Cutting Back on Community Reinvestment

Bloomberg Law quoted me in Banks Look to Narrow Exams Under Community Reinvestment Act. It opens,

Banks see an opening to limit the types of violations that could lead to a Community Reinvestment Act downgrade as federal regulators begin rewriting rules under the 1977 law.

Banks say regulators have improperly used consumer fair lending and other violations involving credit cards or other financial products to evaluate compliance with the law meant to increase lending and investment to lower-income communities.

“When a bank violates a consumer protection law, there is no shortage of enforcement agencies and legal regimes available to seek redress and punishment. Adding the CRA to that long list thus has little marginal benefit, and risks diluting and undermining the CRA’s core purpose of promoting community reinvestment,” the Bank Policy Institute, a leading bank lobbying group, said in a Nov. 19 comment letter to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

The OCC set the stage for a CRA rewrite in August by releasing an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking. The Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. have signaled a desire to sign on to a joint proposal.

With that momentum building, banks are taking their shot to limit the types of enforcement actions included in CRA reviews. They want CRA reviews to focus on mortgages, small business and other community development investments.

The question of how non-CRA-related violations apply to banks’ community lending reviews is not merely a theoretical exercise.

Wells Fargo & Co. saw its CRA grade downgraded two levels to “needs to improve”in March 2017 following the revelation of the fake accounts it generated for consumers. Several states and municipalities cut off business with the bank in response.

CRA exam cycles run three years for large national banks and can run longer for smaller banks that perform well. Banks receive one of four grades—outstanding, satisfactory, needs to improve or substantial noncompliance—and a poor grade can restrict their merger and branch expansion plans.

OCC, Treasury Leading Push

The Trump administration, led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting, has been pushing for the latest CRA revision.

Both of those officials ran into CRA trouble when they tried to sell OneWest Bank to CIT Group Inc. Mnuchin was OneWest’s chairman and Otting its chief executive.

The Treasury Department released a report on “modernizing the CRA” in April. Included in that report is a call to not allow fair lending enforcement investigations from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other regulators to slow down CRA reviews.

Otting went farther, issuing a bulletin on Aug. 15 highlighting that his agency’s examiners will no longer take into account non-CRA lending violations when assessing a bank’s CRA compliance.

The FDIC and the Fed have not yet followed suit. But banks want the three agencies to set a common policy on dealing with non-CRA related enforcement actions in their community lending reviews.

“Regulators should develop consistent policies clarifying that CRA will not be used as a general enforcement tool,” the American Bankers Association said in a Nov. 15 comment letter.

There is some merit to the idea, according to David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and the research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.

“It’s delinking fair lending concerns, which are regulated elsewhere, from CRA concerns. From an industry perspective that may make a lot of sense,” he said in a Nov. 30 phone interview.

The proposal, taken in a vacuum, may be reasonable. But in the context of broader attempts to weaken the CRA, it should be viewed more skeptically.

Rising Mortgage Rates

graphic by Chris Butterworth

NBC News quoted me in Mortgage Rates Just Hit 5 Percent: What Does That Mean for Homebuyers and Owners? It opens,

Mortgage rates crossed the 5 percent line on Wednesday for the first time since 2011, marking a new era for a generation of Americans raised on super-low borrowing rates and highlighting the downside of a burgeoning national economy.

Strengthening economic growth, near-record low unemployment, inflation rates and policy moves by the Federal Reserve have all contributed to move the needle beyond the psychological 5 percent barrier.”It has only been in this decade that they have fallen below 5 percent, rates not seen since the 1960s,” said David Reiss, an expert in real estate law and professor at the Brooklyn Law School.

From 1971 through early October 2008, the average rate for a 30-year mortgage was 8.1 percent. The day before Halloween 1981, the number spiked at 18.44 percent, according to data from Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage rebundler.

Psychology aside, there’s a real money impact as well. Every increase of 10 basis points, or 0.1 percentage point, means another $6 per month per $100,000 of mortgage, said Danielle Hale, chief economist for Realtor.com.

