Hope for GSE Shareholders

Judge Lamberth issued an opinion in Fairholme Funds, Inc. v. FHFA (Civ. No.13-1439) (Sept. 28, 2018) that gives some hope to the private shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These shareholders have been on the losing end of nearly every case brought against the government relating to its handling of the conservatorships of the two companies.  Readers of this blog know that I have long been a skeptic of the shareholders’ claims because of the broad powers granted the government by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, passed during the height of the financial crisis, as well as the highly regulated environment in which the two companies operate. This highly regulated environment means that GSE profits are driven by regulatory decisions much more than those of other financial institutions. As such, Fannie and Freddie live and die by the sword of government intervention in the mortgage market.

Judge Lamberth had dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims in their entirety, but was reversed in part on appeal. In this case, he revisits the issues arising from the reversal of his earlier dismissal. Once again, Judge Lamberth dismisses a number of the plaintiffs’ claims, but he finds that that their claim that the government breached the duty of good faith survives.

The opinion gives a road map that shareholders can follow to success. The judge identifies allegations that, if true, would be a sufficient factual basis for a holding that the government breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. It is plausible that the preponderance of proof may support these allegations. Some evidence has already come to light that indicates that at least some government actors had good reason to believe that Fannie and Freddie were on the cusp of sustained profitability when the government implemented the net worth sweep. The net worth sweep had redirected the net profits of the two companies to the U.S. Treasury.

Judge Lamberth highlights some of aspects of the plaintiffs’ argument that he found compelling at the motion to dismiss phase of this litigation. First, he notes that absence of “any increased funding commitment” is atypical when senior shareholders receive “enhanced disbursement rights,” as was the case when the government implemented the net worth sweep. (21) He also states that the plaintiffs would not have expected that the GSEs would have extinguished “the possibility of dividends arbitrarily or unreasonably.” (22)

While this opinion is good news for the plaintiffs, it is still unclear what their endgame would be if they were to get a final judgment that the net worth sweep was invalid. Depending on the outcome of regulatory and legislative debates about the future of the two companies, the win may be a pyrrhic one. Time will tell. In the interim, expect more discovery battles, motions for summary judgment and even a trial in this case. So, while this opinion gives shareholders some hope of ultimate success, and perhaps some leverage in political and regulatory debates, I do not see it as a game changer in itself.

In terms of the bigger picture, there are a lot of changes on the horizon regarding the future of the housing finance system. The midterm elections; Hensarling and Corker’s departure from Congress; and the Trump Administration’s priorities are all bigger drivers of the housing finance reform train, at least for now.

Housing Finance Transitions

image by NCTC Creative Imagery/USFWS

The Congressional Budget Office released a report, Transitioning to Alternative Structures for Housing Finance: An Update. The report updates a 2014 analysis

to inform policymakers about how different approaches to restructuring the housing finance system would affect federal costs, risks to taxpayers, and mortgage interest rates. The study focuses on the secondary mortgage market, in which financial institutions buy residential mortgages, pool them into mortgage-backed securities (MBSs), and sell the securities to investors with a guarantee against defaults on the underlying loans. That market is dominated by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) that have been under the control of the federal government since the financial crisis of 2008.

• Federal Costs. CBO projects that under current policy, the GSEs will guarantee almost $12 trillion in new MBSs over the next 10 years and that those guarantees will cost the government about $19 billion on a fair-value basis. That cost represents the estimated amount that the government would have to pay private guarantors to bear the credit risks of the new guarantees. New structures for the secondary mortgage market that emphasized private capital would greatly reduce federal costs, compared with current policy, and would decrease taxpayers’ exposure to credit risk, but mortgage borrowers would face slightly higher costs.

