How Tight Is The Credit Box?

Laurie Goodman of the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has posted a working paper, Quantifying the Tightness of Mortgage Credit and Assessing Policy Actions. The paper opens,

Mortgage credit has become very tight in the aftermath of the financial crisis. While experts generally agree that it is poor public policy to make loans to borrowers who cannot make their payments, failing to make mortgages to those who can make their payments has an opportunity cost, because historically homeownership has been the best way to build wealth. And, default is not binary: very few borrowers will default under all circumstances, and very few borrowers will never default. The decision where to draw the line—which mortgages to make—comes down to what probability of default we as a society are prepared to tolerate.

This paper first quantifies the tightness of mortgage credit in historical perspective. It then discusses one consequence of tight credit: fewer mortgage loans are being made. Then the paper evaluates the policy actions to loosen the credit box taken by the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) and their regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), as well as the policy actions taken by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), arguing that the GSEs have been much more successful than the FHA. The paper concludes with the argument that if we don’t solve mortgage credit availability issues, we will have a much lower percentage of homeowners because a larger share of potential new homebuyers will likely be Hispanic or nonwhite—groups that have had lower incomes, less wealth, and lower credit scores than whites. Because homeownership has traditionally been the best way for households to build wealth, the inability of these new potential homeowners to buy could increase economic inequality between whites and nonwhites. (1)

Goodman has been making the case for some time that the credit box is too tight. I would have liked to see a broader discussion in the paper of policies that could further loosen credit. What, for instance, could the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau do to encourage more lending? Should it be offering more of a safe harbor for lenders who are willing to make non-Qualified Mortgage loans? The private-label mortgage-backed securities sector has remained close to dead since the financial crisis.  Are there ways to bring some life — responsible life — back to that sector? Why aren’t portfolio lenders stepping into that space? What would they need to do so?

When the Qualified Mortgage rule was being hashed out, there was a debate as to whether there should be any non-Qualified Mortgages available to borrowers.  Some argued that every borrower should get a Qualified Mortgage, which has so many consumer protection provisions built into it. I was of the opinion that there should be a market for non-QM although the CFPB would need to monitor that sector closely. I stand by that position. The credit box is too tight and non-QM could help to loosen it up.

Road to GSE Reform

photo by Antonio Correa

A bevy of housing finance big shots have issued a white paper, A More Promising Road to GSE Reform. The main objective of the proposal

is to migrate those components of today’s system that work well into a system that is no longer impaired by the components that do not, with as little disruption as possible. To do this, our proposal would merge Fannie and Freddie to form a single government corporation, which would handle all of the operations that those two institutions perform today, providing an explicit federal guarantee on mortgage-backed securities while syndicating all noncatastrophic credit risk into the private market. This would facilitate a deep, broad and competitive primary and secondary mortgage market; limit the taxpayer’s risk to where it is absolutely necessary; ensure broad access to the system for borrowers in all communities; and ensure a level playing field for lenders of all sizes.

The government corporation, which here we will call the National Mortgage Reinsurance Corporation, or NMRC, would perform the same functions as do Fannie and Freddie today. The NMRC would purchase conforming single-family and multifamily mortgage loans from originating lenders or aggregators, and issue securities backed by these loans through a single issuing platform that the NMRC owns and operates. It would guarantee the timely payment of principal and interest on the securities and perform master servicing responsibilities on the underlying loans, including setting and enforcing servicing and loan modification policies and practices. It would ensure access to credit in historically underserved communities through compliance with existing affordable-housing goals and duty-to-serve requirements. And it would provide equal footing to all lenders, large and small, by maintaining a “cash window” for mortgage purchases.

The NMRC would differ from Fannie and Freddie, however, in several important respects. It would be required to transfer all noncatastrophic credit risk on the securities that it issues to a broad range of private entities. Its mortgage-backed securities would be backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, for which it would charge an explicit guarantee fee, or g-fee, sufficient to cover any risk that the government takes. And while the NMRC would maintain a modest portfolio with which to manage distressed loans and aggregate single- and multifamily loans for securitization, it cannot use that portfolio for investment purposes. Most importantly, as a government corporation, the NMRC would be motivated neither by profit nor market share, but by a mandate to balance broad access to credit with the safety and soundness of the mortgage market. (2-3, footnotes omitted)

