Fintech and Mortgage Lending

image by InvestmentZen, www.investmentzen.com

The Trump Administration released its fourth and final report on Nonbank Financials, Fintech, and Innovation in its A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunity series. The report differs from the previous three as it does not throw the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under the bus when it comes to the regulation of mortgage lending.

The report highlights how nonbank mortgage lenders, early adopters of fintech, have taken an immense amount of market share from traditional mortgage lenders like banks:

Treasury recognizes that the primary residential mortgage market has experienced a fundamental shift in composition since the financial crisis, as traditional deposit-based lender-servicers have ceded sizable market share to nonbank financial firms, with the latter now accounting for approximately half of new originations. Some of this shift has been driven by the post-crisis regulatory environment, including enforcement actions brought under the False Claims Act for violations related to government loan insurance programs. Additionally, many nonbank lenders have benefitted from early adoption of financial technology innovations that speed up and simplify loan application and approval at the front-end of the mortgage origination process. Policymakers should address regulatory challenges that discourage broad primary market participation and inhibit the adoption of  technological developments with the potential to improve the customer experience, shorten origination timelines, facilitate efficient loss mitigation, and generally deliver a more reliable, lower cost mortgage product. (11)

I am not sure that the report has its causes and effects exactly right. For instance, why would banks be more disincentivized than other financial institutions because of False Claims Act lawsuits? Is the argument that banks have superior lending opportunities that are not open to nonbank mortgage lenders? If so, is that market segmentation such a bad thing? 

That being said, I think the report is right to highlight the impact of fintech on the contemporary mortgage lending environment. Consumers will certainly benefit from a shorter and more streamlined mortgage application process.

“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.

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.

The Miraculous Continuous Workout Mortgage

Professor Robert Shiller

Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller et al. have posted Continuous Workout Mortgages: Efficient Pricing and Systemic Implications to SSRN. The paper opens,

The ad hoc measures taken to resolve the subprime crisis involved expending financial resources to bail out banks without addressing the wave of foreclosures. These short-term amendments negate parts of mortgage contracts and question the disciplining mechanism of finance. Moreover, the increase in volatility of house prices in recent years exacerbated the crisis. In contrast to ad hoc approaches, we propose a mortgage contract, the Continuous Workout Mortgage (CWM), which is robust to downturns. We demonstrate how CWMs can be offered to homeowners as an ex ante solution to non-anticipated real estate price declines.

The Continuous Workout Mortgage (CWM, Shiller (2008b)) is a two-in-one product: a fixed rate home loan coupled with negative equity insurance. More importantly its payments are linked to home prices and adjusted downward when necessary to prevent negative equity. CWMs eliminate the expensive workout of defaulting on a plain vanilla mortgage. This subsequently reduces the risk exposure of financial institutions and thus the government to bailouts. CWMs share the price risk of a home with the lender and thus provide automatic adjustments for changes in home prices. This feature eliminates the rational incentive to exercise the costly option to default which is embedded in the loan contract. Despite sharing the underlying risk, the lender continues to receive an uninterrupted stream of monthly payments. Moreover, this can occur without multiple and costly negotiations. (1, references omitted)

If it is not obvious, this is a radical idea.  It was not even contemplated before the financial crisis. That being said, it is pretty brilliant financial innovation, one that should not just be discussed by academics. The paper provides a lot more detail about the proposal for those who are interested. And if you want to avoid taxpayer bailouts of the housing market in the future, you should be interested.

Are The Stars Aligning For Fannie And Freddie Reform?

Law360 published my op ed, Are The Stars Aligning For Fannie And Freddie Reform? It reads,

There has been a lot of talk of the closed-door discussions in the Senate about a reform plan for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mammoth housing finance government-sponsored enterprises. There has long been a bipartisan push to get the two entities out of their conservatorships with some kind of permanent reform plan in place, but the stars never aligned properly. There was resistance on the right because of a concern about the increasing nationalization of the mortgage market and there was resistance on the left because of a concern that housing affordability would be unsupported in a new system. It looks like the leader of that right wing, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, has indicated that he is willing to compromise in order to create a “sustainable housing finance system.” The question now is whether those on the left are also willing to compromise in order to put that system on a firm footing for the 21st century.

In a speech at the National Association of Realtors, Hensarling set forth a set of principles that he would be guided by:

  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac must be wound down and their charters repealed;
  • Securitizers need strong bank-like capital and community financial institutions must be able to compete on a level playing field;
  • Any new government affordable housing program needs to at least be on budget, be results-based and target actual homebuyers for the purpose of buying a home they can actually afford to keep;
  • The Federal Housing Administration must return to its traditional role of serving the first-time homebuyer and low- and moderate-income individuals.