• Risks to the Government. Three of the four approaches to restructuring the secondary market that CBO analyzed would keep some type of explicit federal guarantee of MBSs to provide stability to the market during a financial crisis. Under those approaches, the government would continue to bear most of the risks on new guarantees during a financial crisis, but the approaches differ in the extent to which private guarantors and investors would share risks under normal market conditions. Alternatively, if the secondary market were largely privatized, there would be no explicit federal guarantees on most residential mortgages. But some type of government intervention might be necessary to stabilize mortgage markets during a financial crisis.

• Availability of Mortgages and Changes in Interest Rates. New structures for the secondary market that emphasized private capital would lead to slightly higher interest rates and slightly lower home prices under normal conditions (because the fees that the GSEs currently charge for their guarantees are close to the prices that CBO judges private firms would charge). If the market were controlled by a single, fully federal agency, interest rates could fall slightly. During a financial crisis, however, borrowers could face significant constraints on the availability of mortgages and higher interest rates under a largely private secondary market, though not under the other structures, unless the government chose to intervene.

This report is particularly valuable because it focuses on the transition from the limbo state of conservatorship that we find ourselves in to a more stable one that is built to last. The report considers four possible pathways:

  • A secondary market in which a single, fully federal agency would guarantee qualifying MBSs. (1)
  • A hybrid public-private market in which government and several private guarantors would share the credit risk on eligible MBSs. (1)
  • A secondary market in which the government would play a very small role during normal times, but would act as the “guarantor of last resort” during a financial crisis. (2)
  • A largely private model in which there would be no federal guarantees in the secondary market. (2)

Things still are very much up in the air as to which way things will go when Congress finally turns its attention to this issue, but this report helps to plan for the transition no matter which path is followed.

GSE Shareholders Floored, Again

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued an opinion in Saxton v. FHFA (No. 17-1727, Aug. 23, 2018). The Eighth Circuit joins the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and D.C. Circuits in rejecting the arguments of Fannie and Freddie shareholders that the Federal Housing Finance Agency exceeded its authority as conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and acted arbitrarily and capriciously. The Court provides the following overview:

     The financial crisis of 2008 prompted Congress to take several actions to fend off economic disaster. One of those measures propped up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie and Freddie, which were founded by Congress back in 1938 and 1970, buy home mortgages from lenders, thereby freeing lenders to make more loans. See generally 12 U.S.C. § 4501. Although established by Congress, Fannie and Freddie operate like private companies: they have shareholders, boards of directors, and executives appointed by those boards. But Fannie and Freddie also have something most private businesses do not: the backing of the United States Treasury. 

     In 2008, with the mortgage meltdown at full tilt, Congress enacted the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA or the Act). HERA created the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), and gave it the power to appoint itself either conservator or receiver of Fannie or Freddie should either company become critically undercapitalized. 12 U.S.C. § 4617(a)(2), (4). The Act includes a provision limiting judicial review: “Except as  provided in this section or at the request of the Director, no court may take any action to restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of the [FHFA] as a conservator or a receiver.” Id. § 4617(f). 

     Shortly after the Act’s passage, FHFA determined that both Fannie and Freddie were critically undercapitalized and appointed itself conservator. FHFA then entered an agreement with the U.S. Department of the Treasury whereby Treasury would acquire specially-created preferred stock and, in exchange, would make hundreds of billions of dollars in capital available to Fannie and Freddie. The idea was that Fannie and Freddie would exit conservatorship when they reimbursed the Treasury.

     But Fannie and Freddie remain under FHFA’s conservatorship today. Since the conservatorship began, FHFA and Treasury have amended their agreement several times. In the most recent amendment, FHFA agreed that, each quarter, Fannie and Freddie would pay to Treasury their entire net worth, minus a small buffer. This so-called “net worth sweep” is the basis of this litigation. 

     Three owners of Fannie and Freddie common stock sued FHFA and Treasury, claiming they had exceeded their powers under HERA and acted arbitrarily and capriciously by agreeing to the net worth sweep. The shareholders sought only an injunction setting aside the net worth sweep; they dismissed a claim seeking money damages. Relying on the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in Perry Capital LLC v. Mnuchin, 864 F.3d 591 (D.C. Cir. 2017), the district court dismissed the suit.

