The Regulation of Residential Real Estate Finance Under Trump

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

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

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

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

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

Treasury’s Overreach on Securitization Reform

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Being Sworn in by Vice President Pence

The Department of the Treasury released its report, A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities Capital Markets. I will leave it to others to dissect the broader implications of this important document and will just highlight what it has to say about the future of securitization:

Problems related to certain types of securitized products, primarily those backed by subprime mortgage loans, contributed to the financial crisis that precipitated the Great Recession. As a result, the securitization market has acquired a popular reputation as an inherently high-risk asset class and has been regulated as such through numerous post-crisis statutory and rulemaking changes. Such treatment of this market is counterproductive, as securitization, when undertaken in an appropriate manner, can be a vital financial tool to facilitate growth in our domestic economy. Securitization has the potential to help financial intermediaries better manage risk, enhance access to credit, and lower funding costs for both American businesses and consumers. Rather than restrict securitization through regulations, policymakers and regulators should view this component of our capital markets as a byproduct of, and safeguard to, America’s global financial leadership. (91-92, citations omitted)

This analysis of securitization veers toward the incoherent. It acknowledges that relatively unregulated subprime MBS contributed to the Great Recession but it argues that stripping away the regulations that were implemented in response to the financial crisis will safeguard our global financial leadership. How’s that? A full deregulatory push would return us to the pre-crisis environment where mortgage market players will act in their short-term interests, while exposing counter-parties and consumers to greater risks.

Notwithstanding that overreach, the report has some specific recommendations that could make securitization more attractive. These include aligning U.S. regulations with the Basel recommendations that govern the global securitization market; fine-tuning risk retention requirements; and rationalizing the multi-agency rulemaking process.

But it is disturbing when a government report contains a passage like the following, without evaluating whether it is true or not:  “issuers have stated that the increased cost and compliance burdens, lack of standardized definitions, and sometimes ambiguous regulatory guidance has had a negative impact on the issuance of new public securitizations.” (104) The report segues from these complaints right to a set of recommendations to reduce the disclosure requirements for securitizers. It is incumbent on Treasury to evaluate whether those complaints are valid are not, before making recommendations based upon them.

Securitization is here to stay and can meaningfully lower borrowing costs. But the financial crisis has demonstrated that it must be regulated to protect the financial system and the public. There is certainly room to revise the regulations that govern the securitization sector, but a wholesale push to deregulate would be foolish given the events of the 2000s.

Treasury’s Trojan Horse for The CFPB

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo

The Hill posted my latest column, Americans Are Better off with Consumer Protection in Place. It opens,

This month, the Treasury Department issued a report to President Trump in response to his executive order on regulation of the U.S. financial system. While the report does not seek to do as much damage to consumer protection as the House’s Financial Choice Act, it proposes a dramatic weakening of the federal government’s role in the consumer financial services market. In particular, the report advocates that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s mandate be radically constrained.

Republicans have been seeking to weaken the CFPB since it was created as part of the Dodd-Frank Act. The bureau took over responsibility for consumer protection regulation from seven federal agencies. Republicans have been far more antagonistic to the bureau than many of the lenders it regulates. Lenders have seen the value in consolidating much of their regulatory compliance into one agency.

To keep reading, click here.

Can Fannie and Freddie Be Privatized?

Kroll Bond Rating Agency posted Housing Reform 2017: Can the GSEs be Privatized? The big housing finance reform question is whether there is now sufficient consensus in Washington to determine the fate of Fannie and Freddie, now approaching their ninth year in conservatorship.

Kroll concludes,

The Mortgage Bankers Association sends a very clear message about privatizing the GSEs: It will raise rates for homeowners and add systemic risk back into the financial system. Why do we need to fix a proven market mechanism that is not broken? KBRA believes that if Mr. Mnuchin and the President-elect truly want to encourage the growth of a private market for U.S. mortgages, then they must accept that true privatization of the GSEs that eliminates any government guarantee would fundamentally change the mortgage market.

The privatization of the GSEs implies, in the short term at least, a significant decrease in the financing available to the U.S. housing market. In the absence of a TBA market, no coupon would be high enough to support the entire range of demand for mortgage finance, only pockets of higher quality loans as with the jumbo mortgage market today. Unless the U.S. moved to the Danish model with 100% variable rate notes, no nonbank could fund the production of home mortgages efficiently and commercial banks are unlikely to pick up the slack for the reasons discussed above.

