Credit Risk Transfer and Financial Crises

photo by Dean Hochman

Susan Wachter posted Credit Risk Transfer, Informed Markets, and Securitization to SSRN. It opens,

Across countries and over time, credit expansions have led to episodes of real estate booms and busts. Ten years ago, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the most recent of these, began with the Panic of 2007. The pricing of MBS had given no indication of rising credit risk. Nor had market indicators such as early payment default or delinquency – higher house prices censored the growing underlying credit risk. Myopic lenders, who believed that house prices would continue to increase, underpriced credit risk.

In the aftermath of the crisis, under the Dodd Frank Act, Congress put into place a new financial regulatory architecture with increased capital requirements and stress tests to limit the banking sector’s role in the amplification of real estate price bubbles. There remains, however, a major piece of unfinished business: the reform of the US housing finance system whose failure was central to the GFC. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), put into conservatorship under the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA) of 2008, await a mandate for a new securitization structure. The future state of the housing finance system in the US is still not resolved.

Currently, US taxpayers back almost all securitized mortgages through the GSEs and Ginnie Mae. While pre-crisis, private label securitization (PLS) had provided a significant share of funding for mortgages, since 2007, PLS has withdrawn from the market.

The appropriate pricing of mortgage backed securities can discourage lending if risk rises, and, potentially, can limit housing bubbles that are enabled by excess credit. Securitization markets, including the over the counter market for residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) and the ABX securitization index, failed to do this in the housing bubble years 2003-2007.

GSEs have recently developed Credit Risk Transfers (CRTs) to trade and price credit risk. The objective is to bring private market discipline to bear on risk taking in securitized lending. For the CRT market to accomplish this, it must avoid the failures of financial assets to price risk. Are prerequisites for this in place? (2, references omitted)

Wachter partially answers this question in her conclusion:

CRT markets, if appropriately structured, can signal a heightened likelihood of systemic risk. Capital markets failed to do this in the run-up to the financial crisis, due to misaligned incentives and shrouded information. With sufficiently informed and appropriately structured markets, CRTs can provide market based discovery of the pricing of risk, and, with appropriate regulatory and guarantor response, can advance the stability of mortgage finance markets. (10)

Credit risk transfer has not yet been tested by a serious financial crisis. Wachter is right to bring a spotlight on it now, before events in the mortgage market overtake us.

Fannie and Freddie’s Credit Risk Transfers

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has released its February 2017 Housing Finance at a Glance Chartbook, always a great resource for housing geeks. Each Chartbook highlights one topic. This one focuses on GSE credit risk transfers, an important but technical subject:

The GSE’s credit risk transfer (CRT) program is growing and tapping into a more diverse investor base, reducing the costs of CRTs and improving liquidity in this market. At the same time, the continued reliance on back-end transactions is cause for concern
Freddie Mac‘s first two capital markets CRT transactions of 2017 have been different from previous Structured Agency Credit Risk (STACR) transactions in one important way. Unlike the pre-2017 deals, in which the first loss piece (Tranche B) was 100 basis points thick, the first loss piece (Tranche B2) in the latest transactions is only 50 basis points thick while second loss piece (B1) is also 50 basis points thick. Splitting the old B tranche more granularly in this manner is a noteworthy development for a few reasons.
Although this is hardly the first improvement the GSEs have made to their back-end CRT execution, it is an important one. Splitting the offering into more granular risk buckets will force investors to price the tranches more accurately, thus facilitating more precise price discovery of credit risk. More granular tranching will also help increase the demand for STACR securities. Investors who were previously willing, but unable to invest in the B tranche because investment guidelines prohibited them from taking first loss credit risk will now instead be able to invest in the second loss B1 tranche, which offers a higher expected returns than the previous second loss tranche (M2). Growing and diversifying the investor base is important because it makes the bidding process more efficient and minimizes the cost of risk transfer for Freddie Mac and the taxpayer. A larger, more diverse investor base also bodes well for the liquidity of the CRT market, which is still in its infancy.
Clearly, these innovations are important steps towards improving the efficiency of back-end CRT. But at the same time, they must be viewed in the context of the broader objectives of credit risk transfer and housing finance reform which have near unanimous support: reducing taxpayer risk, passing the benefits of CRT on to borrowers, facilitating broad availability of credit through the economic cycle, ensuring adequate access for lenders of all sizes, and promoting a variety of CRT executions, including at the front end to facilitate an understanding of which programs are most favorable under which circumstances.
Although the GSEs have experimented with front end mechanisms like lender recourse and deeper MI, these transactions have been few and far between, and with very little transparency about pricing and other terms. But more importantly, the GSEs’ continued and significant reliance on back-end capital markets transactions doesn’t put us on a path towards achieving some of the program objectives outlined above. This matters because it signals that the GSEs’ current strategy for credit risk transfer, which revolves largely around the success of back-end transactions, may ultimately keep the program from realizing its full potential. (5)
 So, all in all Fannie and Freddie are taking a step in the right direction, but it is just a small step on the road to housing finance reform.