An Inquest into the Subprime Crisis

, image by Paul Townsend

Coroners Inquests in Gloucestershire from The Gloucester Journal 1814

Juan Ospina and Harald Uhlig have posted Mortgage-Backed Securities and the Financial Crisis of 2008: A Post-Mortem to SSRN. Given that the market for private-label MBS pretty much died by 2008, the title is apt. The paper presents a challenge to many of the standard narratives that have developed to explain the causes of the subprime crisis and the broader financial crisis that followed. Other researchers in this area will surely take up the gauntlet thrown down by this paper. Hopefully, we will collectively come up with the right narrative to explain the whole mess. The paper opens,

Gradually, the deep financial crisis of 2008 is in the rearview mirror. With that, standard narratives have emerged, which will inform and influence policy choices and public perception in the future for a long time to come. For that reason, it is all the more important to examine these narratives with the distance of time and available data, as many of these narratives were created in the heat of the moment.

One such standard narrative has it that the financial meltdown of 2008 was caused by an overextension of mortgages to weak borrowers, repackaged and then sold to willing lenders drawn in by faulty risk ratings for these mortgage back securities. To many, mortgage backed securities and rating agencies became the key villains of that financial crisis. In particular, rating agencies were blamed for assigning the coveted AAA rating to many securities, which did not deserve it, particularly in the subprime segment of the market, and that these ratings then lead to substantial losses for institutional investors, who needed to invest in safe assets and who mistakenly put their trust in these misguided ratings.

In this paper, we re-examine this narrative. We seek to address two questions in particular. First, were these mortgage backed securities bad investments? Second, were the ratings wrong? We answer these questions, using a new and detailed data set on the universe of non-agency residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS), obtained by devoting considerable work to carefully assembling data from Bloomberg and other sources. This data set allows us to examine the actual repayment stream and losses on principal on these securities up to 2014, and thus with a considerable distance since the crisis events. In essence, we provide a post-mortem on a market that many believe to have died in 2008. We find that the conventional narrative needs substantial rewriting: the ratings and the losses were not nearly as bad as this narrative would lead one to believe.

Specifically, we calculate the ex-post realized losses as well as ex-post realized return on investing on par in these mortgage backed securities, under various assumptions of the losses for the remaining life time of the securities. We compare these realized returns to their ratings in 2008 and their promised loss distributions, according to tables available from the rating agencies. We shall investigate, whether ratings were a sufficient statistic (to the degree that a discretized rating can be) or whether they were, essentially, just “noise”, given information already available to market participants at the time of investing such as ratings of borrowers.

We establish seven facts. First, the bulk of these securities was rated AAA. Second, AAA securities did ok: on average, their total cumulated losses up to 2013 are 2.3 percent. Third, the subprime AAA-rated segment did particularly well. Fourth, later vintages did worse than earlier vintages, except for subprime AAA securities. Fifth, the bulk of the losses were concentrated on a small share of all securities. Sixth, the misrating for AAA securities was modest. Seventh, controlling for a home price bust, a home price boom was good for the repayment on these securities. (1-2)

Redefault Risk After the Mortgage Crisis


A tower filled with shredded U.S. currency in the lobby of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

Paul Calem et al. of the Phillie Fed posted Redefault Risk in the Aftermath of the Mortgage Crisis: Why Did Modifications Improve More Than Self-Cures? The abstract reads,

This paper examines the redefault rate of mortgages that were selected for modification during 2008–2011, compared with that of similarly situated self-cured mortgages during the same period. We find that while the performance of both modified and self-cured loans improved dramatically over this period, the decline in the redefault rate for modified loans was substantially larger, and we attribute this difference to a few key factors. First, the repayment terms provided by modifications became increasingly generous, including the more frequent offering of principal reduction, resulting in greater financial relief to borrowers. Second, the later modifications also benefited from improving economic conditions — modification became more effective as unemployment rates declined and home prices recovered. Third, we find that the difference in redefault rate improvement between modified loans and self-cured loans is not fully explained by observable risk and economic variables. We attribute this residual difference to the servicers’ learning process — so-called learning by doing. Early in the mortgage crisis, many servicers had limited experience selecting the best borrowers for modification. As modification activity increased, lenders became more adept at screening borrowers for modification eligibility and in selecting appropriate modification terms.

