Financing The American Dream

I published Financing The American Dream in the May/June 2019 issue of the ABA’s Probate & Property magazine.  it opens,

Two movie scenes can bookend the last hundred years of housing finance. In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (RKO Radio Pictures Inc. 1946), George Bailey speaks to panicked depositors demanding their money back from Bailey Bros. Building and Loan. This tiny thrift in the little town of Bedford Falls had closed its doors after it had to repay a large loan and temporarily ran out of money to return to its depositors. George tells them:

You’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house…right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and then, they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can.

Local lenders lent locally, and local conditions caused local problems. And in the early 20th century, that was largely how Americans bought homes.

In Adam McKay’s movie The Big Short (Plan B Entertainment 2015), the character Jared Vennett is based on Greg Lippmann, a former Deutsche Bank trader who made well over a billion dollars for his employer by betting against subprime mortgages before the market collapse. Vennett  demonstrates with a set of stacked wooden blocks how the modern housing finance market has been built on a shaky foundation:

This is a basic mortgage bond. The original ones were simple, thousands of AAA mortgages bundled together and sold with a guarantee from the US government. But the modern-day ones are private and are made up of layers of tranches, with the AAA highest-rated getting paid first and the
lowest, B-rated getting paid last and taking on defaults first.

Obviously if you’re buying B-levels you can get paid more. Hey, they’re risky, so sometimes they fail. . . .

Somewhere along the line these B and BB level tranches went from risky to dog [excrement]. I’m talking rock-bottom FICO scores, no income verification, adjustable rates. . . dog [excrement]. Default rates are already up from one to four percent. If they rise to eight percent—and they will—a lot of these BBBs are going to zero.

After the whole set of blocks comes crashing down, someone watching Vennett’s presentation asks, “What’s that?” He responds, “That is America’s housing market.”

Global lenders lent globally, and global conditions caused global and local problems. And in the early twenty-first century, that was largely how Americans bought homes. This article provides an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of each aspect of the housing finance system in order to enable discussion of how to design a stronger system for the rest of the 21st Century. For a much more extensive treatment of this topic, see the author’s forthcoming book, Paying for The American Dream: How To Reform The Market for Mortgages (Oxford University Press, 2019).

How To Buy A Foreclosed Home

photo by Taber Andrew Bain

US News & World Report quoted me in  How to Buy a Foreclosed Home. It opens,

As home prices soar in many cities, buyers might look to foreclosures as an affordable option for landing their dream home. Typically, a foreclosure occurs when a homeowner no longer can make the mortgage payments and the lender seizes the property. The lender then requires the former owner to vacate the property before offering it for sale, usually at a discounted price. In some cases, the home is auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Foreclosures offer home shoppers the potential to score a great deal, says Elizabeth Mendenhall, a Realtor in Columbia, Missouri, who is president of the National Association of Realtors.

“Sometimes people think a foreclosure only happens to the lower end of the market, but you can definitely find foreclosures at any price range,” she says.

But while buying a foreclosure can save you a lot of cash, it does come with risks. If you pursue a foreclosure, it helps to have a “stomach of steel,” says David Reiss, law professor and academic programs director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.
“There’s going to be a lot more ups and downs” than in a typical homebuying process, says Reiss, whose work focuses on real estate finance and community development.

Why Buy a Foreclosure?

In recent years, foreclosure sales have been trending downward, according to national property data curating company Attom Data Solutions. That is largely because a strengthening U.S. economy has reduced the number of borrowers who lose their homes as a result of failing to pay the mortgage. In 2017, distressed home sales – including foreclosures and short sales – made up 14 percent of all U.S. single family home and condo sales, according to Attom Data Solutions. That number was down from 15.5 percent in 2016 and a recent high of 38.6 percent in 2011.

Still, some buyers look to foreclosures to get the best possible deal. Homes may be for sale in various states of foreclosure. For example, pre-foreclosure is a period when the owner has fallen behind on payments, but the lender has not actually taken the home from the owner. Homes sold at this point often go through the short sale process, where the lender agrees to accept an amount of money from the buyer that is less than what the current owner owes on the mortgage.

Properties that are already in foreclosure are sold at an online or offline auction, or by a real estate agent. The biggest lure of buying a foreclosure is the potential savings you get compared with buying a similar nondistressed property.

“It can be like a 15 percent discount on your neighboring houses,” Reiss says. “So, it can be significant.”

