Mortgage Insurers and The Next Housing Crisis

photo by Jeff Turner

The Inspector General of the Federal Housing Finance Agency has released a white paper on Enterprise Counterparties: Mortgage Insurers. The Executive Summary reads,

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises) operate under congressional charters to provide liquidity, stability, and affordability to the mortgage market. Those charters, which have been amended from time to time, authorize the Enterprises to purchase residential mortgages and codify an affirmative obligation to facilitate the financing of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families. Pursuant to their charters, the Enterprises may purchase single-family residential mortgages with loan-to-value (LTV) ratios above 80%, provided that these mortgages are supported by one of several credit enhancements identified in their charters. A credit enhancement is a method or tool to reduce the risk of extending credit to a borrower; mortgage insurance is one such method. Since 1957, private mortgage insurers have assumed an ever-increasing role in providing credit enhancements and they now insure “the vast majority of loans over 80% LTV purchased by the” Enterprises. In congressional testimony in 2015, Director Watt emphasized that mortgage insurance is critical to the Enterprises’ efforts to provide increased housing access for lower-wealth borrowers through 97% LTV loans.

During the financial crisis, some mortgage insurers faced severe financial difficulties due to the precipitous drop in housing prices and increased defaults that required the insurers to pay more claims. State regulators placed three mortgage insurers into “run-off,” prohibiting them from writing new insurance, but allowing them to continue collecting renewal premiums and processing claims on existing business. Some mortgage insurers rescinded coverage on more loans, canceling the policies and returning the premiums.  Currently, the mortgage insurance industry consists of six private mortgage insurers.

In our 2017 Audit and Evaluation Plan, we identified the four areas that we believe pose the most significant risks to FHFA and the entities it supervises. One of those four areas is counterparty risk – the risk created by persons or entities that provide services to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. According to FHFA, mortgage insurers represent the largest counterparty exposure for the Enterprises. The Enterprises acknowledge that, although the financial condition of their mortgage insurer counterparties approved to write new business has improved in recent years, the risk remains that some of them may fail to fully meet their obligations. While recent financial and operational requirements may enhance the resiliency of mortgage insurers, other industry features and emerging trends point to continuing risk.

We undertook this white paper to understand and explain the current and emerging risks associated with private mortgage insurers that insure loan payments on single-family mortgages with LTVs greater than 80% purchased by the Enterprises. (2)

It is a truism that the next crisis won’t look like the last one. It is worth heeding the Inspector General’s warning about the

risks from private mortgage insurance as a credit enhancement, including increasing volume, high concentrations, an inability by the Enterprises to manage concentration risk, mortgage insurers with credit ratings below the Enterprises’ historic requirements and investment grade, the challenges inherent in a monoline business and the cyclic housing market, and remaining unpaid mortgage insurer deferred obligations. (13)

One could easily imagine a taxpayer bailout of Fannie and Freddie driven by the insolvency of the some or all of the six private mortgage insurers that do business with them. Let’s hope that the FHFA addresses that risk now, while the mortgage market is still healthy.

Mortgage Bankers and GSE Reform

photo by Daniel Case

The Mortgage Bankers Association has released GSE Reform Principles and Guardrails. It opens,

This paper serves as an introduction to MBA’s recommended approach to GSE reform. Its purpose is to outline what MBA views as the key components of an end state, the principles that MBA believes should be incorporated in any future system, the “guardrails” we believe are necessary in our end state, as well as emphasize the need to ensure a smooth transition to the new secondary mortgage market. (1)

While there is very little that is new in this document, it is useful, nonetheless, as a statement of the industry’s position. The MBA has promulgated the following principles for housing finance reform:

  • The 30-year, fixed-rate, pre-payable single-family mortgage and longterm financing for multifamily mortgages should be preserved.
  • A deep, liquid TBA market for conventional single-family loans must be maintained. Eligible MBS backed by a well-defined pool of single-family mortgages or multifamily mortgages should receive an explicit government guarantee, funded by appropriately priced insurance premiums, to attract global capital and preserve liquidity during times of stress. The government guarantee should attach to the eligible MBS only, not to the guarantors or their debt.
  • The availability of affordable housing, both owned and rented, is vitally important; these needs should be addressed along a continuum, incorporating both single- and multifamily approaches for homeowners and renters.
  • The end-state system should facilitate equitable, transparent and direct access to secondary market programs for lenders of all sizes and business models.
  • A robust, innovative and purely private market should be able to co-exist alongside the government-backed market.
  • Existing multifamily financing executions should be preserved, and new options should be permitted.
  • The end-state system should rely on strong, transparent regulation and private capital (including primary-market credit enhancement such as mortgage insurance [MI] and lender recourse, or other available forms of credit risk transfer) primarily assuming most of the risk.
  • While the system will primarily rely on private capital, there should be a provision for a deeper level of government support in the event of a systemic crisis.
  • There should be a “bright line” between the primary and secondary mortgage markets, applying to both allowable activities and scope of regulation.
  • Transition risks to the new end-state model should be minimized, with special attention given to avoiding any operational disruptions. (3-4)