The big question, of course, is what does this all tell us about preparing for the next crisis? That crisis, no doubt, won’t be a repeat of the last one. But it will likely rhyme with it enough — falling home prices, increasing defaults — that we can draw some lessons. One is that we did not use principal reductions fast enough to make a big difference in how the crisis played out. There were a lot of reason for this, some legit and some not. But if it is good public policy overall, we should set up mechanisms to deploy principal reduction early in the next crisis so that we do not need to navigate all of the arguments about moral hazard while knee deep in it.

Is There a Bipartisan Fix for Fannie and Freddie?

photo by DonkeyHotey

The Hill published my latest column, Congress May Have Finally Found a Bipartisan Fix to Fannie and Freddie. It reads,

It is welcome news to hear that Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) are looking to craft a bipartisan solution to the problem of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two massive mortgage companies have been in conservatorship since 2008 when they were on the verge of failing. At that time, nobody, just nobody, believed that they would still be in conservatorship nearly a decade later.

But here we are. Resolving this situation is of great importance to the financial well-being of the nation. These two companies guarantee trillions of dollars worth of mortgages and operate like black boxes, run by employees who don’t have a clear mission from their multiple masters in government.

This is the recipe for some kind of crisis.Maybe they will not underwrite their mortgage-backed securities properly. Maybe they will undertake a risky hedging strategy. We just don’t know, but there is reason to think that gargantuan organizations that have been in limbo for ten years may have developed all sorts of operational pathologies.

There have been a couple of serious attempts in the Senate to craft a long-term solution to this problem, but it was not a high priority for the Obama Administration and does not yet appear to be a high priority for the Trump Administration. Deep ideological divisions over the appropriate role of the government in the mortgage have also stymied progress on reform.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, leads a faction that wants to dramatically reduce the role of the government in the mortgage market. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) leads a faction that wants to ensure that the government plays an active role in making homeownership, and housing more generally, more affordable to low- and moderate-income households. At this point, it is not clear whether a sufficiently broad coalition could be cobbled together to overcome the opposition to a compromise at the two ends of the spectrum.

2017 presents an opportunity to push reform forward, however. The terms of the conservatorship were changed in 2012 to require that the Fannie and Freddie reduce their capital cushion to zero by the end of this year. That means that if Fannie or Freddie has even one bad quarter and suffers losses, something that is bound to happen sooner or later, they would technically require a bailout from Treasury.

Now, such a bailout would not be such a terrible thing from a policy perspective as Fannie and Freddie have paid tens of billions of dollars more to the Treasury than they received in the bailout. But politically, a second bailout of Fannie or Freddie would be toxic for those who authorize it.

Some are arguing that we should kick the can down the housing finance reform road once again, by allowing Fannie and Freddie to retain some of their capital to protect them from such a scenario. But Corker and Warner seem to want to use the Dec. 31, 2017 end date to focus minds in Congress. They, along with some other colleagues, have warned Fannie and Freddie’s conservator, Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mel Watt, not to increase the capital cushion for the two companies. They claim that it is Congress’ prerogative to make this call.

The conventional wisdom is that the stars have not aligned to make housing finance reform politically viable in the short term. The conventional wisdom is probably right because the housing finance system is working well enough for now. Mortgage rates are very low and while access to credit is a bit tight, it is not so tight that it is making headlines. So perhaps Senators Corker and Warner are right to use the fear factor of future bailouts as a goad to action.

Housing finance reform requires statesmanship because there are no short-term gains that will accrue to the politicians that lead it. And the long-term gains will be very diffuse – nobody will praise them for the crises that were averted by their actions to create a housing finance system fit for the 21st century. But this work is of great importance and far-thinking leaders on both sides of the aisle should support a solution that takes Fannie and Freddie out of the limbo of conservatorship.

It will require compromise and an acceptance of the fact that the perfect is the enemy of the good. But if compromise is reached, it may help to avoid another catastrophe that will be measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars. And it will ensure that we have a mortgage market that meets the needs of America’s families.

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

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