I am not yet sure that all of the stars are now aligned for Congress to pass a GSE reform bill. But Hensarling’s change of heart is a welcome development for those of us who worry about some kind of slow-moving train wreck in our housing finance system. That system has been in limbo for nearly a decade since Fannie and Freddie were placed in conservatorship, with no end in sight for so long. Ten years is an awfully long time for employees, regulators and other stakeholders to play it by ear in a mortgage market measured in the trillions of dollars.

Even with a broad consensus on the need for (or even just the practical reality of) a federal role in housing finance, there are a lot of details that still need to be worked out. Should Fannie and Freddie be replaced with many mortgage-backed securities issuers whose securities are guaranteed by some arm of the federal government? Or should Fannie and Freddie become lender-owned mutual insurance entities with a government guarantee of the two companies? These are just two of the many options that have been proposed over the last 10 years.

Two housing finance reform leaders, Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., appear to favor some version of the former while Hensarling seems to favor the latter. And Hensarling stated his unequivocal opposition to some form of a “recap and release” plan, whereas Corker and Warner appear to be considering a plan that recapitalizes Fannie and Freddie and releases them back into private ownership, to the benefit of at least some of the companies’ shareholders. The bottom line is that there are still major differences among all of these important players, not to mention the competing concerns of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and other progressives. Warren and her allies will seek to ensure that the federal housing system continues to support meaningful affordable housing initiatives for both homeowners and renters.

Hensarling made it clear that he does not favor a return to the status quo — he said that the hybrid GSE model “cannot be saved, it cannot be salvaged, it must not be resurrected, and needs to be scrapped.” But Hensarling also made it clear that he will negotiate and compromise. This represents a true opening for a bipartisan bill. For everyone on the left and the right who are hoping to create a sustainable housing finance system for the 21st century, let’s hope that his willingness to compromise is widely shared in 2018.

I am now cautiously optimistic that Congress can find some common ground. With Hensarling on board, there is now broad support for a government role in the housing sector. There is also broad support for a housing finance infrastructure that does not favor large financial institutions over small ones. Spreading the risk of default to private investors — as Fannie and Freddie have been doing for some time now under the direction of their regulator — is also a positive development, one with many supporters. Risk sharing reduces the likelihood of a taxpayer bailout in all but the most extreme scenarios.

There are still some big sticking points. What should happen with the private investors in Fannie and Freddie? Will they own part of the new housing finance infrastructure? While the investors have allies in Congress, there does not seem to be a groundswell of support for them on the right or the left.

How much of a commitment should there be to affordable housing? Hensarling acknowledges that the Federal Housing Administration should serve first-time homebuyers and low- and moderate-income individuals, but he is silent as to how big a commitment that should be. Democrats are invested in generating significant resources for affordable housing construction and preservation through the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Hensarling appears to accept this in principle, while cautioning that any “new government affordable housing program needs to at least be on budget, results based, and target actual homebuyers for the purpose of buying a home they can actually afford to keep.” Democrats can work with Hensarling’s principles, although the extent of the ultimate federal funding commitment will certainly be hotly contested between the parties.

My cautious optimism feels a whole lot better than the fatalism I have felt for many years about the fate of our housing finance system. Let’s hope that soon departing Congressman Hensarling and Sen. Corker can help focus their colleagues on creating a housing finance system for the 21st century, one with broad enough support to survive the political winds that are buffeting so many other important policy areas today.

