The FHFA’s Take on Housing Finance Reform

FHFA Director Watt

Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Watt sent Federal Housing Finance Agency Perspectives on Housing Finance Reform to Senate Banking Chair Michael Crapo (R-ID) and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the top Democrat on that committee. There are no real surprises in it, but it does set forth a series of housing finance objectives that the FHFA supports:

• Preserve the 30-year fixed-rate, prepayable mortgage;

• End taxpayer bailouts for failing firms;

• Maintain liquidity in the housing finance market;

• Attract significant amounts of private capital to the center of the housing finance system through both robust equity capital requirements and credit risk transfer (CRT) participation;

• Provide for a single government-guaranteed mortgage-backed security that will improve the liquidity of the to-be-announced (TBA) market and promote a fair and competitive funding market for Secondary Market Entities (SMEs);

• Ensure access to affordable mortgages for creditworthy borrowers, sustainable rental options for families across income levels, and a focus on serving rural and other underserved markets;

• Provide a level playing field for institutions of all sizes to access the secondary market;

• Include tools for the regulator to anticipate and mitigate downturns in the housing market, including setting appropriate capital and liquidity requirements for SMEs, having prompt, corrective action authority for SMEs that are weak or troubled, and having authority to adjust CRT requirements as needed; and

• Provide a stable transition path that protects the housing finance market and the broader economy from potential disruptions and ensures that the new housing finance system operates as intended. (1)

The FHFA’s take on housing finance reform seems to be somewhat different from what various members of Congress are reportedly promoting. It is not clear though that the views of the FHFA are all that relevant to the Congressional leaders who are shaping the next housing finance reform bill. Nor do I expect that Director Watt’s views are particularly valued by the Trump Administration, given that he is a former Democratic member of Congress. That being said, Director Watt has always made it clear that it is Congress and not the FHFA that should be charting the path forward for housing finance reform.

While his views on the matter differ from those of some members of Congress, all of the relevant stakeholders seem to agree on the broad contours of what the 21st century’s housing finance infrastructure should look like. There should be an explicit guarantee to support the housing market during liquidity crises.  And the main elements of the current market, such as the thirty year fixed-rate mortgage, should be maintained. Here’s hoping that a bipartisan push can get this done this year.

Housing Booms and Busts

photo by Alex Brogan

Patricia McCoy and Susan Wachter have posted Why Cyclicality Matter to Access to Mortgage Credit to SSRN. The paper is now particularly relevant because of President Trump’s plan to roll back Dodd-Frank’s regulation of the financial markets, including the mortgage market. While McCoy and Wachter do not claim that Dodd-Frank solves the problem of cyclicality in the mortgage market, they do highlight how it reduces some of the worst excesses in that market. They make a persuasive case that more work needs to be done to reduce mortgage market cyclicality.

The abstract reads,

Virtually no attention has been paid to the problem of cyclicality in debates over access to mortgage credit, despite its importance as a driver of tight credit. Housing markets are prone to booms accompanied by bubbles in mortgage credit in which lenders cut underwriting standards, leading to elevated loan defaults. During downturns, these cycles artificially impede access to mortgage credit for underserved communities. During upswings, these cycles make homeownership unnecessarily precarious for many who attain it. This volatility exacerbates wealth and income disparities by ethnicity and race.

The boom-bust cycle must be addressed in order to assure healthy and sustainable access to credit for creditworthy borrowers. While the inherent cyclicality of the housing finance market cannot be fully eliminated, it can be mitigated to some extent. Mitigation is possible because housing market cycles are financed by and fueled by debt. Policymakers have begun to develop a suite of countercyclical tools to help iron out the peaks and troughs of the residential mortgage market. In this article, we discuss why access to credit is intrinsically linked to cyclicality and canvass possible techniques to modulate the extremes in those cycles.

McCoy and Wachter’s conclusions are worth heeding:

If homeownership is to attain solid footing, mitigating the cyclicality in the housing finance system will be imperative. That will require rooting out procyclical practices and requirements that fuel booms and busts. In their place, countercyclical measures must be instituted to modulate the highs and lows in the lending cycle. In the process, the goal is not to maximize homeownership per se; rather, it is to ensure that residential mortgages are made on safe and affordable terms.

*     *     *

Taming procyclicality in industry practices in housing finance is much farther behind and will require significantly more work. There is no easy fix for the procyclical effect of mortgage appraisals because appraisals are based on neighboring comparables. Similarly, procyclicality will require serious attention if the private-label securitization market returns. While the Dodd-Frank Act made modest reforms designed at curbing inflation of credit ratings, the issuer-pays system that drives grade inflation remains in place. Similarly, underpricing the risk of MBS and CDS will continue to be a problem in the absence of an effective short-selling mechanism and the effective identification of market-wide leverage. (34-35)

McCoy and Wachter offer a thoughtful overview of the risks that mortgage market cyclicality poses, but I am not optimistic that it will get a hearing in today’s Washington.  Maybe it will after the next bust.