What amazes me as a longtime watcher of the GSE litigation is how supposedly dispassionate investors lose their heads when it comes to the GSE lawsuits. They cannot seem to fathom that judges will come to a different conclusion regarding HERA’s limitation on judicial review.

While I do not rule out that the Supreme Court could find otherwise, particularly if Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed, it seems like this unbroken string of losses should provide some sort of wake up call for GSE shareholders. But somehow, I doubt that it will.

Housing in the Trump Era

 

The Real Estate Transactions Section of the American Association of Law Schools has issued the following Call for Papers:

Access + Opportunity + Choice: Housing Capital, Equity, and Market Regulation in the Trump Era

Program Description:

The year 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the 2008 housing crisis—an event described as the most significant financial and economic upheaval since the Great Depression. This year is also the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which upended many decades of overt housing discrimination. Both events remind us of the significant role that housing has played in the American story—both for good and for bad.

Of the many aspects of financial reform that followed 2008, much of the housing finance-related work was centered around mortgage loan origination and creating incentives and rules dealing with underwriting and the risk of moral hazard. Some of these reforms include the creation of the qualified mortgage safe-harbor and the skin-in-the-game risk retention rules. But when it came to the secondary mortgage market, little significant reform was undertaken. The only government action of any serious importance related to the federal government—through the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)—taking over control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This major government intervention into the workings of the country’s two mortgage giants yielded takings lawsuits, an outcry from shareholders, and the decimation of the capital reserves of both companies. Despite Fannie and Freddie having both paid back all the bailout funds given to them, the conservatorship remains in place to this day.

In the area of fair housing, the past several years saw the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities case whereby the U.S. Supreme Court upheld (and narrowed the scope of) the disparate impact theory under the Fair Housing Act. We also saw efforts aimed at reducing geographic concentrations of affordable housing through the Obama administration’s promulgation of the affirmatively furthering fair housing rule.

Yet, meaningful housing reform remains elusive. None of the major candidates in the most recent presidential election meaningfully addressed the issue in their policy platforms, and a lack of movement in resolving the Fannie/Freddie conservatorship is viewed as a major failure of the Obama administration. Additionally, housing segregation and access to affordable mortgage credit continues to plague the American economy.

In recent months, the topics of housing finance reform and providing Americans with credit (including mortgage credit) choices have been a point of focus on Capitol Hill and in the Trump White House. Will these conservations result in meaningful legislation or changes in regulatory approaches in these areas? Will programs like the low-income-housing tax credit, the CFPB’s mandatory underwriting requirements, public housing subsidies, and the government’s role in guaranteeing and securitizing mortgage loans significantly change? Where are points of possible agreement between the country’s two major parties in this area and what kinds of compromises can be made?

Call for Papers:

The Real Estate Transactions Section looks to explore these and related issues in its 2019 AALS panel program titled: “Access and Opportunity: Housing Capital, Equity, and Market Regulation in the Trump Era.” The Section invites the submission of abstracts or full papers dealing broadly with issues related to real estate finance, the secondary mortgage market, fair housing, access to mortgage credit, mortgage lending discrimination, and the future of mortgage finance. There is no formal paper requirement associated with participation on the panel, but preference will be given to those submissions that demonstrate novel scholarly insights that have been substantially developed. Untenured scholars in particular are encouraged to submit their work. Please email your submissions to Chris Odinet at codinet@sulc.edu by Friday, August 3, 2018. The selection results will be announced in early September 2018. In additional to confirmed speakers, the Section anticipates selecting two to three papers from the call.