But Mendenhall says how much you will save depends on the local real estate market and the stage of foreclosure of the property.

The Risks of Buying a Foreclosure

Purchasing a foreclosure involves several substantial risks, so buyers must enter the process with their eyes wide open. In many cases, if you buy a foreclosure at auction, you must purchase the property sight unseen. Reiss says this is the biggest potential danger of buying a foreclosure.

“The big, scary thing is that with a number of foreclosures, you can’t actually inspect the property before you actually bid,” he says. “That’s in part why the prices are below the market.”

Even if you can get a professional inspection on a foreclosure, you typically have to buy the house “as is.” Once you purchase the home, any problems that pop up are yours – as is the responsibility for finding and paying for a remedy. Such problems are more likely in a foreclosure than in a nondistressed property. For example, in some cases, a frustrated family might strip the home of valuable elements before vacating the house.

“Or they kind of just beat it up because they were angry about having to go through the foreclosure,” Reiss says.

The mere fact that the home is vacant also can lead to problems. Reiss says a home is like a plant – if you don’t tend to it regularly, it can wither and die. “If you happen to leave it alone on its own for too long, water leaks in, pipes can burst, rodents can get in, just the elements can do damage,” he says.

Mendenhall adds that people who lose their homes to foreclosure typically have major financial troubles. That can trigger other troubles for the new owner. “If the previous owner was in financial distress, there’s a chance that there’s more maintenance and work maybe that they haven’t completed,” she says.

Reducing the Dangers of Buying a Foreclosure

There are a few things you can do to mitigate the risks associated with buying a foreclosure. For starters, see if you can get a professional inspection of the property. Although buyers often cannot inspect a foreclosure property, that is not always the case. So, be sure to ask a real estate agent or the seller about hiring a home inspector.

“Even though it may extend the process, if you can have a qualified inspector come in, you can know a little bit more about what you’re getting into,” Mendenhall says.

If you can’t inspect the property, Reiss recommends researching its history. Look at publicly available records to find out when the property was last sold and how long the current owner had possession. Also, check whether building permits were drawn and what type of work was done. “Maybe you’ll see some good news, like a boiler was replaced two years ago,” Reiss says. “Or maybe you’ll see some scary news, like there’s all these permits and you don’t know if the work was completed.”

Also, visit the house and perform a “curbside inspection” of your own, Reiss says. “Even if you can’t go inside the house, you want to look at the property,” he says. “If you can peek in the windows, you probably want to peek in the windows.”

Knock on the doors of nearby neighbors. Tell them you want to bid on the property but need to learn all that you can about the previous owners, including how long they lived in the home and whether they took care of it. And ask if there have been any signs of squatters or recent break-ins.

“Try to get all that information,” Reiss says. “Neighbors are probably going to have a good sense of a lot of that, and I think that kind of informal due diligence can be helpful.”

Working with a real estate agent experienced in selling distressed property may help you avoid some of the potential pitfalls of buying foreclosures, Mendenhall says. Some agents have earned the National Association of Realtors’ Short Sales and Foreclosure Resource Certification, or SFR. Such Realtors can help guide you through processes unique to purchasing distressed properties, Mendenhall says.

How to Find a Foreclosure

You can find foreclosures by searching the listings at bank websites, including those of giants such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America. The government-sponsored companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also have listings on their websites.

The federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development owns and sells foreclosed homes. You can find listings on the website.

Private companies such as RealtyTrac offer foreclosure listings online, typically for a fee. Finally, you can contact a real estate agent who will find foreclosures for you. These agents may help you find foreclosures before others snatch them up.

Is a Foreclosure Right for You?

Before you pursue a foreclosure, Reiss encourages you to ask yourself whether you are in a good position to take on the risk – and, hopefully, to reap the reward – of buying a foreclosure. It is possible to use conventional financing, or even a loan from the Federal Housing Administration or Department of Veterans Affairs, to buy a foreclosure. However, people with deeper pockets are often better candidates for buying a foreclosure.

Because the process can be highly competitive, buyers with access to large amounts of cash can swoop in and land the best deals. “You can get financing, but you need to get it quickly,” Reiss says. “I think a lot of people who go into purchasing foreclosure(s) want to have the cash to just kind of act.”

Sellers of distressed properties love cash-only buyers, because the home can be sold without a lender requiring either a home appraisal or a home inspection. “So, the more cash you have on hand, the more likely you’re playing in those sandboxes,” Reiss says.