The authors of the white paper are

  • Jim Parrott, former Obama Administration housing policy guru
  • Lewis Ranieri, a Wall Street godfather of the securitized mortgage market
  • Gene Sperling,  Obama Administration National Economic Advisor
  • Mark Zandi, Moody’s Analytics chief economist
  • Barry Zigas, Director of Housing Policy at Consumer Federation of America

While I think the proposal has a lot going for it, I think that the lack of former Republican government officials as co-authors is telling. Members of Congress, such as Chair of the House Financial Services Committee Jeb Hensaerling  (R-TX), have taken extreme positions that leave little room for the level of government involvement contemplated in this white paper. So, I would say that the proposal has a low likelihood of success in the current political environment.

That being said, the proposal is worth considering because we’ll have to take Fannie and Freddie out of their current state of limbo at some point in the future. The proposal builds on on current developments that have been led by Fannie and Freddie’s regulator and conservator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The FHFA has required Fannie and Freddie to develop a Common Securitization Platform that is a step in the direction of a merger of the two entities. Moreover, the FHFA’s mandate that Fannie and Freddie’s experiment with risk-sharing is a step in the direction of the proposal’s syndication of “all noncatastrophic credit risk.” Finally, the fact that the two companies have remained in conservatorship for so long can be taken as a sign of their ultimate nationalization.

In some ways, I read this white paper not as a proposal to spur legislative action, but rather as a prediction of where we will end up if Congress does not act and leaves the important decisions in the hands of the FHFA. And it would not be a bad result — better than what existed before the financial crisis and better than what we have now.

Thursday’s Advocacy & Think Tank Round-up

Housing Goals and Housing Finance Reform

The Federal Housing Finance Agency issued a proposed rule that would establish housing goals for Fannie and Freddie for the next three years. The Federal Housing Enterprises Financial Safety and Soundness Act of 1992 required that Fannie and Freddie’s regulator set annual housing goals to ensure that a certain proportion of the companies’ mortgage purchases serve low-income households and underserved areas. Among other things, the proposed rule would “establish a new housing subgoal for small multifamily properties affordable to low-income families,” a subject that happens to be near and dear to my heart.(54482)

This “duty to serve” is very controversial, at the heart of the debate over housing finance reform. Many Democrats oppose housing finance reform without it and many Republicans oppose reform with it. Indeed, it was one of the issues that stopped the Johnson-Crapo reform bill dead in its tracks.

While this proposed rule is not momentous by any stretch of the imagination, it is worth noting that the FHFA, for all intents and purposes, seems to be the only party in the Capital that is moving housing finance reform forward in any way.

Once again, we should note that doing nothing is not the same as leaving everything the same. As Congress fails to strike an agreement on reform and Fannie and Freddie continue to limp along in their conservatorships, regulators and market participants will, by default, be designing the housing finance system of the 21st century. That is not how it should be done.

Comments are due by October 28, 2014.

Stressing out on Fannie and Freddie

The Federal Housing Finance Agency issued Projections of the Enterprises’ Financial Performance (Stress Tests) (Apr. 30, 2014). This is a pretty technical, but important, document. The Background section provides some needed context:

This report provides updated information on possible ranges of future financial results of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the “Enterprises”) under specified scenarios, using consistent economic conditions for both Enterprises.

*     *     *

. . . the Dodd-Frank Act requires certain financial companies with total consolidated assets of more than $10 billion, and which are regulated by a primary Federal financial regulatory agency, to conduct annual stress tests to determine whether the companies have the capital necessary to absorb losses as a result of adverse economic conditions. This year is the initial implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act Stress Tests.

In addition to stress tests required per the Dodd-Frank Act, this year as in previous years, FHFA worked with the Enterprises to develop forward-looking financial projections across three possible house price paths (the “FHFA scenarios”). The Enterprises were required to conduct the FHFA scenarios as they have in the past, in conjunction with the initial implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act Stress Tests.

