De Facto Housing Finance Reform

photo by The Tire Zoo

David Finkelstein, Andreas Strzodka and James Vickery of the NY Fed have posted Credit Risk Transfer and De Facto GSE Reform. It opens,

Nearly a decade into the conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, no legislation has yet been passed to reform the housing finance system and resolve the long-term future of these two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs). The GSEs have, however, implemented significant changes to their operations and practices over this period, even in the absence of legislation. The goal of this paper is to summarize and evaluate one of the most important of these initiatives – the use of credit risk transfer (CRT) instruments to shift mortgage credit risk from the GSEs to the private sector.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have significant mortgage credit risk exposure, largely because they provide a credit guarantee to investors on the agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) they issue. Since the CRT programs began in 2013, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have transferred to the private sector a portion of the credit risk on approximately $1.8 trillion in single-family mortgages (as of December 2017; source: Fannie Mae, 2017, Freddie Mac, 2017). The GSEs have experimented with a range of different risk transfer instruments, including reinsurance, senior-subordinate securitizations, and transactions involving explicit lender risk sharing. The bulk of CRT, however, has occurred via the issuance of structured debt securities whose principal payments are tied to the credit performance of a reference pool of securitized mortgages. A period of elevated mortgage defaults and losses will  trigger automatic principal write-downs on these CRT bonds, partially offsetting credit losses experienced by the GSEs.

Our thesis is that the CRT initiative has improved the stability of the  housing finance system and advanced a number of important objectives of GSE reform. In particular the CRT programs have meaningfully reduced the exposure of the Federal government to mortgage credit risk without disrupting the liquidity or stability of secondary mortgage markets. In the process, the CRT programs have created a new financial market for pricing and trading mortgage credit risk, which has grown in size and liquidity over time. Given diminished private-label securitization activity in recent years, these CRT securities are one of the primary ways for private-sector capital market investors to gain exposure to residential mortgage credit risk.

An important reason for this success is that the credit risk transfer programs do not disrupt the operation of the agency MBS market or affect the risks facing agency MBS investors. Because agency MBS carry a GSE credit guarantee, agency MBS investors assume that they are exposed to interest rate risk and prepayment risk, but not credit risk. This reduces the set of parameters on which pass-through MBS pools differ from one another, improving the standardization of the securities underlying the liquid to-be-announced (TBA) market where agency MBS mainly trade. Even though the GSEs now use CRT structures to transfer credit risk to a variety of private sector investors, these arrangements do not affect agency MBS investors, since the agency MBS credit guarantee is still being provided only by the GSE. In other words, the GSE stands in between the agency MBS investors and private-sector CRT investors, acting in a role akin to a central counterparty.

Ensuring that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s credit risk sharing efforts occur independently of the agency MBS market is important for both market functioning and financial stability. The agency MBS market, which remains one of the most liquid fixed income markets in the world, proved to be quite resilient during the 2007-2009 financial crisis, helping to support the supply of mortgage credit during that period. The agency market financed $2.89 trillion of mortgage originations during 2008 and 2009, experiencing little drop in secondary market trading volume during that period. In contrast, the non-agency MBS market, where MBS investors are exposed directly to credit risk, proved to be much less stable; Issuance in this market essentially froze in the second half of 2007, and has remained at low levels since that time.4 (1-2, citations and footnotes omitted)

One open question, of course, is whether the risk transfer has been properly priced. We won’t be able to fully answer that question until the next crisis tests these CRT securities. But in the meantime, we can contemplate the authors’ conclusion:

the CRT program represents a valuable step forward towards GSE
reform, as well as a basis for future reform. Many proposals have been put forward for long-term reform of mortgage market since the GSE conservatorships began in 2008. Although the details of these proposals vary, they generally share in common the goals of

(1) ensuring that mortgage credit risk is borne by the private sector (probably with some form of government backstop and/or tail insurance to insure catastrophic risk and stabilize the market during periods of stress), while

(2) maintaining the current securitization infrastructure as well as the standardization and liquidity of agency MBS markets.