In addition, buyers of foreclosures often need to spend money to bring a property up to code or to make it competitive with other homes in the neighborhood. “Have a big cushion in case the building is in much worse condition than you expected,” Reiss says.

He cites the example of someone who buys a foreclosure, only to discover that the piping has been stripped out of the basement and will cost $10,000 to repair and replace. “You need to know that you can handle that one way or the other,” Reiss says.

People with solid home maintenance and repair skills also are good candidates for buying a foreclosure. “I think if you’re a handy person, you might be able to address a lot of the issues yourself,” Reiss says. He describes such buyers as anyone who has “a can-do attitude and is looking to trade sweat equity for home equity.”

Reiss and Mendenhall agree that flexibility is crucial to successfully shopping for and purchasing a foreclosure. Mendenhall notes that a foreclosure sale can take a long time to complete. “It can be a long process, or a frustrating one,” she says. “It can depend upon where they are in the foreclosure process. It can take a much longer time to go from contract to close.”

For that reason, a foreclosure might not make sense for buyers who need to move into a property quickly, she says. Also, think hard about how you really feel about buying a house that needs extensive renovation work that might take a long time to complete.

“It can be hard for some people to live in a property and do repairs at the same time,” Mendenhall says.

Rising Rates and The Mortgage Market

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance at a Glance Chartbook for March focuses on how rising interest rates have been impacting the mortgage market. The chartbook makes a series of excellent points about current trends, although homeowners and homebuyers should keep in mind that rates remain near historic lows:

As mortgage rates have increased, there has been no shortage of articles explaining the effect of rising rates on the mortgage market. Mortgage rates began their present sustained increase immediately after the last presidential election in November 2016, 20 months ago. Enough data points have become available during thisperiod that we can now measure the effects of rising rates. Below we outline a few.

Refinances: The most immediate impact of rising rates is on refinance volumes, which fall as rates rise. For mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the refinance share of total originations declined from 63 percent in Nov 2016 to 46 percent today (page 11). For FHA, VA and USDA-insured mortgages, the refinance share dropped from 44 percent to 35 percent. In terms of volume, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac backed refinance volume totaled $390 billion in 2017, down from $550 billion in 2016. For Ginnie Mae, refi volume dropped from $197 billion in 2016 to $136 billion in 2017. Looking ahead, most estimates for 2018 point to a continued reduction in the refi share and origination volumes (page 15).

Originator profitability: Of course, less demand for mortgages isn’t good for originator profitability because lenders need to compete harder to attract borrowers. They do this often by reducing profit margins as rates rise (conversely, when rates are falling and everyone is rushing to refinance, lenders tend to respond by increasing their profit margins). Indeed, since Nov 2016, originator profitability has declined from $2.6 per $100 of loans originated to $1.93 today (page 16). Post crisis originator profitability reached as high as $5 per $100 loan in late 2012, when rates were at their lowest point.

Cash-out share: Another consequence of falling refinance volumes is the rising share of cash-out refinances. The share of cash-out refinances varies partly because borrowers’ motivations change with interest rates. When rates are low, the primary goal of refinancing is to reduce the monthly payment. Cash-out share tends to be low during such periods. But when rates are high, borrowers have no incentive to refinance for rate reasons. Those who still refinance tend to be driven more by their desire to cash-out (although this doesn’t mean that the volume is also high). As such, cash-out share of refinances increased to 63 percent in Q4 2017 according to Freddie Mac Quarterly Refinance Statistics. The last time cash-out share was this high was in 2008.

Industry consolidation: A longer-term impact of rising rates is industry consolidation: not every lender can afford to cut profitability. Larger, diversified originators are more able to accept lower margins because they can make up for it through other lines of business or simply accept lower profitability for some time. Smaller lenders may not have such flexibility and may find it necessary to merge with another entity. Industry consolidation due to higher rates is not easy to quantify as firms can merge or get acquired for various reasons. At the same time, one can’t ignore New Residential Investment’s recent acquisition of Shellpoint Partners and Ocwen’s purchase of PHH. (5)

Nonbanks and The Next Crisis

 

 

Researchers at the Fed and UC Berkeley have posted Liquidity Crises in the Mortgage Markets. The authors conclusions are particularly troubling:

The nonbank mortgage sector has boomed in recent years. The combination of low interest rates, well-functioning GSE and Ginnie Mae securitization markets, and streamlined FHA and VA programs have created ample opportunities for nonbanks to generate revenue by refinancing mortgages. Commercial banks have been happy to supply warehouse lines of credit to nonbanks at favorable rates. Delinquency rates have been low, and so nonbanks have not needed to finance servicing advances.