This set of principles reflect the bipartisan consensus that had been developing around the Johnson-Crapo and Corker-Warner housing reform bills. The ten trillion dollar question, of course, is whether the Trump Administration and Congressional leaders like Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), the Chair of the House Banking Committee, are going to go along with the mortgage finance industry on this or whether they will push for a system with far less government involvement than is contemplated by the MBA.

Federalizing Monoline Mortgage Insurance

The Federal Insurance Office of the Department of Treasury issued a report required pursuant to Dodd-Frank, How To Modernize And Improve The System Of Insurance Regulation In The United States, which addresses among other things the state of the monoline mortgage insurance industry:

Recommendation: Federal standards and oversight for mortgage insurers should be developed and implemented.

Like financial guarantors, private mortgage insurers are monoline companies that experienced devastating losses during the financial crisis. A business predominantly focused on providing credit enhancement to mortgages guaranteed by the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, mortgage insurers migrated from the core business of insuring conventional, well-underwritten mortgage loans to providing insurance on pools of Alt-A and subprime mortgages in the years leading up to the financial crisis. The dramatic decline in housing prices and the impact of the change in underwriting practices required mortgage insurers to draw down capital and reserves to pay claims resulting in the failure of three out of the eight mortgage insurers in the United States. Historically high levels of claim denials, including policy rescissions, helped put taxpayers at risk.

Regulatory oversight of mortgage insurance varies state by state. Though mortgage insurance coverage is provided nationally, only 16 states impose specific requirements on private mortgage insurers. Of these requirements, two govern the solvency regime and, therefore, are of particular significance: (1) a limit on total liability, net of reinsurance, for all policies of 25 times the sum of capital, surplus, and contingency reserves, (known as a 25:1 risk-to-capital ratio); and (2) a requirement of annual contributions to a contingency reserve equal to 50 percent of the mortgage insurer’s earned premium. In addition to the states, the GSEs (and through conservatorship, the Federal Housing Finance Agency) establish uniform standards and eligibility requirements that in some cases are more stringent than those required by state regulators. As the financial crisis unfolded, mortgage insurers no longer met state or contractual capital requirements. State regulators granted waivers in order to allow mortgage insurers to continue to write new business while the GSEs loosened other standards that were applicable to mortgage insurers.

The private mortgage insurance sector is interconnected with other aspects of the federal housing finance system and, therefore, is an issue of significant national interest. As the United States continues to recover from the financial crisis and works to reform aspects of the housing finance system, private mortgage insurance may be an important component of any reform package as an alternative way to place private capital in front of any government or taxpayer risk. Robust national solvency and business practice standards, with uniform implementation, for mortgage insurers would help foster greater confidence in the solvency and performance of housing finance. To achieve this objective, it is necessary to establish federal oversight of federally developed standards applicable to mortgage insurance. (31-32)

This critique of the monoline insurance industry seems accurate to me. The industry has a tendency to fail when it is needed most — during major financial crises. Having multiple states regulate monoline insurers allows this nationally (and globally) significant industry to engage in regulatory arbitrage — that is, finding the most pliable regulatory environment in which to operate. National regulation would solve that problem. As always, a single federal regulator is more prone to capture by the industry it regulates than a bunch of state regulators. We have, however, tried the alternative and it has not worked so well. I think a federal approach is worth a try.

Optimizing Principal Modifications

S&P posted How Principal And Interest Rate Modifications Affect U.S. RMBS. Principal modifications — reducing the amount that the homeowner owes on the loan — have not been popular with lenders for obvious reasons. But they have also not been popular with politicians and even with the general populace for reasons that likely derive from variants of moral hazard: it just isn’t fair that some people don’t have to repay their debts. And if we give some people an out, won’t everyone else want one too?