Over the last year, the mortgage on a typically priced home of $295,000 has increased by $115 to $120 a month.

Growing monthly payments are just one of the factors contributing to tougher times for many buyers. House prices also have been on the increase, and potential homeowners must contend with the loss of the so-called SALT deductions in last year’s tax cut legislation, which complicate things in high-tax states.

Fight Over The Community Reinvestment Act

Bloomberg BNA quoted me in Community Investment Revamp for Banks Likely To Spark Fight (behind a paywall). It opens,

Community groups and banks agree that the Community Reinvestment Act needs an update, but with regulators beginning an ambitious overhaul of the 1977 law there is little agreement on how that update should look.

The Trump administration has been targeting the CRA — which measures how well banks lend to low- to middle-income areas — for a rewrite since last June. Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting said March 28 that the first draft would be coming in early April.

Otting set out some broad ideas that his agency, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the other regulators that oversee the CRA will present to the public. The Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation also have responsibility for measuring banks’ compliance with the law, and the OCC says that it hopes the two agencies will sign on to the coming advanced notice of proposed rulemaking.

Banking industry experts and community groups all said that the broad strokes of the regulators’ plan sound promising, but few expect that comity to continue when the details come more into view.

“I think you can assume that everybody is not going to be happy,” Laurence Platt, a partner at Mayer Brown LLP, told Bloomberg Law.

The CRA’s Present

The Trump administration first put the CRA in its sights in a June 2017 Treasury Department report outlining its broader views on altering the rules banks operate under.

The law calls for the OCC, the Fed and the FDIC to periodically measure how much lending the banks they oversee do inside geographical assessment areas based on their branch and ATM locations. If banks are found not to do enough of such lending, regulators can stop some business activities or hold up branch expansions and mergers. But it hasn’t been updated for nearly two decades.

The Treasury Department followed up the June 2017 statement on the CRA with an April 3 report outlining its thinking on ways to modernize the law. The report largely aligns with the path laid out by Otting.

“Our recommendations will improve the effectiveness of CRA by enhancing the assessment and examination process, enhancing the ability of banks to deliver services in the communities they serve while considering technological advances in the financial industry,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement accompanying the report.

Changes to the Community Reinvestment Act have already begun, with the OCC under former acting Comptroller of the Currency Keith Noreika in October declaring that the OCC examiners would no longer include enforcement actions that are not linked to a bank’s CRA compliance in their rating.

That change was minor, and affected only one of the three regulators responsible for the CRA. Otting on March 28 laid out a host of other changes likely coming in a new proposal.

The CRA’s Future?

The broad outline Otting provided on March 28 largely highlights the areas in the CRA that community activists and banks have said need to be addressed.

Among the changes Otting said will be put out for comment include expanding the types of lending that would be included in calculations of banks’ CRA compliance to encompass small business, student lending and other money going into a community.

“I think there’s a sense that community-based activities, beyond individual lending, should be given more credit, such as small business loans and infrastructure loans,” Mayer Brown’s Platt said.

Other areas that are going to be addressed in the proposal will touch on the way CRA information is calculated and reported to the public. Currently, banks are examined for compliance every three to five years, and the banks’ reviews take an additional year.

Overall, Otting said the changes would be significant.

“This is monumental change for America,” Otting said in an appearance March 28 at the Operation Hope Global Forum in Atlanta.

The changes Otting discussed all sound promising, but they are vague. So fights are likely to emerge when the details come out.

“The comments that were made were vague enough to give you both concern and possible joy,” Taylor said.

One other aspect of the CRA that is ripe for reform is the geographic assessment areas regulators use to evaluate banks’ lending efforts. Otting and other regulators have yet to specifically outline their ideas for making changes to that, but both the comptroller and Fed Vice Chair for Supervision Randal Quarles have discussed including mobile banking, online lending, and other financial technology tools into their reviews.