Improving the 30-Year Mortgage

Wayne Passmore and Alexander von Hafften have posted Improving the 30-Year Fixed-Rate Mortgage to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The 30-year fixed-rate fully amortizing mortgage (or “traditional fixed-rate mortgage”) was a substantial innovation when first developed during the Great Depression. However, it has three major flaws. First, because homeowner equity accumulates slowly during the first decade, homeowners are essentially renting their homes from lenders. With so little equity accumulation, many lenders require large down payments. Second, in each monthly mortgage payment, homeowners substantially compensate capital markets investors for the ability to prepay. The homeowner might have better uses for this money. Third, refinancing mortgages is often very costly. We propose a new fixed-rate mortgage, called the Fixed-Payment-COFI mortgage (or “Fixed-COFI mortgage”), that resolves these three flaws. This mortgage has fixed monthly payments equal to payments for traditional fixed-rate mortgages and no down payment. Also, unlike traditional fixed-rate mortgages, Fixed-COFI mortgages do not bundle mortgage financing with compensation paid to capital markets investors for bearing prepayment risks; instead, this money is directed toward purchasing the home. The Fixed-COFI mortgage exploits the often-present prepayment-risk wedge between the fixed-rate mortgage rate and the estimated cost of funds index (COFI) mortgage rate. Committing to a savings program based on the difference between fixed-rate mortgage payments and payments based on COFI plus a margin, the homeowner uses this wedge to accumulate home equity quickly. In addition, the Fixed-COFI mortgage is a highly profitable asset for many mortgage lenders. Fixed-COFI mortgages may help some renters gain access to homeownership. These renters may be, for example, paying rents as high as comparable mortgage payments in high-cost metropolitan areas but do not have enough savings for a down payment. The Fixed-COFI mortgage may help such renters, among others, purchase homes.

The authors acknowledge some drawbacks for Fixed-COFI mortgages that can make them unattractive to some borrowers:

What do homeowners lose by choosing Fixed-COFI mortgages instead of traditional fixed-rate mortgages? First, they cannot freely spend refinancing gains on non-housing items. When mortgage rates fall, homeowners with Fixed-COFI mortgages automatically pay less interest and pay down the mortgage principal more. Second, they can no longer “win the lottery” played with capital markets investors and lock in a substantially lower rate for the remainder of their mortgage. With Fixed-COFI mortgages, homeowners trade the option of prepayment for faster home equity accumulation. We believe that many households may prefer Fixed-COFI mortgages to traditional fixed-rate mortgages. Furthermore, we believe that many renting households without savings for a down payment may prefer Fixed-COFI mortgages to renting. (4)

American households rely too much on the plain vanilla 30-year fixed rate mortgage for their own good. Papers like this give us some reasonable alternatives that might be better suited for many households.

The CFPB Makes Its Case

CFPB Director Cordray

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released its Semi-Annual Report. Given that the Bureau is under attack by Republicans in Congress and in the Trump Administration, one can read this as a defense (a strong defense, I might editorialize) for the work that the Bureau has done on behalf of consumers. The core of the Bureau’s argument is that it levels the playing field for consumers when they deal with financial services companies:

The Bureau has continued to expand its efforts to serve and protect consumers in the financial marketplace. The Bureau seeks to serve as a resource on the macro level, by writing clear rules of the road and enforcing consumer financial protection laws in ways that improve the consumer financial marketplace, and on the micro level, by helping individual consumers get responses to their complaints about issues with financial products and services. While the various divisions of the Bureau play different roles in carrying out the Bureau’s mission, they all work together to protect and educate consumers, help level the playing field for participants, and fulfill the Bureau’s statutory obligations and mission under the Dodd-Frank Act. In all of its work, the Bureau strives to act in ways that are fair, reasonable, and transparent.

*     *     *

When Federal consumer financial protection law is violated, the Bureau’s Supervision, Enforcement, and Fair Lending Division are committed to holding the responsible parties accountable. In the six months covered by this report, our supervisory actions resulted in financial institutions providing approximately $6.2 million in redress to over 16,549 consumers. During that timeframe, we also have announced enforcement actions that resulted in orders for approximately $200 million in total relief for consumers who fell victim to various violations of consumer financial protection laws, along with over $43 million in civil money penalties. We brought numerous enforcement actions for various violations of the Dodd-Frank Act and other laws, including actions against Mastercard and UniRush for breakdowns that left tens of thousands of economically vulnerable RushCard users unable to access their own money to pay for basic necessities; two separate actions against CitiFinancial and CitiMortgage for keeping consumers in the dark about options to avoid foreclosure; and against three reverse mortgage companies for deceptive advertisements, including claiming that consumers who obtained reverse mortgages could not lose their homes. We also brought two separate actions against credit reporting agencies Equifax and TransUnion for deceiving consumers about the usefulness and actual cost of credit scores they sold to consumers, and for luring consumers into costly recurring payments for credit products; and an action against creditor reporting agency Experian for deceiving consumers about the usefulness of credit scores it sold to consumers. The Bureau also continued to develop and refine its nationwide supervisory program for depository and nondepository financial institutions, through which those institutions are examined for compliance with Federal consumer financial protection law. (10-11, footnotes omitted)

Anyone who was around during the late 1990s and early 2000s would know that consumers are much better off with the Bureau than without it. This report provides some of the reasons why that is the case.