Confirmed Speakers:

Rigel C. Oliveri, Isabelle Wade and Paul C. Lyda Professor of Law, University of Missouri School of Law

Todd J. Zywicki, Foundation Professor of Law, George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

David Reiss, Professor of Law and Research Director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, Brooklyn Law School

Eligibility:

Per AALS rules, only full-time faculty members of AALS member law schools are eligible to submit a paper/abstract to Section calls for papers. Faculty at fee-paid law schools, foreign faculty, adjunct and visiting faculty (without a full-time position at an AALS member law school), graduate students, fellows, and non-law school faculty are not eligible to submit.

All panelists, including speakers selected from this Call for Papers, are responsible for paying their own annual meeting registration fee and travel expenses.

The Costs and Benefits of A Dodd-Frank Mortgage Provision

Craig Furfine has posted The Impact of Risk Retention Regulation on the Underwriting of Securitized Mortgages to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 imposed requirements on securitization sponsors to retain not less than a 5% share of the aggregate credit risk of the assets they securitize. This paper examines whether loans securitized in deals sold after the implementation of risk-retention requirements look different from those sold before. Using a difference-in-difference empirical framework, I find that risk retention implementation is associated with mortgages being issued with markedly higher interest rates, yet notably lower loan-to-value ratios and higher income to debt-service ratios. Combined, these findings suggest that the implementation of risk retention rules has achieved a policy goal of making securitized loans safer, yet at a significant cost to borrowers.

While the paper primarily addressed the securitization of commercial mortgages, I was particularly interested in the paper’s conclusion that

the results suggest that risk retention rules will become an increasingly important factor for the underwriting of residential mortgages, too. Non-prime residential lending has continued to rapidly increase and if exemptions given to the GSEs expire in 2021 as currently scheduled, then a much greater fraction of residential lending will also be subject to these same rules. (not paginated)

As always, policymakers will need to evaluate whether we have the right balance between conservative underwriting and affordable credit. Let’s hope that they can address this issue with some objectivity given today’s polarized political climate.

Mortgage Insurers and The Next Housing Crisis

photo by Jeff Turner

The Inspector General of the Federal Housing Finance Agency has released a white paper on Enterprise Counterparties: Mortgage Insurers. The Executive Summary reads,

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises) operate under congressional charters to provide liquidity, stability, and affordability to the mortgage market. Those charters, which have been amended from time to time, authorize the Enterprises to purchase residential mortgages and codify an affirmative obligation to facilitate the financing of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families. Pursuant to their charters, the Enterprises may purchase single-family residential mortgages with loan-to-value (LTV) ratios above 80%, provided that these mortgages are supported by one of several credit enhancements identified in their charters. A credit enhancement is a method or tool to reduce the risk of extending credit to a borrower; mortgage insurance is one such method. Since 1957, private mortgage insurers have assumed an ever-increasing role in providing credit enhancements and they now insure “the vast majority of loans over 80% LTV purchased by the” Enterprises. In congressional testimony in 2015, Director Watt emphasized that mortgage insurance is critical to the Enterprises’ efforts to provide increased housing access for lower-wealth borrowers through 97% LTV loans.

During the financial crisis, some mortgage insurers faced severe financial difficulties due to the precipitous drop in housing prices and increased defaults that required the insurers to pay more claims. State regulators placed three mortgage insurers into “run-off,” prohibiting them from writing new insurance, but allowing them to continue collecting renewal premiums and processing claims on existing business. Some mortgage insurers rescinded coverage on more loans, canceling the policies and returning the premiums.  Currently, the mortgage insurance industry consists of six private mortgage insurers.

In our 2017 Audit and Evaluation Plan, we identified the four areas that we believe pose the most significant risks to FHFA and the entities it supervises. One of those four areas is counterparty risk – the risk created by persons or entities that provide services to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. According to FHFA, mortgage insurers represent the largest counterparty exposure for the Enterprises. The Enterprises acknowledge that, although the financial condition of their mortgage insurer counterparties approved to write new business has improved in recent years, the risk remains that some of them may fail to fully meet their obligations. While recent financial and operational requirements may enhance the resiliency of mortgage insurers, other industry features and emerging trends point to continuing risk.