In the event of full privatization of the GSEs, private loans will have significantly higher cost for consumers and offer equally more attractive returns for financial institutions and end investors, a result that would generate enormous political opposition among the numerous constituencies in the housing market. Needless to say, getting such a proposal through Congress should prove to be quite an achievement indeed. (4)

I disagree with Kroll’s framing of the issue:  “Why do we need to fix a proven market mechanism that is not broken?” To describe Fannie and Freddie as “not broken” seems farcical to me. They are in a state of limbo with extraordinary backing from the federal government. It might be that we would want to continue them with much the same functionality that they currently have, but we would still want this transition to be done intentionally.  Nobody, but nobody, was thinking that putting them into conservatorship was the end game,

While the current structure has some advantages over privatization, the reverse is true too.  The greatest benefit of privatization is getting rid of the taxpayer backstop in case of a failure by one or both of the companies.

We shouldn’t be saying — hey, what we have now is good enough. Rather, we should be asking — what do we expect out of our housing finance system and how do we get it?

There appears to be a broad consensus to reduce taxpayer exposure to a bailout.  There also appears to be a broad consensus (one that I do not support as broadly as others) to protect the 30 year fixed rate mortgage that remains so popular in the United States.

Industry insiders believe that a fully private system would not provide sufficient capital for the mortgage market. They are also concerned that a fully private system would put the kibosh on the To Be Announced (TBA) market that provides so much stability for the mortgage origination process.

A thoughtful reform proposal could incorporate all of these concerns while also clearing away the sticky problems built into the Fannie/Freddie model of housing finance.

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is not a good enough philosophy after we have lived through the financial crisis. We should focus on the big questions of what we want from our 21st century housing finance system and then design a system that will implement it accordingly.

The Fed’s Effect on Mortgage Rates

Federal Open Market Committee Meeting

Federal Open Market Committee Meeting quoted me in Types of Institutions in the U.S. Banking System – Investment Banks and Central Banks. It reads, in part,

Central Banks

Think of the central bank as the Grand Poobah of a country’s monetary system. In the U.S. that honor is bestowed upon the Federal Reserve. While there are other important central banks, like the European Central Bank, the Bank of England and the People’s Bank of China. For now, focus stateside.

Think of the central bank as the Grand Poobah of a country’s monetary system. In the U.S. that honor is bestowed upon the Federal Reserve.

The Federal Reserve was created by the Congress to provide the nation with a safer, more flexible, and more stable monetary and financial system. The Federal Reserve was created on December 23, 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law. To keep it simple, think of the Fed as having responsibility in these four areas:

  1. conducting the nation’s monetary policy by influencing money and credit conditions in the economy in pursuit of full employment and stable prices;
  2. supervising and regulating banks and other important financial institutions to ensure the safety and soundness of the nation’s banking and financial system and to protect the credit rights of consumers;
  3. maintaining the stability of the financial system and containing systemic risk that may arise in financial markets
  4. providing certain financial services to the U.S. government, U.S. financial institutions, and foreign official institutions, and playing a major role in operating and overseeing the nation’s payments systems.

You need look no further than the Federal Reserve FAQs to learn more about how it is structured.

The Federal Reserve may not take your money, but be clear it has much financial impact on your life. Brooklyn Law Professor David Reiss gives one example, “The Federal Reserve can have an impact on the interest rate you pay on your mortgage. Since the financial crisis, the Fed has fostered accommodative financial conditions which kept interest rates low. It has done this a number of ways, including through its monetary policy actions. The Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee sets targets for the federal funds rate. The federal funds rate, in turn, influences interest rates for purchases, refinances and home equity loans.”

