.  Who wouldn’t want a consensus on housing affordability and access to credit? But isn’t it more likely that Democrats and Republicans will be very far apart on this issue no matter how long they discuss it?

The authors promise that a detailed proposal is forthcoming, so my criticism may soon be moot. But I fear that Congress is no closer to finding common ground on housing finance reform than they have been for the better part of the last decade. The authors’ optimism that consensus can be reached is not yet warranted, I think. Housing reform may not matter because the FHFA may just implement a new regime before Congress gets it act together.

Spreading Mortgage Credit Risk

photo by A Syn

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has released the Single-Family Credit Risk Transfer Progress Report. Important aspects of Fannie and Freddie’s future are described in this report. It opens,

Since 2012, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) has set as a strategic objective that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac share credit risk with private investors. While the Enterprises have a longstanding practice of sharing credit risk on certain loans with primary mortgage insurers and other counterparties, the credit risk transfer transactions have taken further steps to share credit risk with private market participants. Since the Enterprises were placed in conservatorship in 2008, they have received financial support from the U.S. Department of the Treasury under the Senior Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements (PSPAs). The Enterprises’ credit risk transfer programs reduce the overall risk to taxpayers under these agreements.

These programs have made significant progress since they were launched in 2012 and credit risk transfer transactions are now a regular part of the Enterprises’ businesses. This progress is reflected in FHFA’s 2016 Scorecard for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Common Securitization Solutions (2016 Scorecard), which sets the expectation that the Enterprises will transfer risk on 90 percent of targeted single-family, 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages. FHFA works with the Enterprises to ensure that credit risk transfer transactions are conducted in an economically sensible way that effectively transfers risk to private investors.

This Progress Report provides an overview of how the Enterprises share credit risk with the private sector, including through primary mortgage insurance and the Enterprises’ credit risk transfer programs. The discussion includes year-end 2015 data, a discussion of which Enterprise loan acquisitions are targeted for the credit risk transfer programs, and an overview of investor participation information. (1, footnotes omitted)

This push to share credit risk with private investors is a significant departure from the old Fannie/Freddie business model and it should do just what it promises: reduce taxpayer exposure to credit risk for the trillions of dollars of mortgages the two companies guarantee through their mortgage-backed securities. That being said, this is a relatively new initiative and the two companies (and the FHFA, as their conservator and regulator) have to navigate a lot of operational issues to ensure that this transfer of credit risk is priced appropriately.

There are also some important policy issues that have not been settled. The FHFA has asked for feedback on a series of issues in its Single-Family Credit Risk Transfer Request for Input, including,

  • how to “develop a deeper mortgage insurance structure” (RfI, 17)
  • how to develop credit risk transfer strategies that work for small lenders (RfI, 18)
  • how to price the fees that Fannie and Freddie charge to guarantee mortgage-backed securities (RfI, 19)

Congress has abdicated its responsibility to implement housing finance reform, so it is left up to the FHFA to make it happen. Indeed, the FHFA’s timeline has this process being finalized in 2018. The only way for the public to affect the course of reform is through the type of input the FHFA is now seeking:

FHFA invites interested parties to provide written input on the questions listed [within the Request for Input] 60 days of the publication of this document, no later than August 29, 2016. FHFA also invites additional input on the topics discussed in this document that are not directly responsive to these questions.

Input may be submitted electronically using this response form. You may also want to review the FHFA’s update on Implementation of the Single Security and the Common Securitization Platform and its credit risk transfer page as it has links to other relevant documents.