In this paper, we ask “What happens next?” What happens if interest rates rise and nonbank revenue drops? What happens if commercial banks or other financial institutions lose their taste for extending credit to nonbanks? What happens if delinquency rates rise and servicers have to advance payments to investors—advances that, in the case of Ginnie Mae pools, the servicer cannot finance, and on which they might take a sizable capital loss?

We cannot provide reassuring answers to any of these questions. The typical nonbank has few resources with which to weather these shocks. Nonbanks with servicing portfolios concentrated in Ginnie Mae pools are exposed to a higher risk of borrower default and higher potential losses in the event of such a default, and yet, as far as we can tell from our limited data, have even less liquidity on hand than other nonbanks. Failure of these nonbanks in particular would have a disproportionate effect on lower-income and minority borrowers.

In the event of the failure of a nonbank, the government (through Ginnie Mae and the GSEs) will probably bear the majority of the increased credit and operational losses that will follow. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the government shared some mortgage credit losses with the banking system through putbacks and False Claims Act prosecutions. Now, however, the banks have largely retreated from lending to borrowers with lower credit scores and instead lend to nonbanks through warehouse lines of credit, which provide banks with numerous protections in the event of nonbank failure.

Although the monitoring of nonbanks on the part of the GSEs, Ginnie Mae, and the state regulators has increased substantially over the past few years, the prudential regulatory minimums, available data, and staff resources still seem somewhat lacking relative to the risks. Meanwhile, researchers and analysts without access to regulatory data have almost no way to assess the risks. In addition, although various regulators are engaged in micro-prudential supervision of individual nonbanks, less thought is being given, in the housing finance reform discussions and elsewhere, to the question of whether it is wise to concentrate so much risk in a sector with such little capacity to bear it, and a history, at least during the financial crisis, of going out of business. We write this paper with the hope of elevating this question in the national mortgage debate. (52-53)

As with last week’s paper on Mortgage Insurers and The Next Housing Crisis, this paper is a wake-up call to mortgage-market policymakers to pay attention to where the seeds of the next mortgage crisis may be hibernating, awaiting just the right conditions to sprout up.

Sustainable Housing for FHA Borrowers

photo by Michael Daddino

Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Donghoon Lee and Joseph Tracy of the NY Fed have posted a staff report, Long-Term Outcomes of FHA First-Time Homebuyers. It opens,

The Commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), David Stevens, in remarks delivered on December 12, 2009, defined the purpose of the FHA as follows. “As a mission-driven organization, FHA’s goal is to provide sustainable homeownership options for qualified borrowers.” These remarks followed a remarkable increase in the scope of the FHA mortgage insurance program in response to the financial crisis and housing bust. This comment by Commissioner Stevens is important in that it clarifies a goal of the FHA program. However, this clarity was not followed up by the FHA with a definition of “sustainable homeownership.” Nor was there any documented attempt by the FHA to develop metrics to track their progress toward this objective, or a commitment by the FHA to make this information available to the public in the future.

Program evaluation is an integral part of any effective program—government or private. We illustrate in this paper that advances in data availability offer the opportunity for the FHA to both define what it means by sustainable homeownership and to measure its progress against this definition. We believe that it would be beneficial for the FHA to be transparent in this effort and to report on not only its definition and metrics, but also on its progress on an annual basis. Improved tracking of long-term outcomes of FHA borrowers will better help inform the FHA on program design. This should lead to improved outcomes over time and enhanced public support.

We focus our analysis on first-time homebuyers who are an important market segment for the FHA. The mission of sustainable homeownership is particularly relevant for these new homeowners. The benefits of a government mortgage insurance program that helps to facilitate the transition from renting to owning rests importantly on the success of these new borrowers in remaining homeowners in the future. However, to date, the FHA has not systematically tracked the progress of its first-time homebuyers after they pay off their credit risk to the FHA. We use the New York Fed’s Consumer Credit Panel (CCP) data to do this analysis starting with the 2002 cohort of FHA first-time homebuyers. (1, footnotes omitted)

This is inarguably right. The FHA should set forth performance metrics and provide annual progress reports for them. For too long, the FHA has cherry-picked metrics without providing a holistic perspective on its performance. The authors conclude,

A stated mission of the FHA mortgage insurance program is to support sustainable homeownership. An examination of the history of the FHA program illustrates a strong initial focus on sustainability, but legislated changes in the 1950s and early 1960s shifted the focus to affordability. If sustainability remains an important goal for the FHA, then it would be desirable for the FHA to define what they mean by sustainability and to track their performance over time. Only by being transparent and holding themselves accountable can the FHA improve on this objective over time. (14)

Amen to that.