The State of Predatory Lending

By U.S. Treasury Department (CFPB Conference on the Credit Card Act, 02/22/2011) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Center for Responsible Lending has posted the final chapter of The State of Lending in America: The Cumulative Costs of Predatory Practices. This chapter’s findings include,

  • Loans with problematic terms or practices result in higher rates of default and foreclosure/ repossession. For example, dealer-brokered auto loans, which often contain abusive provisions, are twice as likely to result in repossession as bank- or credit union-financed auto loans.
  • The consequences of default, repossession, bankruptcy, and foreclosure are long-term. For example, one in seven job-seekers with blemished credit has been passed over for employment after a credit check, and borrowers who experience default pay much more for subsequent credit.
  • The opportunity costs of abusive loans are significant. For example, during the same period that subprime loans peaked and millions of families unnecessarily lost their homes, families with similar credit characteristics who sustained homeownership experienced on average an $18,000 increase in wealth per family.
  • Abusive loans have an impact on the economy as a whole. The foreclosure crisis depleted overall housing wealth and led to millions of job losses; predatory practices have been shown to diminish public trust and confidence in the financial system; and there is evidence that student debt is preventing economic growth, especially for young families.
  • Across many financial products, low-income borrowers and borrowers of color are disproportionately affected by abusive loan terms and practices. Families with annual incomes below $25,000– $35,000 are much more likely to receive an abusive loan product. And in most cases, borrowers of color are two to three times more likely to receive an abusive loan compared with a white counterpart. The discriminatory effects of abusive lending clearly contribute to the widening wealth gap between families of color and white families.
  • Loans with problematic terms are repeatedly concentrated in neighborhoods of color. Subprime mortgages and payday loans are two examples. Such concentration leads to a net drain of community wealth and value that could have been spent on productive economic activity and meeting vital community needs.
  • Debt plays a profound role in the financial lives of most American households, with about three-quarters of households having at least one form of debt and many having multiple forms of debt. Indeed, most consumers are not simply mortgage holders, credit card users, payday loan borrowers, or car-title borrowers; they are likely to participate in more than one of these markets, often at the same time.
  • Regulation and enforcement is an effective means for ending lending abuses while preserving access to credit. For example, the Credit Card Accountability and Disclosure Act of 2009 (Credit CARD Act) has continued to give people access to credit cards, while eliminating more than $4 billion in abusive fees and overall saving consumers $12.6 billion annually. (6-7)

The Center for Responsible Lending is a very effective advocate for consumer protection in the financial services industry. That being said, I found it interesting that they were very circumspect in their section on Future Areas of Regulation. (33) They referenced the existing Credit CARD Act, Dodd-Frank Act, state payday lending laws and federal payday lending regulations, but they did not identify any aspects of the consumer financial services market that need additional regulation. Hard to imagine it, but it seems that CRL believes that we have reached regulatory Nirvana, at least in theory.

Mortgaging the Future

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s most recent Economic Letter is titled Mortgaging the Future? In it, Òscar Jordà, Moritz Schularick, and Alan M. Taylor evaluate the “Great Mortgaging” of the American economy:

In the six decades following World War II, bank lending measured as a ratio to GDP has quadrupled in advanced economies. To a great extent, this unprecedented expansion of credit was driven by a dramatic growth in mortgage loans. Lending backed by real estate has allowed households to leverage up and has changed the traditional business of banking in fundamental ways. This “Great Mortgaging” has had a profound influence on the dynamics of business cycles. (1)

I was particularly interested by the Letter’s Figure 2, which charted the ratio of mortgage debt to value of the U.S. housing stock over the last hundred years or so. The authors write,

The rise of mortgage lending exceeds what would be expected considering the increase in real estate values over the same time. Rather, it appears to also reflect an increase in household leverage. Although we cannot measure historical loan-to-value ratios directly, household mortgage debt appears to have risen faster than total real estate asset values in many countries including the United States. The resulting record-high leverage ratios can damage household balance sheets and therefore endanger the overall financial system. Figure 2 displays the ratio of household mortgage lending to the value of the total U.S. housing stock over the past 100 years. As the figure shows, that ratio has nearly quadrupled from about 0.15 in 1910 to about 0.5 today. (2)

An increase in leverage for households is not necessarily a bad thing. it allows households to make investments and to smooth their consumption over longer periods. But it can, of course, get to be too high. High leverage makes households less able to handle shocks such as unemployment, divorce and death. it would be helpful for economists to better model a socially optimal level of household leverage in order to guide regulators. The CFPB has taken a stab at this with its relatively new Ability-to-Repay regulation but we do not yet know if they got it right.