How they elect to make that change is likely to be contentious as well.

“If the assessment area is poorly defined, then the CRA will lose its teeth and that’s going to drive CRA policy for a long time to come,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

“Modernizing” the Community Reinvestment Act

President Carter signs the Housing and Community Development Act of 1977, which contains the Community Reinvestment Act

The Trump Administration has been signaling its intent to do a makeover of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 (CRA) for quite a while, describing it as a much needed update.  Last June, Treasury stated in its Banks and Credit Unions report (one of a series of reports on A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities which I discuss here),

The CRA statute is in need of modernization, regulatory oversight must be harmonized, and greater clarity in remediating deficiencies is called for. It is very important to better align the benefits arising from banks’ CRA investments with the interest and needs of the communities that they serve and to improve the current supervisory and regulatory framework for CRA. . . . Aligning the regulatory oversight of CRA activities with a heightened focus on community investments is a high priority for the Secretary. (9)

Well, the modernization effort has now taken off with a Treasury Memorandum for The Office of The Comptroller of the Currency, The Board of Governors of The Federal Reserve System, The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. By way of background, the memorandum notes that

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977 was enacted to encourage banks to meet the credit and deposit needs of communities that they serve, including low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities, consistent with safe and sound operations. Banks are periodically assigned a CRA rating by one of the primary regulators – the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (FRB), and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), collectively the CRA regulators – based on the bank’s performance under the appropriate CRA tests or approved Strategic Plan. CRA was enacted in response to concerns about disinvestment and redlining as well as a desire to have financial institutions “play the leading role” in providing the “capital required for local housing and economic development needs.”

The U.S. banking industry has experienced substantial organizational and technological changes; however, the regulatory and performance expectations under CRA have not kept pace. Interstate banking, mortgage securitization, and internet and mobile banking are just a few of the major changes that have come about in the past four decades. In this evolving banking environment, changes should be made to the administration of CRA in order for it to achieve its intended purpose. (1, footnotes omitted)

The bank that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin used to head up, OneWest, had its own run-ins with CRA compliance. As a result, we should look carefully at how Treasury seeks to “modernize” the CRA. The Treasury memo has four recommendations:

  • Assessment Areas. The concept of assessment areas originated within the banking environment that existed in 1977, when there was no interstate banking and deposits almost always came from the community surrounding a branch. Treasury offers recommendations for updating the definitions of geographic assessment areas to reflect the changing nature of banking arising from changing technology, customer behavior, and other factors.
  • Examination Clarity and Flexibility. Both banks and communities would benefit from additional flexibility in the CRA performance evaluation process, including increasing clarity in the examination guidance. Treasury recommends improvements that could be made to CRA performance evaluation criteria that would increase the transparency and effectiveness of CRA rating determinations.
  • Examination Process. Certain aspects of the examination process need to be addressed in order to improve the timeliness of performance evaluations and to allow banks to be more accountable in planning their CRA activity. Treasury recommends improvements that could be made with respect to the timing of CRA examinations and issuance of performance evaluations, and to the consistent use of census data throughout an assessment period.
  • Performance. The purpose of CRA is to encourage banks to meet the credit and deposit needs of their entire community. The law does not have explicit penalties for nonperformance. However, performance is incentivized as regulators must consider CRA ratings as a part of various bank application processes and performance evaluation reports are made available to the public. Treasury offers recommendations as to how the current regulatory approach to downgrades for violations of consumer protection laws and various applications from banks with less than a Satisfactory rating could be improved to incentivize CRA performance. (2, footnotes omitted)

While there is lot to chew on here, I think a key issue will be the scope of the Assessment Areas. As banks move from straight ‘bricks and mortar’ to ‘bricks and clicks’ or even to pure clicks, it is harder to identify the community each bank serves.