*     *     *

The projections reported here are not expected outcomes. They are modeled projections in response to “what if” exercises based on assumptions about Enterprise operations, loan performance, macroeconomic and financial market conditions, and house prices. The projections do not define the full range of possible outcomes. Actual outcomes may be very different. (4, emphasis in the original)

 The stress test results are as follows:

Dodd-Frank Act Stress Tests Severely Adverse Scenario

  • As of September 30, 2013, the Enterprises have drawn $187.5 billion from the U.S. Treasury under the terms of the Senior Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements (the “PSPAs”).
  • The combined remaining funding commitment under the PSPAs as of September 30, 2013 was $258.1 billion.
  • In the Severely Adverse scenario, incremental Treasury Draws range between $84.4 billion and $190.0 billion depending on the treatment of deferred tax assets.
  • The remaining funding commitment under the PSPAs ranges between $173.7 billion and $68.0 billion. (3)

FHFA Scenarios

  • In the FHFA scenarios, cumulative, combined Treasury draws at the end of 2015 remain unchanged at $187.5 billion as neither Enterprise requires additional Treasury draws in any of the three scenarios.
  • The combined remaining commitment under the PSPAs is unchanged at $258.1 billion.
  • In the three scenarios the Enterprises pay additional senior preferred dividends to the US Treasury ranging between $54.0 billion to $36.3 billion. (3)

There are a number of important points to keep in mind when reviewing this report. First, it addresses just four scenarios out of the the multitude of possible ones. But hopefully the Severely Adverse Scenario gives us a sense of the outer limits of what a crisis could do to the Enterprises and the taxpayers who backstop them.

Second, the report is another corrective to arguments that the federal government’s bailout of the Enterprises can be measured by the amount of money that they actually advanced to the two companies, as opposed to a measure that also accounts for the additional amount that the federal government is committed to provide them if their financial situation takes a turn for the worse.

Finally, as I have noted before, there is an important political battle for control of the narrative of the bailout of the Enterprises. The only narrative during the crisis itself was that the federal government bailed out the two companies because they were insolvent. Revisionist histories, put forward in the main by private shareholders of the two Enterprises, challenge that narrative. The shareholders put forth another version of history: the federal government effectively stole  solvent, viable Fannie and Freddie from them. It will be important for objective third parties to document the truth about this in accordance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. From my understanding of the facts, however, it is clear that the two companies were as good as dead when the federal government put them into conservatorship in 2008 and started advancing them tens of billions of dollars year after year until their fortunes turned around in 2012.

Fannie and Freddie Boards: Caveat Fairholme

Fairholme Capital Management has sent stern letters to the the boards of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the letters are essentially the same). Fairholme’s funds have millions of common and preferred shares in the two companies and Fairholme has taken a multi-pronged to trying to wring some value out of those shares. It has sued the federal government. It has offered to buy the two companies’ mortgage guaranty operations. Now, it is threatening the board of the two enterprises with personal liability for their actions and inaction.

In regard to the cash dividends that the two companies have paid to the Treasury as a result of their Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements (as amended), Fairholme writes,

It is common sense that no Board should approve cash distributions without independent financial advice as to the effect of such payments on the Company’s safety, soundness, and  liquidity. Moreover, corporate laws generally prohibit the payment of dividends in many circumstances, imposing personal liability on Directors for illegal dividends – a liability that, pursuant to the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, is not assumed by the Conservator. (Fannie Letter, 3) (emphasis added)

This is a straightforward threat that will likely get the attention of the directors of the two companies and get them to check in with their D&O insurer before taking any further actions. But it is genuinely unclear what they should be doing at this point.

As I note in a forthcoming article, An Overview of the Fannie and Freddie Conservatorship Litigation (NYU J. Law & Bus.), the Fannie/Freddie shareholder litigation raises all sorts of complex and novel legal issues, and I am not willing to predict their outcomes. But I will go as far to say that Fairholme presents the way out of this mess as far clearer than it is — “Various solutions are simple, equitable, and need not be contentious.” (5) The ones that Fairholme has in mind likely involve large payouts for shareholders, one way or the other.

At the same time that Fairholme presents the solution as simple, it does acknowledge (as it really must) that the problem itself is not:  “we are aware of no circumstance in which the controlling shareholder and its affiliates simultaneously act as director, regulator, conservator, supervisor, contingent capital provider, and preferred stock investor.” (3-4) Yup, this is one big mess with no real precedent. I am confident, however, that the federal government has no interest in reaching a settlement with shareholders that shareholders would find acceptable. So, no end in sight to this aspect of the Fannie/Freddie situation, a far as I can tell.