We undertook this white paper to understand and explain the current and emerging risks associated with private mortgage insurers that insure loan payments on single-family mortgages with LTVs greater than 80% purchased by the Enterprises. (2)

It is a truism that the next crisis won’t look like the last one. It is worth heeding the Inspector General’s warning about the

risks from private mortgage insurance as a credit enhancement, including increasing volume, high concentrations, an inability by the Enterprises to manage concentration risk, mortgage insurers with credit ratings below the Enterprises’ historic requirements and investment grade, the challenges inherent in a monoline business and the cyclic housing market, and remaining unpaid mortgage insurer deferred obligations. (13)

One could easily imagine a taxpayer bailout of Fannie and Freddie driven by the insolvency of the some or all of the six private mortgage insurers that do business with them. Let’s hope that the FHFA addresses that risk now, while the mortgage market is still healthy.

A Fix Already in Place for Housing Finance?

photo byy George Becker

Executives at Pimco, the world’s largest bond fund manager, have posted U.S. Housing Finance Reform: Why Fix What Isn’t Broken? I think their analysis is interesting, but seriously flawed:

The topic of housing finance reform has come in and out of focus on Capitol Hill since Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs) were taken into conservatorship back in 2008. As one of the largest participants in the mortgage-backed securities (MBS) market, and given our fiduciary role as a steward of other people’s assets, we at PIMCO are devoted to a liquid and stable mortgage market. Not surprisingly, we have taken a keen interest in the various reform proposals introduced over the past several years.

Housing finance reform need not be revolutionary

While we have refrained from commenting on specific plans, we believe housing finance reform must be comprehensive, above all else. And while we agree with a focus on shrinking the government’s role in housing finance, we believe similar attention must be paid to a responsible and thoughtful rebuilding of the private mortgage market – the alternative to the government balance sheet.

When it comes to the GSEs, we think policymakers should take a “do no harm” approach to reform that contains several key elements:

  • An explicit government guarantee for both future and legacy MBS
  • A continuation of the national mortgage rate (e.g., a borrower in Spartanburg, SC, can access a similar mortgage rate to a borrower in San Francisco, CA)
  • A guarantee fee that is counter-cyclical (versus a pro-cyclical, floating fee)
  • A continuation of the GSEs’ current credit risk transfer (CRT) program
  • Loan limits transitioned thoughtfully to be based on income levels, not housing prices

So far, so good. But they continue,

What you do not hear PIMCO calling for is a wholesale change or even an end to the status quo for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Indeed, from our perspective as a large market participant, the delivery of mortgage credit has never been so efficient or so fair, nor has the market for MBS ever been so deep, liquid and stable as it has been during the years that Fannie and Freddie have been under conservatorship. What’s more, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)’s heightened oversight has put an end to the pernicious activities that gave rise to the GSEs’ conservatorship – namely, buying subprime private-label securities collateralized by poor-credit-quality loans and putting them on their balance sheets – thereby mitigating the threat they pose to taxpayers.

The authors call for the formal “folding” in of Fannie and Freddie into the U.S. government. This would result in the Ginnie-fication of Fannie and Freddie, converting them to a government instrumentality that would be subject to the whims of the congressional budgetary process. That has not worked out so well for Ginnie Mae which has suffered from antediluvian technology and operational challenges for much of its history. Fannie and Freddie have historically been far more innovative and responsive to changes in market conditions than Ginnie. We should expect to lose those characteristics if the two companies were nationalized.

There is certainly an argument for keeping part of Fannie and Freddie’s existing operations within the federal government. But keeping the whole thing there will cause a new set of problems that we will likely bemoan a few years down the line. This proposal may appear to be a bright idea on first glance, but if you look at it the cracks show right away.