The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has released its November 2017 Housing Finance at a Glance Chartbook. The Introduction looks out how this summer’s big storms have pushed up delinquency rates:
The Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute issued its September 2017 Housing Finance At A Glance Chartbook. The introduction asks what the recent hurricanes tell us about GSE credit risk transfer. But it also has broader implications regarding the impact of climate-change related natural disasters on the mortgage market:
The GSEs’ capital markets risk transfer programs that began in 2013 have proven to be very successful in bringing in private capital, reducing the government’s role in the mortgage market and reducing taxpayer risk. Investor demand for Fannie Mae’s CAS and Freddie Mac’s STACR securities overall has been robust, in large part because of an improving economy and extremely low delinquency rates for loans underlying these securities.
Enter hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. These three storms have inflicted substantial damage to homes in the affected areas. Many of these homes have mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and many of these mortgages in turn are in the reference pools of mortgages underlying CAS and STACR securities. It is too early to know what the eventual losses might look like – that will depend on the extent of the damage, insurance coverage (including flood insurance), and the degree to which loss mitigation will succeed in minimizing borrower defaults and foreclosures.
Depending on how all of these factors eventually play out, investors in the riskiest tranches of CAS and STACR securities could witness marginally higher than expected losses. Up until Harvey, CRT markets had not experienced a real shock that threatened to affect the credit performance of underlying mortgages (except after Brexit, whose impact on the US mortgage market proved to be minimal). The arrival of these storms therefore in some ways is the first real test of the resiliency of credit risk transfer market.
It is also the first test for the GSEs in balancing the needs of borrowers with those of CRT investors. In some of the earlier fixed severity deals, investor losses were triggered when a loan went 180 days delinquent (i.e. experienced a credit event). Hence, forbearance of more than six months could trigger a credit event. Fannie Mae put out a press release that it would wait 20 months from the point at which disaster relief was granted before evaluating whether a loan in a CAS deal experienced a credit event. While most of Freddie’s STACR deals had language that dealt with this issue, a few of the very early deals did not; no changes were made to these deals. Both Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae have provided investors with an exposure assessment of the volume of affected loans in order to allow them to better estimate their risk exposure.
So how has the market responded so far? In the immediate aftermath of the first storm, spreads on CRT bonds generally widened by about 40 basis points, meaning investors demanded a higher rate of return. But thereafter, spreads have tightened by about 20 basis points, suggesting that many investors saw this as a good buying opportunity. This is precisely how capital markets are intended to work. If spreads had continued to widen substantially, that would have signaled a breakdown in investor confidence in future performance of these securities. The fact that that did not happen is an encouraging sign for the continued evolution of the credit risk transfer market.
To be clear, it is still very early to reasonably estimate what eventual investor losses will look like. As the process of damage assessment continues and more robust loss estimates come in, one can expect CAS/STACR pricing to fluctuate. But early pricing strongly indicates that investors’ underlying belief in these securities is largely intact. This matters because it tells the GSEs that the CRT market is resilient enough to withstand shocks and gives them confidence to further expand these offerings.
Freddie Mac posted an Economic & Housing Research Insight, Life’s A Beach, that addresses the impact of climate change on residential real estate. It discusses the limitations of our potential responses:
Even with significant and coordinated global action like that outlined at the Paris climate conference, some of the projected impacts of climate change appear to be unavoidable. Governments and private organizations are working on plans to mitigate impacts where possible and to adapt to changes that are inevitable. Many are taking notes from the experience of the Netherlands, which has prospered for centuries despite lying below sea level.
However, the dikes and sea walls used by the Dutch may not solve the problems of South Florida. Florida sits on a substrate of porous limestone that holds Florida’s supply of fresh water. As the sea level rises, it infiltrates the limestone underground and contaminates the freshwater supply. A sea wall might stop storm water surges on the surface, but it can’t prevent the underground incursion of salt water.
While technical solutions may stave off some of the worst effects of climate change, rising sea levels and spreading flood plains nonetheless appear likely to destroy billions of dollars in property and to displace millions of people. The economic losses and social disruption may happen gradually, but they are likely to be greater in total than those experienced in the housing crisis and Great Recession. That recent experience illustrated the difficulty of allocating losses between homeowners, lenders, servicers, insurers, investors, and taxpayers in general. The delays in resolving these differences at times exacerbated the losses. Similar challenges will face the nation in dealing with the impact of climate change. (5-6)
The report also highlights a bunch of concrete problems that homeowners and taxpayers will need to confront as climate change wreaks greater havoc:
- Will the federal government continue to subsidize flood insurance?
- Will property values in flood zones drop over time?
- Will climate change increase social dislocation as the landscape of coastal areas is permanently altered by rising sea levels?
The federal government has dropped the ball in taking a leadership role in this area and many states have done so as well. It will likely take a tragedy (likely to be a preventable one) to get them to focus on this in any meaningful way.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has issued Your Home Loan Toolkit: A Step-by-Step Guide. The toolkit is designed to help potential homeowners navigate the process of buying a home. As the press release notes,
The toolkit provides a step-by-step guide to help consumers understand the nature and costs of real estate settlement services, define what affordable means to them, and find their best mortgage. The toolkit features interactive worksheets and checklists, conversation starters for discussions between consumers and lenders, and research tips to help consumers seek out and find important information.
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Creditors must provide the toolkit to mortgage applicants as a part of the application process, and other industry participants, including real estate professionals, are encouraged to provide it to potential homebuyers.
The toolkit asks many of the important questions that homebuyers have:
- What does affordability mean for you?
- What kind of credit profile do you have?
