Tuesday’s Regulatory & Legislative Round-Up

  • House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) approved its fiscal year (FY) 2016 appropriations bill.
  • Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) has adopted a final rule requiring the Federal Home Loan Banks (Banks) and the Office of Finance to include demographic data related to their boards of directors in their annual minority and women inclusion reports to FHFA.  The final rule also requires that the Banks and the Office of Finance include a description of their outreach activities and strategies to promote diversity in nominating or soliciting nominees for positions on boards of directors.
  • Six federal financial regulatory agencies today issued a final rule that implements minimum requirements for state registration and supervision of appraisal management companies (AMCs).  An AMC is an entity that provides appraisal management services to lenders or underwriters or other principals in the secondary mortgage markets.

Duties to Serve in Housing Finance

Adam Levitin and Janneke Ratcliffe have posted Rethinking Duties to Serve in Housing Finance to SSRN (also on the Harvard Center for Housing Studies site here). The paper states that

an important question going forward concerns the role of duties to serve (DTS) — obligations on lending institutions to reach out to traditionally underserved communities and borrowers. Should there be DTS, and if so, who should have the responsibility to serve whom, with what, and how? (2)

These are, indeed, important questions as regulators chart a course between requiring safe underwriting by lenders and ensuring access to credit for communities that have historically had little access to sustainable credit. The authors distinguish fair lending from duties to serve, with the former being an obligation not to discriminate and the latter being an affirmative duty to address the “disparity of financial opportunity.” (2) The paper describes two main DTS regimes,the Community Reinvestment Act and the Fannie/Freddie housing goals, as well as their limitations.

The paper concludes that the “aftermath of the housing bubble presents an opportunity to rebuild DTS” and proposes a set of reforms. (29) I highlight the first two here:

  1. “DTS should apply universally to the entire primary market,” covering both depositories and non-depositories in order to avoid incentives to engage in regulatory arbitrage. (30)
  2. “DTS should apply equally for all secondary market entities,” not just the Fannies and Freddies of the world. (30)

This paper has a lot to offer thoughtful policymakers. As with everything to do with our massive housing finance system, however, the devil is in the details of any regulatory regime. Mandatory duties to serve must be drafted to so that they are consistent with safe underwriting practices. This paper starts a conversation about doing just that.

FHFA: Critical Concerns Remain, Future Uncertain

The FHFA issued its 2012 Report to Congress which provides a report of the annual examinations of Fannie, Freddie and the FHLBs. The report documents critical concerns about Fannie and Freddie, none of which are particularly newsworthy at this late date. But the report does have some intimations of what may lay ahead, which are particularly interesting now that the Senate has finally taken up GSE reform.

The report reviews the three goals set in 2012 for the ongoing conservatorship of Fannie and Freddie:

Build. Build a new infrastructure for the secondary mortgage market.
Contract. Gradually contract the Enterprises’ dominant presence in the marketplace while simplifying and shrinking their operations.
Maintain. Maintain foreclosure prevention activities and credit availability for new and refinanced mortgages. (1)

There are some interesting specifics attached to these general goals.

For the Build goal, FHFA has taken the position that there should be a new infrastructure for the secondary mortgage market that operates like a “market utility,” a model bandied about by Henry Paulson when he was Treasury Secretary. (13)

For the Contract goal, FHFA has indicated that it “will continue increasing guarantee fees in 2013  and evaluating how close current guarantee fee pricing is to the point where private capital would be willing to absorb credit risk.” 14)

For the Maintain goal, FHFA has taken the position that the mortgage market should transition to a more “competitive ” model, moving away from one in which “the government touches more than 9 out of every 10 mortgages.” (15)

While not surprising given Acting Director DeMarco’s past statements and actions, this report indicates that at least the FHFA believes that we should move away from such intense government involvement in the mortgage market to a system that better prices risk and which spreads that risk across a range of competitors. At such a high level of generality, I agree that these are worthwhile goals. But as with everything involving housing finance policy — the devil will be in the details.

These Are A Few of My Favorite Things

Along with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, reforming Government-Sponsored Enterprises and rationalizing rating agency regulation are two of my favorite things. The Federal Housing Finance Agency noticed a proposed rulemaking to remove some of the references to credit ratings from Federal Home Loan Bank regulations. This is part of a broader mandate contained in Dodd Frank (specifically, section 939A) to reduce the regulatory privilege that the rating agencies had accumulated over the years. This regulatory privilege resulted from the rampant reliance of ratings from Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations (mostly S&P, Moody’s and Fitch) in regulations concerning financial institutions and financial products.

The proposed new definition of “investment quality” reads as follows:

Investment quality means a determination made by the Bank with respect to a security or obligation that based on documented analysis,including consideration of the sources for repayment on the security or obligation:

(1) There is adequate financial backing so that full and timely payment of principal and interest on such security or obligation is expected; and

(2) There is minimal risk that that timely payment of principal or interest would not occur because of adverse changes in economic and financial conditions during the projected life of the security or obligation. (30790)

The FHFA expects that such a definition will preclude the FHLBs from relying “principally” on an NRSRO “rating or third party analysis.” (30787)

This definition does not blaze a new path for the purposes of Dodd Frank section 939A as it is in line with similar rulemakings by the NCUA, FDIC and OCC. But it does the trick of reducing the unthinking reliance on ratings by NRSROs for FHLBs. Forcing financial institutions to “apply internal analytic standards and criteria to determine the credit quality of a security or obligation” has to be a good thing as it should push them to look at more than just a credit rating to  make their iinvestment decisions. (30784) This is not to say that we will avoid bubbles as a result of this proposed rule, but it will force FHLBs to take more responsibility for their decisions and be able to document their decision-making process, which should be at least a bit helpful when markets become frothy once again.

When the cycle turns, when greed sings
When I’m feeling sad,
I simply remember
my favorite things
and then I don’t feel so bad!