The Future of Homeownership

Brooklyn Law Notes - Fall 2018I wrote a short article, Restoring The American Dream, for Brooklyn Law Notes. It is based on my forthcoming book on federal housing finance policy. It opens,

Two movie scenes can bookend the last hundred years of housing finance. In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), George Bailey speaks to panicked depositors who are 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 (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 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 U.S. 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 shit. I’m talking rock-bottom FICO scores, no income verification, adjustable rates…Dog shit. Default rates are already up from 1 to 4 percent. If they rise to 8 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 21st century, that was largely how Americans bought homes.

 

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GSE Investors’ Hidden Win

Judge Brown

The big news yesterday was that the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in the main for the federal government in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin, one of the major cases that investors brought against the federal government over the terms of the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships.

In a measured and carefully reasoned opinion, the court rejected most but not all of the investors’ claims.  The reasoning was consistent with my own reading of the broad conservatorship provisions of the Housing and Economic Recover Act of 2008 (HERA).

Judge Brown’s dissent, however, reveals that the investors have crafted an alternative narrative that at least one judge finds compelling. This means that there is going to be some serious drama when this case ultimately wends its way to the Supreme Court. And there is some reason to believe that a Justice Gorsuch might be sympathetic to this narrative of government overreach.

Judge Brown’s opinion indicts many aspects of federal housing finance policy, broadly condemning it in the opening paragraph:

One critic has called it “wrecking-ball benevolence,” James Bovard, Editorial, Nothing Down: The Bush Administration’s Wrecking-Ball Benevolence, BARRONS, Aug. 23, 2004, http://tinyurl.com/Barrons-Bovard; while another, dismissing the compassionate rhetoric, dubs it “crony capitalism,” Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr., Commentary, Fannie/Freddie Bailout Baloney, CATO INST., http://tinyurl.com/Cato-O-Driscoll (last visited Feb. 13, 2017). But whether the road was paved with good intentions or greased by greed and indifference, affordable housing turned out to be the path to perdition for the U.S. mortgage market. And, because of the dominance of two so-called Government Sponsored Entities (“GSE”s)—the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae” or “Fannie”) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac” or “Freddie,” collectively with Fannie Mae, the “Companies”)—the trouble that began in the subprime mortgage market metastasized until it began to affect most debt markets, both domestic and international. (dissent at 1)

While acknowledging that the Fannie/Freddie crisis might justify “extraordinary actions by Congress,” Judge Brown states that

even in a time of exigency, a nation governed by the rule of law cannot transfer broad and unreviewable power to a government entity to do whatsoever it wishes with the assets of these Companies. Moreover, to remain within constitutional parameters, even a less-sweeping delegation of authority would require an explicit and comprehensive framework. See Whitman v. Am. Trucking Ass’ns, Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001) (“Congress . . . does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions—it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes.”) Here, Congress did not endow FHFA with unlimited authority to pursue its own ends; rather, it seized upon the statutory text that had governed the FDIC for decades and adapted it ever so slightly to confront the new challenge posed by Fannie and Freddie.

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[Congress] chose a well-understood and clearly-defined statutory framework—one that drew upon the common law to clearly delineate the outer boundaries of the Agency’s conservator or, alternatively, receiver powers. FHFA pole vaulted over those boundaries, disregarding the plain text of its authorizing statute and engaging in ultra vires conduct. Even now, FHFA continues to insist its authority is entirely without limit and argues for a complete ouster of federal courts’ power to grant injunctive relief to redress any action it takes while purporting to serve in the conservator role. See FHFA Br. 21  (2-3)

What amazes me about this dissent is how it adopts the decidedly non-mainstream history of the financial crisis that has been promoted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Peter Wallison.  It also takes its legislative history from an unpublished Cato Institute paper by Vice-President Pence’s newly selected chief economist, Mark Calabria and a co-author.  There is nothing wrong with a judge giving some context to an opinion, but it is of note when it seems as one-sided as this. The bottom line though is that this narrative clearly has some legs so we should not think that this case has played itself out, just because of this decision.

Two (or Three) Cheers for DeMarco’s Swan Song

FHFA acting Director Edward Demarco gave a thoughtful speech, Housing Finance, Systemic Risk, and Returning Private Capital to the Mortgage Market, on the future of federal housing finance policy.  Given that the Administration has nominated Mel Watt as his permanent replacement, it is likely that DeMarco is seeking to leave a good final impression.  I give the speech two real cheers, no more and no less.

First Cheer.  The speech provides a review of two reasons why the government might intervene in the housing market.  First, a “potential market failure could arise in housing finance if market participants have undue or unnecessary concerns about the ongoing stability and liquidity of mortgage credit in a purely private market across various economic environments.” (2)  Second, another “potential market failure is what is often thought of as the positive externality associated with homeownership. In this view, the benefits of homeownership extend beyond the individual household to the broader aspects of society, hence if left solely to the market the number of homeowners will be less than optimal.” (3)

Second Cheer. The speech also provides a very nice summary of the two main approaches that the government can take to address housing market failures.  First, is the issuer-based approach, which “is generally associated with a financial institution guaranteeing principal and interest repayment to investors. In this model, the issuer’s guarantee is backed by its shareholders’ capital. While not necessarily part of an issuer-based approach, typically this approach assumes a further credit enhancement in the form of a government guarantee on the securities issued.” (4)  Second is the securities-based approach.  With this approach, “as opposed to credit risk being absorbed by the equity of the securities issuer, credit risk would be absorbed through capital markets.” (6)

And One Bronx Cheer.  That’s right, no real third cheer for DeMarco.  Does he take a clear stand as to what course we should follow?  No.  Like the Administration in its oft-discussed White Paper, DeMarco sets forth the options and effectively punts on the trillion dollar question.

My two cents?  The federal housing finance infrastructure should focus on two goals:  (i) increasing housing affordability for low- and moderate-income households and (ii) providing a backstop during liquidity crises.  Leadership is needed now, before Congress gets riproaringly drunk on Fannie and Freddie’s massive return to profitability.  Otherwise, we have let one perfectly good crisis go to waste.