The credit risk transfer program, now into its fifth year, represents an effective mechanism for achieving these twin goals. (21, footnote omitted)

Understanding The Ability To Repay Rule

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

The Spring 2017 edition of the Consumer Financial Bureau’s Supervisory Highlights contains “Observations and approach to compliance with the Ability to Repay (ATR) rule requirements. The ability to repay rule is intended to keep lenders from making and borrowers from taking on unsustainable mortgages, mortgages with payments that borrowers cannot reliably make.  By way of background,

Prior to the mortgage crisis, some creditors offered consumers mortgages without considering the consumer’s ability to repay the loan, at times engaging in the loose underwriting practice of failing to verify the consumer’s debts or income. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act) amended the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) to provide that no creditor may make a residential mortgage loan unless the creditor makes a reasonable and good faith determination based on verified and documented information that, at the time the loan is consummated, the consumer has a reasonable ability to repay the loan according to its terms, as well as all applicable taxes, insurance (including mortgage guarantee insurance), and assessments. The Dodd-Frank Act also amended TILA by creating a presumption of compliance with these ability-to-repay (ATR) requirements for creditors originating a specific category of loans called “qualified mortgage” (QM) loans. (3-4, footnotes omitted)

Fundamentally, the Bureau seeks to determine “whether a creditor’s ATR determination is reasonable and in good faith by reviewing relevant lending policies and procedures and a sample of loan files and assessing the facts and circumstances of each extension of credit in the sample.” (4)

The ability to repay analysis does not focus solely on income, it also looks at assets that are available to repay the mortgage:

a creditor may base its determination of ability to repay on current or reasonably expected income from employment or other sources, assets other than the dwelling (and any attached real property) that secures the covered transaction, or both. The income and/or assets relied upon must be verified. In situations where a creditor makes an ATR determination that relies on assets and not income, CFPB examiners would evaluate whether the creditor reasonably and in good faith determined that the consumer’s verified assets suffice to establish the consumer’s ability to repay the loan according to its terms, in light of the creditor’s consideration of other required ATR factors, including: the consumer’s mortgage payment(s) on the covered transaction, monthly payments on any simultaneous loan that the creditor knows or has reason to know will be made, monthly mortgage-related obligations, other monthly debt obligations, alimony and child support, monthly DTI ratio or residual income, and credit history. In considering these factors, a creditor relying on assets and not income could, for example, assume income is zero and properly determine that no income is necessary to make a reasonable determination of the consumer’s ability to repay the loan in light of the consumer’s verified assets. (6-7)

That being said, the Bureau reiterates that “a down payment cannot be treated as an asset for purposes of considering the consumer’s income or assets under the ATR rule.” (7)

The ability to repay rule protects lenders and borrowers from themselves. While some argue that this is paternalistic, we do not need to go much farther back than the early 2000s to find an era where so-called “equity-based” lending pushed many people on fixed incomes into default and foreclosure.

Contract Selling Is Back, Big-Time

The Chicago Reader quoted me in The Infamous Practice of Contract Selling Is Back in Chicago. It reads, in part,

When Carolyn Smith saw a for sale sign go up on her block one evening in the fall of 2011, it felt serendipitous. The now 68-year-old was anxiously looking for a new place to live. The landlord of her four-unit apartment building in the city’s Austin neighborhood was in foreclosure and had stopped paying the water bill. That month, she and the other tenants had finally scraped together the money themselves to prevent a shutoff and were planning to withhold rent until the landlord paid them back. Exhausted with this process and tired of dealing with “slumlords,” Smith wanted to buy a home in the neighborhood to ensure that she, her mother, Gwendolyn, and their dog, Sugar Baby, would have a stable place to live. But due to a past bankruptcy, Smith thought she would never be able to get a mortgage. So when she saw a house on her street for sale with a sign that said “owner financing,” she was excited. The next morning, she called the number listed and learned that the down payment was just $900—a sum she could fathom paying. “I figured I was blessed,” she says.

Her good fortune continued. A man on the other end of the line told her she was the very first one to inquire. The seller, South Carolina-based National Asset Advisors, called her several more times and mailed her paperwork to sign. Smith says she never met in person with anyone from National Asset Advisors or Harbour Portfolio Advisors, the Texas-based company that owned the home. But she says the agents she spoke with assured her that her credit was good enough for the transaction, despite the past bankruptcy. Next, they gave her a key code that allowed her to go in and look at the house, explaining that she’d be purchasing it “as is.” Smith thought the two-flat looked like a fixer-upper—the door had been damaged in an apparent break-in, and there was no hot-water heater, furnace, or kitchen sink—but given her poor luck with apartments of late, she felt she couldn’t pass up the chance to own a home. Both she and her mother, now 84, had been renting their whole lives; after pulling together the down payment, they beamed with pride when, in December 2011, they received a letter from National Asset Advisors that read “Congratulations on your purchase of your new home!”

But within a year, Smith discovered that the house was in even worse shape than she’d realized. In her first months in her new home, Smith estimates that she spent more than $4,000 just to get the heat and running water working properly, drinking bottled water in the meantime. Then the chimney started to crumble. Smith would hear the periodic thud of stray bricks tumbling into the alleyway as she sat in her living room or lay in bed at night; she began to worry that a passerby would be hit in the head and soon spent another $2,000 to replace the chimney. Public records show that the house had sat vacant earlier that year, and the city had ordered its previous owners to make extensive repairs.