While the memo does not offer a new definition for Assessment Areas, one could imagine alternative definitions that are either loose or stringent as far as CRA compliance is concerned. Because the CRA was intended to ensure that low and moderate-income communities had access to mortgage credit after years of redlining, any new definition of Assessment Areas should be designed to support that goal. We’ll have to see how the Trump Administration proceeds in this regard, but given its attitudes toward fair housing enforcement, I am not hopeful that the Administration will take the CRA’s goals seriously.

Treasury’s Take on Housing Finance Reform

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Being Sworn In

The Department of the Treasury released its Strategic Plan for 2018-2022. One of its 17 Strategic Objectives is to promote housing finance reform:

Support housing finance reform to resolve Government-Sponsored Enterprise (GSE) conservatorships and prevent taxpayer bailouts of public and private mortgage finance entities, while promoting consumer choice within the mortgage market.

Desired Outcomes

Increased share of mortgage credit supported by private capital; Resolution of GSE conservatorships; Appropriate level of sustainable homeownership.

Why Does This Matter?

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been in federal conservatorship for nine years. Taxpayers continue to stand behind their obligations through capital support agreements while there is no clear path for the resolution of their conservatorship. The GSEs, combined with federal housing programs such as those at the Federal Housing Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, support more than 70 percent of new mortgage originations. Changes should encourage the entry of greater private capital in the U.S. housing finance system. Resolution of the GSE conservatorships and right-sizing of federal housing programs is necessary to support a more sustainable U.S. housing finance system. (16)

The Plan states that Treasury’s strategies to achieve these objectives are to engage “stakeholders to develop housing finance reform recommendations.” (17) These stakeholders include Congress, the FHFA, Fed, SEC, CFPB, FDIC, HUD (including the FHA), VA, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Association of State Banking Regulators as well as “The Public.” Treasury further intends to disseminate “principles and recommendations for housing finance reform” and plan “for the resolution of current GSE conservatorships.” (Id.)

This is all to the good of course, but it is at such a high level of generality that it tells us next to nothing. In this regard, Trump’s Treasury is not all that different from Obama and George W. Bush’s. Treasury has not taken a lead on housing finance reform since the financial crisis began. While there is nothing wrong with letting Congress take the lead on this issue, it would move things forward if Treasury created an environment in which housing finance reform was clearly identified as a priority in Washington. Nothing good will come from letting Fannie and Freddie limp along in conservatorship for a decade or more.

Getting CAMELS Past Regulators

photo by Max Pixel

Bloomberg BNA Banking Daily quoted me in Court Asked to Second-Guess Bank Capital, Earnings, Risk Ratings (behind a paywall). It reads, in part,