Perhaps the better question to ask is whether principal modifications reduce defaults compared to other steps that lenders have taken with defaulting borrowers. S&P has looked at this question and they found “that even though rate reductions are the most common form of modification, principal reductions offer the most benefit to borrowers looking to avoid default.” (2)

While principal mods are good for borrowers — no big surprise there — their impact on investors is not so clear cut. S&P writes that

When it comes to principal reductions, investors can also have different outcomes based on the deal structure. A write-down in loan principal will cause an immediate reduction in credit enhancement, and bondholders would face greater exposure to collateral losses. But for deals with cumulative loss triggers, senior bondholders can receive extra principal diverted from subordinate classes once the triggers are tripped, thereby accelerating their recovery. . . . [S]tructural provisions and interest and principal payment mechanisms in RMBS transactions influence how loan modifications affect bondholders in RMBS transactions. Any type of modification brings with it nuances that may benefit the borrower while having a varied impact on investors. (5)

As we learn lessons that may apply in the next crisis, it is worth realizing that borrower workouts and investor outcomes are linked in ways that should be explicitly identified so that incentives can be properly aligned. With planning, mortgage-backed securities can be structured to be good for borrowers and investors, perhaps even Pareto optimal.

Balancing Consumer Protection and Access to Credit

S&P posted U.S. RMBS Roundtable: Originators, Aggregators, and Counsel Discuss New Qualified Mortgage Rules. In summarizing the roundtable, S&P notes that

The ability-to-repay rule, ostensibly to prevent defaults and another housing crisis, is still very much open to interpretation. To that end, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services recently held a private roundtable with several market participants. The confidential discussion offered the attendees an opportunity to share their views and interpretations of these rules, offer opinions on how to operate efficiently within the scope of the rules, and highlight perceived conflicts the rules still present.

In our view, the discussion identified some common themes, notably:

    • Most originators will focus on QM-Safe Harbor loans to avoid liability and achieve the best execution.
    • Many originators will also find attractive opportunities to originate non-QM loans.
    • Non-agency originations of QM or non-QM loans will continue to focus on super-prime borrowers as lenders find that the best defense is to limit the potential for default.
    • The documentation standards used by originators will be the key to compliance with the rule. (2)

There are a lot of interesting tidbits in this document, including speculation about the role of technology in the brave new world of mortgage lending.  The summary ended on a guardedly optimistic note:

While the rule leaves significant room for interpretation, originators generally felt that the final rule to be implemented in January 2014 is better than expected. They expressed hope that regulators will be vigilant in pursuing violations that are reasonable. Originators still see challenges for originations of non-QM loans, but they don’t believe they are insurmountable, and many expect that non-QM loans will be represented in origination volume throughout 2014. The challenges that remain are the market’s pricing of QM safe harbor, rebuttable presumption, and non-QM loans; required credit enhancement levels; the effects of risk retention rules, which have yet to be finalized; and the ultimate costs associated with the assignee liability provisions in the rule. (7)

If these industry participants are right, it will look like regulators did a pretty good job of balancing consumer protection and access to credit. Let’s hope!

S&P on Rating Mortgage-Backed Securities Before The Crisis

S&P has posted The Role of Credit Rating Agencies in The Financial System, remarks by its president at the United Nations. The remarks reflect S&P’s narrative of the events leading up to the Subprime Crisis. This narrative is, unsurprisingly, self-serving but revealing nonetheless.

  • We, like others, did not anticipate the U.S. housing downturn, which led to the financial crisis. But with the exception of our ratings on U.S. mortgage-related securities, our ratings have performed as expected. (3) 

Seems like a perfect example of the exception swallowing the rule . . ..

  • In September of 2008, we were all in the depths of the financial crisis. During that time the vast majority of the securities S&P rated performed as we anticipated, including many structured finance ratings. But the performance of our ratings of certain U.S. residential mortgage-related securities was a major disappointment. Like nearly every other market participant, analyst and interested government entity, we did not anticipate the U.S. housing collapse and its effect on the economy as a whole. (4)

As I have said before, this is self-serving revisionism, when S&P’s own analysts predicted the collapse of many of the mortgage-backed securities that they rated before the Bust.

  • We have taken significant actions to further strengthen our independence from issuer influence. We have long had policies to manage potential conflicts of interest such as a separation of analytic and commercial activities, a ban on analysts from participating in fee negotiations, and de-linking analyst compensation from the volume of securities they rate or the type of ratings they assign. After the crisis, we decided to strengthen analytical independence by rotating the analysts assigned to a particular issuer and enhancing analyst training. (4)

No mention here of the fact that their longstanding policies appeared to have not been up to the task of controlling for conflicts as far as anyone was concerned . . ..

  • For mortgage-related securities, for example, we significantly increased the credit enhancement required to achieve a ‘AAA’ rating and made it more difficult for securities to achieve high ratings. (4)

Thank goodness for that! Time will tell if these new assumptions adequately reflect the risk of default for complex MBS.