Had Smith approached a bank for a mortgage, she likely would’ve received a Federal Housing Administration-issued form advising her to get a home inspection before buying. But as far as she recalls, no one she spoke to ever suggested one, and in her rush to get out of her old apartment, she didn’t think to insist.

The documents Smith signed with Harbour and National Asset Advisors required her to bring the property into habitable condition within four months, and with all the unexpected expenses, she soon fell behind on her monthly payments of $545.

Smith’s retirement from her job as an adult educator at Malcolm X College, in the spring of 2013, compounded the financial strain. Living on a fixed income of what she estimates was around $1,100 a month in pension and social security payments, she fell further behind, and the stress mounted.

“When we got to be two months behind, they would call me every day,” she remembers.

National Asset Advisors also began sending her letters threatening to evict her. That’s when Smith had a heart-stopping realization: She hadn’t actually purchased her home at all. The document she had signed wasn’t a traditional mortgage, as she had believed, but a “contract for deed”—a type of seller-financed transaction under which buyers lack any equity in the property until they’ve paid for it in full. Since Smith didn’t actually have a deed to the house, or any of the rights typically afforded home owners, she and her mother could be thrown out without a foreclosure process, forfeiting the thousands of dollars they’d already spent to rehabilitate the home.

“I know people always say ‘buyer beware’ ” she acknowledges. “But I’d never had a mortgage before, and I feel like they took advantage of that.”

What felt like a private nightmare for Smith has been playing out nationwide in the wake of the housing market crash, as investment firms step in to fill a void left by banks, now focused on lending to wealthier borrowers with spotless credit histories. In a tight credit market, companies like Harbour, which has purchased roughly 7,000 homes nationwide since 2010, including at least 42 in Cook County, purport to offer another shot at home ownership for those who can’t get mortgages. Such practices are increasingly common in struggling cities hard hit by the housing crash. A February 2016 article in the New York Times titled “Market for Fixer-Uppers Traps Low-Income Buyers” examined Harbour’s contract-for-deed sales in Akron, Ohio, and Battle Creek, Michigan. The Detroit News has reported that in 2015 the number of homes sold through contract-for-deed agreements in the city exceeded those sold through traditional mortgages.

*     *     *

Contract-for-deed sales also offered an attractive loophole from the growing set of regulations on traditional mortgages following the financial crisis. “In the same way that you saw [subprime lenders like] Countrywide get really big in the late 1990s,” says David Reiss, research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, “one of the real attractions for the businesses operating in this space is that they are underregulated.”

High Times for New REIT

photo by Jorge Barrios

Realtor.com quoted me in Could This Marijuana REIT Make Millions, or Are They Just High? It opens,

Investing in real estate just got waaay more interesting, dudes! That’s because amid all that stuffy stock-market buzz, a wacky new REIT (real estate investment trust) has just gone public—and it’s the first in the country to focus on funding marijuana growers.

REITs, for you rookies out there, are funds that specialize in real estate. So, they use their investors’ money to build shopping malls, hotels, and condo complexes with the hope that their value will rise over time. This new pot-friendly REIT, owned by San Diego investment firm Innovative Industrial Properties (IIP), works exactly the same way, only by investing in facilities that grow, store, and distribute cannabis.

Granted, IIP is concentrating exclusively on medicinal marijuana facilities—so no one’s getting high for fun off investor money.

Nonetheless, this REIT could provide a much-needed infusion of capital for marijuana growers. Currently, although cannabis is legal for medicinal purposes in 24 states and for recreational use in four (which could rise to nine after Election Day), under federal law, marijuana is still illegal—and that keeps most banks from loaning these companies money.

REITs, however, aren’t bound by the same strict principles as big banks. So, IIP can shower ganja growers with cash—and could stand to make huge piles of money for its investors, right?

It could … but this whole scheme could also implode in a funky cloud of smoke.

“With limited information due to the newness of cannabis legalization, there’s not much of a track record or history to determine a cannabis REIT’s future performance,” says real estate and economic advisor Jack McCabe of McCabe Research & Consulting. McCabe also concedes that he hasn’t scrutinized this particular firm’s investment criteria, methodology, or fees.

“The early results show a new and flourishing industry,” McCabe says. “My opinion is that marijuana REITs and investors could see triple-digit profits and growth that could be historic and surpass profits generated by most all established industries.”

Whoa, triple-digit returns! That’s pretty impressive performance for any investment.