A now-shuttered Chicago bank is taking on the proverbial giant in a fight to give banks the right to challenge safety and soundness ratings by federal regulators.
Builders Bank, an Illinois-chartered community bank that technically closed its doors in April, wants a federal judge to review a so-called CAMELS rating of 4 it got from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a rating it said triggered higher costs for insurance premiums (Builders Bank v. Federal Dep. Ins. Corp., N.D. Ill., 15-cv-06033, response 9/13/17). The rating should be reviewed by a court, it said, because it didn’t accurately reflect the bank’s risk profile. A 3 rating would have been more appropriate, it said.
It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of the awkwardly-named CAMELS ratings, which also are used by the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The ratings — which measure capital, assets, management, earnings, liquidity, and sensitivity to market risk on a range of 1 to 5, with 1 being the best rating — can mean thumbs-up or thumbs-down on business plans by banks and affiliates.
Want to merge with or buy another bank? Don’t bet on it if your bank has a low CAMELS rating. Want to pay lower premiums for federal deposit insurance? A high rating may mean yes, a low rating probably not. Want to lower your capital costs? Endure fewer examinations? Open new branches? Hold on to a profitable business unit or face regulatory demands to divest it? All of those business decisions and others can turn on how well a bank scores under the CAMELS system.
Pinchus D. Raice, a partner with Pryor Cashman LLP in New York who represents the New York League of Independent Bankers, said judges should be able to look over those rating decisions.
Judicial review would enhance the integrity of bank examinations, he said. “I think it would increase confidence in the process,” Raice told Bloomberg BNA. “Somebody should be looking over the shoulders of the agency, because CAMELS ratings are critical to the life of an institution.” The New York trade group has filed a brief in the suit urging the court to rule against the FDIC.
FDIC Rating Challenged
The FDIC has asked Judge Sharon J. Coleman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois to dismiss the case on several grounds.
For one, the FDIC said, Builders Bank no longer exists. It voluntarily dissolved itself earlier this year and in April transferred its assets to Builders NAB LLC, a nonbank limited liability company in Evanston, Ill., that couldn’t be reached for comment. In a Sept. 13 filing, the bank said Illinois law allows it to continue the suit even though it’s now merged with the LCC, and that it’s seeking damages in the amount of the excessive deposit insurance premiums it says were paid.
Bank Groups Join
The next likely step is a ruling on the FDIC’s motion to dismiss, though it’s not clear when the court might make a decision. Meanwhile, the case has attracted briefs from several banking groups — a joint brief filed in August by the Clearing House Association, the American Bankers Association, and the Independent Community Bankers of America, and a separate brief a few weeks later by the New York League of Independent Bankers.
None of the four groups is wading into the actual dispute between Builders Bank and the FDIC, and their briefs explicitly said they’re not supporting either party. However, all four groups urged the court not to issue a sweeping decision that says CAMELS ratings are exempt from outside review.
According to the Clearing House, the ABA, and the ICBA, banks should be able to seek judicial review in exceptional cases “where such review is necessary and appropriate,” such as if regulators get their calculations wrong, or if regulators use ratings to retaliate against banks that criticize FDIC policies or personnel.
“At a minimum, given the complexity of the CAMELS rating system and the consequences of CAMELS ratings, this court should not issue a ruling that is broader than necessary to decide this dispute and that may undermine the ability of other banks to obtain judicial review,” the brief said.
*     *      *
David Reiss, professor of finance law at Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, N.Y., called the case a signal that the banking industry believes a range of agency actions might be held to be unreviewable. “As a general philosophy, unless Congress has made unreviewability crystal clear, I think we want to be careful,” Reiss told Bloomberg BNA. “This does seem intuitively overbroad to me.”
He also said the case, because it involves a bank that no longer exists, raises the possibility of a result that might not be welcomed by the banking industry. “The bank groups may be somewhat worried that a now-dissolved bank may get a court ruling that could have unintended consequences for banks still doing business,” he said.

Easy Money From Fannie Mae

The San Francisco Chronicle quoted me in Fannie Mae Making It Easier to Spend Half Your Income on Debt. It reads in part,

Fannie Mae is making it easier for some borrowers to spend up to half of their monthly pretax income on mortgage and other debt payments. But just because they can doesn’t mean they should.

“Generally, it’s a pretty poor idea,” said Holly Gillian Kindel, an adviser with Mosaic Financial Partners. “It flies in the face of common financial wisdom and best practices.”

Fannie is a government agency that can buy or insure mortgages that meet its underwriting criteria. Effective July 29, its automated underwriting software will approve loans with debt-to-income ratios as high as 50 percent without “additional compensating factors.” The current limit is 45 percent.

Fannie has been approving borrowers with ratios between 45 and 50 percent if they had compensating factors, such as a down payment of least 20 percent and at least 12 months worth of “reserves” in bank and investment accounts. Its updated software will not require those compensating factors.

Fannie made the decision after analyzing many years of payment history on loans between 45 and 50 percent. It said the change will increase the percentage of loans it approves, but it would not say by how much.

That doesn’t mean every Fannie-backed loan can go up 50 percent. Borrowers still must have the right combination of loan-to-value ratio, credit history, reserves and other factors. In a statement, Fannie said the change is “consistent with our commitment to sustainable homeownership and with the safe and sound operation of our business.”