The Homeownership Rate and The Kerner Commission

 

photo by Marion S. Trikosko

President Johnson with some members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission

The Economic Policy Institute released a report, 50 Years After The Kerner Commission.  It finds that “African Americans are better off in many ways but are still disadvantaged by racial inequality.” (1) The report opens,

The year 1968 was a watershed in American history and black America’s ongoing fight for equality. In April of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and riots broke out in cities around the country. Rising against this tragedy, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 outlawing housing discrimination was signed into law. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute as they received their medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Arthur Ashe became the first African American to win the U.S. Open singles title, and Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives.

The same year, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, delivered a report to President Johnson examining the causes of civil unrest in African American communities. The report named “white racism”—leading to “pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing”—as the culprit, and the report’s authors called for a commitment to “the realization of  common opportunities for all within a single [racially undivided] society.” The Kerner Commission report pulled together a comprehensive array of data to assess the specific economic and social inequities confronting African Americans in 1968.

Where do we stand as a society today? In this brief report, we compare the state of black workers and their families in 1968 with the circumstances of their descendants today, 50 years after the Kerner report was released. We find both good news and bad news. While African Americans are in many ways better off in absolute terms than they were in 1968, they are still disadvantaged in important ways relative to whites. In several important respects, African Americans have actually lost ground relative to whites, and, in a few cases, even relative to African Americans in 1968. (1, footnote omitted)

I was particularly shocked by one figure in the report:

One of the most important forms of wealth for working and middle-class families is home equity. Yet, the share of black households that owned their own home remained virtually unchanged between 1968 (41.1 percent) and today (41.2 percent). Over the same period, homeownership for white households increased 5.2 percentage points to 71.1 percent, about 30 percentage points higher than the ownership rate for black households. (4)

It is pretty extraordinary that the homeownership rate for African Americans has not really gone up, given all of the resources that were directed to increasing it. The FHA, Fannie, Freddie and other government programs have all focused on increasing that rate for decades. People of different political stripes will read what they want into this state of affairs. My own take is that wage instability has driven down homeownership rates across the board, but that it has hit African American households particularly hard. Households cannot commit to homeownership if they cannot reasonably depend on getting their wages month-in, month-out.

The Regulation of Residential Real Estate Finance Under Trump

I published a short article in the American College of Real Estate Lawyers (ACREL)  (ACREL) News & Notes, The Regulation of Residential Real Estate Finance Under Trump. The abstract reads,

Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs was one of President Trump’s first Executive Orders. He signed it on January 30, 2017, just days after his inauguration. It states that it “is the policy of the executive branch to be prudent and financially responsible in the expenditure of funds, from both public and private sources. . . . [I]t is essential to manage the costs associated with the governmental imposition of private expenditures required to comply with Federal regulations.” The Reducing Regulation Executive Order outlined a broad deregulatory agenda, but was short on details other than the requirement that every new regulation be accompanied by the elimination of two existing ones.

A few days later, Trump issued another Executive Order that was focused on financial services regulation in particular, Core Principles for Regulating the United States Financial System. Pursuant to this second Executive Order, the Trump Administration’s first core principle for financial services regulation is to “empower Americans to make independent financial decisions and informed choices in the marketplace, save for retirement, and build individual wealth.” The Core Principles Executive Order was also short on details.

Since Trump signed these two broad Executive Orders, the Trump Administration has been issuing a series of reports that fill in many of the details for financial institutions. The Department of Treasury has issued three of four reports that are collectively titled A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities that are directly responsive to the Core Principles Executive Order. While these documents cover a broad of topics, they offer a glimpse into how the Administration intends to regulate or more properly, deregulate, residential real estate finance in particular.

This is a shorter version of The Trump Administration And Residential Real Estate Finance, published earlier this year in the Westlaw Journal: Derivatives.