“A typical REIT is viewed as a fixed-income vehicle that competes with bonds,” says Paul Habibi, a real estate entrepreneur and professor at UCLA. “The range of REIT dividends are in the mid-single digits, like 5% to 6%.”

But there’s another caveat: No one knows how the federal government might decide to deal with semilegal cannabis down the road.

“Given medical-use marijuana is illegal under federal law, how could that play out with federal regulation of IIP?” points out David Reiss, a professor of Law at Brooklyn [Law School] and editor of REFinBlog.com.

The IIP (which could not comment), admits that much is still unknown in one of its SEC filings:

“Although the federal government currently has a relaxed enforcement position as it relates to states that have legalized medical-use cannabis, it remains illegal under federal law, and therefore, strict enforcement of federal laws regarding medical-use cannabis would likely result in our inability and the inability of our tenants to execute our respective business plans.”

Investing in Mortgage-Backed Securities

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US News & World Report quoted me in Why Investors Own Private Mortgage-Backed Securities. It opens,

Private-label, or non-agency backed mortgage securities, got a black eye a few years ago when they were blamed for bringing on the financial crisis. But they still exist and can be found in many fixed-income mutual funds and real estate investment trusts.

So who should own them – and who should stay away?

Many experts say they’re safer now and are worthy of a small part of the ordinary investor’s portfolio. Some funds holding non-agency securities yield upward of 10 percent.

“The current landscape is favorable for non-agency securities,” says Jason Callan, head of structured products at Columbia Threadneedle Investments in Minneapolis, pointing to factors that have reduced risks.

“The amount of delinquent borrowers is now at a post-crisis low, U.S. consumers continue to perform quite well from a credit perspective, and risk premiums are very attractive relative to the fundamental outlook for housing and the economy,” he says. “Home prices have appreciated nationwide by 5 to 6 percent over the last three years.”

Mortgage-backed securities are like bonds that give their owners rights to share in interest and principal received from homeowners’ mortgage payments.

The most common are agency-backed securities like Ginnie Maes guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration, or securities from government-authorized companies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The agency securities carry an implicit or explicit guarantee that the promised principal and interest income will be paid even if homeowners default on their loans. Ginnie Mae obligations, for instance, can be made up with federal tax revenues if necessary. Agency securities are considered safe holdings with better yields than alternatives like U.S. Treasurys.

The non-agency securities are issued by financial firms and carry no such guarantee. Trillions of dollars worth were issued in the build up to the financial crisis. Many contained mortgages granted to high-risk homeowners who had no income, poor credit or no home equity. Because risky borrowers are charged higher mortgage rates, private-label mortgage securities appealed to investors seeking higher yields than they could get from other holdings. When housing prices collapsed, a tidal wave of borrower defaults torpedoed the private-label securities, triggering the financial crisis.

Not many private-label securities have been issued in the years since, and they accounted for just 4 percent of mortgage securities issued in 2015, according to Freddie Mac. But those that are created are considered safer than the old ones because today’s borrowers must meet stiffer standards. Also, many of the non-agency securities created a decade or more ago continue to be traded and are viewed as safer because market conditions like home prices have improved.

Investors can buy these securities through bond brokers, but the most common way to participate in this market is with mutual funds or with REITs that own mortgages rather than actual real estate.

Though safer than before, non-agency securities are still risky because, unlike agency-backed securities, they can incur losses if homeowners stop making their payments. This credit risk comes atop the “prepayment” and “interest rate” risks found in agency-backed mortgage securities. Prepayment risk is when interest earnings stop because homeowners have refinanced. Interest rate risk means a security loses value because newer ones offer higher yields, making the older, stingier ones less attractive to investors.

“With non-agencies, you own the credit risk of the underlying mortgages,” Callan says, “whereas with agencies the (payments) are government guaranteed.”

Another risk of non-agency securities: different ones created from the same pool of loans are not necessarily equal. Typically, the pool is sliced into “tranches” like a loaf of bread, with each slice carrying different features. The safest have first dibs on interest and principal earnings, or are the last in the pool to default if payments dry up. In exchange for safety, these pay the least. At the other extreme are tranches that pay the most but are the first to lose out when income stops flowing.

Still, despite the risks, many experts say non-agency securities are safer than they used to be.

“Since the financial crisis, issuers have been much more careful in choosing the collateral that goes into a non-agency MBS, sticking to plain vanilla mortgage products and borrowers with good credit profiles,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who studies the mortgage market.

“It seems like the Wild West days of the mortgage market in the early 2000s won’t be returning for quite some time because issuers and investors are gun shy after the Subprime Crisis,” Reiss says. “The regulations implemented by Dodd-Frank, such as the qualified residential mortgage rule, also tamp down on excesses in the mortgage markets.”