Before the mortgage meltdown, Fannie was approving loans with even higher debt ratios. But 50 percent of pretax income is still a lot to spend on housing and other debt.

The U.S. Census Bureau says households that spend at least 30 percent of their income on housing are “cost-burdened” and those that spend 50 percent or more are “severely cost burdened.”

The Dodd-Frank Act, designed to prevent another financial crisis, authorized the creation of a “qualified mortgage.” These mortgages can’t have certain risky features, such as interest-only payments, terms longer than 30 years or debt-to-income ratios higher than 43 percent. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said a 43 percent limit would “protect consumers” and “generally safeguard affordability.”

However, loans that are eligible for purchase by Fannie Mae and other government agencies are deemed qualified mortgages, even if they allow ratios higher than 43 percent. Freddie Mac, Fannie’s smaller sibling, has been backing loans with ratios up to 50 percent without compensating factors since 2011. The Federal Housing Administration approves loans with ratios up to 57 percent, said Ed Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute Center on Housing Risk.

Since 2014, lenders that make qualified mortgages can’t be sued if they go bad, so most lenders have essentially stopped making non-qualified mortgages.

Lenders are reluctant to make jumbo loans with ratios higher than 43 percent because they would not get the legal protection afforded qualified mortgages. Jumbos are loans that are too big to be purchased by Fannie and Freddie. Their limit in most parts of the Bay Area is $636,150 for one-unit homes.

Fannie’s move comes at a time when consumer debt is soaring. Credit card debt surpassed $1 trillion in December for the first time since the recession and now stands behind auto loans ($1.1 trillion) and student loans ($1.4 trillion), according to the Federal Reserve.

That’s making it harder for people to get or refinance a mortgage. In April, Fannie announced three small steps it was taking to make it easier for people with education loans to get a mortgage.

Some consumer groups are happy to see Fannie raising its debt limit to 50 percent. “I think there are enough other standards built into the Fannie Mae underwriting system where this is not going to lead to predatory loans,” said Geoff Walsh, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

Mike Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, said, “There are households that can afford these loans, including moderate-income households.” When they are carefully underwritten and fully documented “they can perform at that level.” He pointed out that a lot of tenants are managing to pay at least 50 percent of income on rent.

A new study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University noted that 10 percent of homeowners and 25.5 percent of renters are spending at least 50 percent of their income on housing.

When Fannie calculates debt-to-income ratios, it starts with the monthly payment on the new loan (including principal, interest, property tax, homeowners association dues, homeowners insurance and private mortgage insurance). Then it adds the monthly payment on credit cards (minimum payment due), auto, student and other loans and alimony.

It divides this total debt by total monthly income. It will consider a wide range of income that is stable and verifiable including wages, bonuses, commissions, pensions, investments, alimony, disability, unemployment and public assistance.

Fannie figures a creditworthy borrower with $10,000 in monthly income could spend up to $5,000 on mortgage and debt payments. Not everyone agrees.

“If you have a debt ratio that high, the last thing you should be doing is buying a house. You are stretching yourself way too thin,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst with Bankrate.com.

*     *     *

“If this is data-driven as Fannie says, I guess it’s OK,” said David Reiss, who teaches real estate finance at Brooklyn Law School. “People can make decisions themselves. We have these rules for the median person. A lot of immigrant families have no problem spending 60 or 70 percent (of income) on housing. They have cousins living there, they rent out a room.”

Reiss added that homeownership rates are low and expanding them “seems reasonable.” But making credit looser “will probably drive up housing prices.”

The article condensed my comments, but they do reflect the fact that the credit box is too tight and that there is room to loosen it up a bit. The Qualified Mortgage and Ability-to-Repay rules promote the 43% debt-to-income ratio because they provide good guidance for “traditional” nuclear American families.  But there are American households where multigenerational living is the norm, as is the case with many families of recent immigrants. These households may have income streams which are not reflected in the mortgage application.