- What kind of mortgage is right for you?
- How do points work?
- How do you comparison shop with lenders?
- How does a closing work?
- How do you read your Closing Disclosure?
- How do keep your mortgage in good standing?
That being said, it remains to be seen whether this toolkit will actually help potential homeowners. It is important for the CFPB to design an effectiveness study to see how the toolkit performs in practice.
- New Jersey Condominium Association files a complaint alleging that the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) breached its contracts by failing to pay flood insurance benefits for damage from Hurricane Sandy.
- The US Supreme Court justices are reviewing an Eleventh Circuit decision that allows second-mortgage liens to disappear for Chapter 7 debtors when the first mortgage is undersecured. The justices expressed concern in letting this happen.
- Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. suit against RBS Securities Inc. for $140 million over residential mortgage-backed securities is dismissed as time-barred under recent US Supreme Court ruling in CTS Corp. v. Waldburger.
- UBS Americas Inc. has settled confidentially with Capital Ventures International over alleged $109 million of risky mortgage-backed securities.
NYU’s Furman Center released a report, The Price of Resilience: Can Multifamily Housing Afford to Adapt? It explains that storm-proofing New York City
poses several special challenges not shared by all coastal areas. First, New York City is largely built out, with much of its building stock long predating current flood-resistant design standards. Resilience in New York, then, primarily means retrofitting older buildings, not just strengthening building codes for new construction. Second, much of the official guidance about how to retrofit residential properties to reduce risk and lower insurance premiums is geared toward 1-4 family buildings, reflecting the national housing stock. In New York City, though, only one-third of the buildings thought to be vulnerable to flooding are1-4 family, detached homes. A much larger number of housing units vulnerable to future storms are located in roughly 4,500 multifamily buildings with five or more rental units. Finding ways to cost effectively retrofit these types of buildings to protect residents and reduce insurance premiums for owners needs to be central to New York City’s storm-preparedness efforts.
Finally, the extreme shortage of affordable housing in New York may make the direct and indirect costs of retrofitting particularly hard to bear. Based on current federal policy, increased flood risk requires for many buildings either investment in physical improvements or payment of higher insurance premiums. Without external funding or other relief, there is no clear avenue to enact these resilience improvements while maintaining affordability. Eliminating all units below the predicted flood level, for example, could result in the loss of thousands of indispensable housing units. Even if units are not lost, property owners may pass on the costs of retrofitting buildings to residents through a rent increase, reducing the supply of affordable units in New York City’s coastal areas. For buildings that are constrained in their ability to raise rents and raise funds for improvements, like many of the rent stabilized and subsidized buildings in the city, the financial burden of making costly retrofits might be overwhelming, leading to the conversion of those buildings to market rate (when permitted), unsustainable operating budgets that may require a bail-out, or a large number of buildings left unprepared for future storms. The costs of not retrofitting, however, may be even more burdensome: building owners may face skyrocketing flood insurance premiums if they do not retrofit their buildings.
While I am not so sure that storm-proofing will be what pushes New York City’s housing stock into the unaffordable column (I think the relentless increases in demand might just to the job for units that are not rent regulated), the Furman Center report reminds us that we have a lot to do to protect New York from the next big storm. The Bloomberg Administration did a lot in a short time to identify what the City can do to increase the City’s resiliency. Given the quality of his housing and economic development team, there is reason to hope that the de Blasio Administration will continue to tackle the threat of climate change in a productive way.
The Furman Center report provides three concrete recommendations to ensure that NYC’s large stock of multi-family housing in flood zones is protected from future storm events:
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should modify the guidelines for its National Flood Insurance Program for coverage of existing multifamily buildings;
- New York City should expand its Flood Resilience Zoning Text Amendment to cover buildings in the 500-year floodplain; and
- The city should revisit its existing rehabilitation programs to ensure that resilience measures can be readily funded; and it should require that buildings in the 100-year and 500-year floodplains that receive city assistance have adequate emergency and resilience plans.
These all seem like reasonable policies that should be implemented asap.
The Rand Corporation has posted Flood Insurance in New York City Following Hurricane Sandy. The report has a chapter on affordability issues that is worth a read, particularly as the de Blasio Administration undertakes its ambitious affordable housing plan. The report notes that
many New Yorkers will face substantially higher flood insurance premiums moving forward. Many more structures will be in areas considered high-risk than in the past, and premiums for many structures already in high-risk areas will be based on considerably higher flood levels.
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These substantial premium increases will reduce the disposable income or wealth (or both) of many households and may well be unaffordable for some. In the absence of intervention, the consequences may be foreclosures, turnover, and hardship for some of New York City’s more-vulnerable citizens.(63)
The book goes on to review a variety of approaches “for addressing the affordability issue.” (67) It reviews “tax credits, grants, and vouchers that could be applied toward the cost of flood insurance.” (63) It also notes that such interventions distort “the price signal that incentives property owners to invest in risk-mitigation measures in order to reduce premiums.” (67) It considers proposals to deal with such distortion, such as a means-tested voucher program that is coupled “with a requirement that mitigation measures be taken that make sense for the property.” (67) The book only scratches the surface of this topic, noting that more “information is needed to address the advantages and disadvantages of alternative strategies for addressing affordability.” (68)
As the de Blasio Administration considers the preservation portion of its affordable housing agenda, one could imagine that a concerted effort to incentivize risk mitigation while also promoting affordability could be a significant component of the final plan. Solutions could range from deferred payment, due on sale or refinance of a home, to outright subsidies as outlined by the Rand report. Whatever the ultimate solution is, the problem should be incorporated into the City’s planning now.