The Mortgage Servicing Collaborative

The Urban institute’s Laurie Goodman et al. have announced The Mortgage Servicing Collaborative:

All mortgage market participants share the same goal: successful homeownership. Failure to achieve that goal hurts not only consumers and neighborhoods, but investors, insurers, guarantors, and servicers. Successful homeownership hinges on several factors. Consumers need access to a range of mortgage products when buying a home and need effective mortgage servicing. Servicing is the critical work that begins after the mortgage loan is closed and includes collecting and transferring mortgage payments from borrowers to investors, managing escrow, assisting borrowers who fall behind on their payments, and administering the foreclosure process. If closing the loan is the birth of the mortgage, servicing is its day-to-day care.

Despite its importance, mortgage servicing is frequently overlooked in major policy conversations, including the housing finance reform debate. That is a mistake. The servicing industry has changed dramatically since the 2008 mortgage default and foreclosure crisis and subsequent Great Recession. Overlooking servicing while implementing changes to the housing finance system has resulted in some unintended and unwanted consequences, including significant increases in the cost of servicing, a suboptimal servicing system, reduced access to credit for consumers, and an exodus from the industry by depository servicers.

To address this policy oversight, the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center (HFPC) has convened the Mortgage Servicing Collaborative (MSC) to elevate the mortgage servicing discussion and facilitate evidence-based policymaking by bringing more data and evidence to the table. The MSC has convened key industry stakeholders—lenders, servicers, consumer groups, civil rights leaders, researchers, and government—and tasked them with developing a common understanding of the biggest issues in mortgage servicing, their implications, and possible solutions and policy options that can advance the debate. And with the mortgage industry no longer operating in crisis mode, we believe now is the right time for this effort.

In this brief, the first in a series prepared by HFPC researchers with the collaboration of the MSC, we review how we arrived at the present state of affairs in mortgage servicing and explain why it is important to institute mortgage servicing reforms now. (1-2, footnote omitted)

The report provides a short but useful history of servicing, which at the best of times is a dark corner of the mortgage market. It also provides an overview of the risks inherent in a poorly constructed system of servicing for consumers and other players in that market. The Collaborative will certainly be taking deeper dives into these risks in future releases.

As with much of the Housing Finance Policy Center’s work, this collaborative is very forward-looking. Hopefully, it will help us prepare for the next downturn in the housing market.

Understanding Homeownership

 

The Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute released its House Finance at a Glance Chartbook for December. It states that financial education “can help reduce barriers to homeownership.” As I argue below, I do not think that financial education is the right thing to emphasize when trying to get people to enter the housing market.

The Introduction makes the case for financial education:

While mortgage debt has been stable to marginally increasing, other types of debt, particularly auto and student loan debt have increased far more rapidly. Our calculations, based on The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, show that over the past 5 years (Q3 2012 to Q3 2017), mortgage debt outstanding has grown at an annualized rate of 1.3 percent, while non-mortgage debt (which includes credit card debt, student loan debt, auto debt, and other debt) has grown by 6.8 percent annualized rate. Student loan debt has grown by 7.3 percent per year while auto debt has been growing by 9.6 percent per year. In Q3 2012, the number of accounts for mortgage loans and auto loans are very close (84 million vs 82 million). By Q3 2017, the number of accounts for mortgages had fallen to 80 million consistent with declining homeownership rate, while the number of accounts for auto loans had increased to 110 million.

Another metric where auto loans have diverged from mortgages is delinquency rates. Over the past 5 years, mortgage delinquencies have plummeted (pages 22 and 29) while the percent of auto loans that is more than 90 days late is roughly flat despite an improving economy. However, the percent of auto loans transitioning into serious delinquency has risen from 1.52 percent in Q3 2012 to 2.36 percent in Q3 2017. While these numbers remain small, the growth bears monitoring.

When we looked at the distribution of credit scores for new auto origination and new mortgage origination, we found no major change in either loan category; while mortgage credit scores are skewed higher, the distribution of mortgage credit scores (page 17) and the distribution of auto credit scores have been roughly consistent over the period. Our calculations based off NY Fed data shows the percent of auto loan origination balances with FICOs under 660 was 35.9% in Q3, 2012, it is now 31.7%; similarly the percent of auto origination with balances under 620 has contracted from 22.7 percent to 19.6 percent. There have been absolutely more auto loans with low FICOs originated, but this is because of the increased overall volume.

So what might explain the differences in trends in the delinquency rate and loan growth between these two asset classes? A good part of the story (in addition to tight mortgage credit) is that many potential low- and moderate-income borrowers do not believe they can get a mortgage. As a result, many don’t even bother to apply. We showed in our recently released report on Barriers to Accessing Homeownership that survey after survey shows that borrowers think they need far bigger down payments than they actually do. And there are many down payment assistance programs available. Moreover, it is still less expensive at the national level to own than to rent. This suggests that many LMI borrowers who are shying away from applying for a mortgage could benefit from financial education; with a better grasp of down payment facts and assistance opportunities, many of these families could be motivated to apply for mortgages and have the opportunity to build wealth. (5)

I am not sure if financial education is the whole answer here. Employment instability as well as generalized financial insecurity may be playing a bigger role in home purchases than in car purchases. The longer time horizon as well as the more serious consequences of a default with homeownership may be keeping people from stepping into the housing market. This is particularly true if renters have visions in their heads of family members or friends suffering during the long and lingering foreclosure crisis.

Single-Family Rental Securitizations Here To Stay?

photo by David McBee

Kroll Bond Rating Agency has released Single-Borrower SFR: Comprehensive Surveillance Report. It has lots of interesting tidbits about this new real estate finance sector (it has only been four years since its first securitization):

  • Six single-family rental operators own nearly 180,000 homes. (3)
  • Of the 33 SFR securitizations issued to date ($19.2 billion), nine deals ($4.6 billion) have been repaid in full without any interest shortfalls or principal losses. (4)
  • the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which regulates Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, announced that it had authorized Freddie Mac to enter the single-family rental sector on a limited basis to provide up to $1.0 billion of financing or loan guarantees. Freddie Mac reportedly is expected to focus on small-scale and midsize landlords that invest in SFR properties that the GSE considers to be affordable rental housing, not institutional issuers such as Invitation Homes, which owns and manages nearly 50,000 SFR properties. (5)
  • The largest five exposures account for 39.4% of the properties and include Atlanta (11,822 homes; 13.0%), which represents the CBSA with the greatest number of properties, followed by Tampa (6,374; 7.0%), Dallas (6,199; 6.8%), Phoenix (5,780; 6.3%), and Charlotte (5,733; 6.3%). (6)
  • The highest home price appreciation since issuance was observed in CAH 2014-1, at 30.7%. On average, collateral homes included in the outstanding transactions issued during 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 have appreciated in value by 25.0%, 18.0%, 8.7% and 3.2%, respectively. It is worth noting that the rate of the home price appreciation on a national basis and in the regions where the underlying homes are located has slowed in recent years. (7)
  • Since issuance, the underlying collateral has generally exhibited positive operating performance with the exception of expenses. Contractual rental rates have continued to increase, vacancy and tenant retention rates have remained relatively stable, and delinquency rates have remained low. Servicer reported operating expenses, however, continue to be higher than the issuer underwritten figures at securitization. (7)

Analysts did not believe that single-family rentals could be done at scale before the financial crisis. But investors were able to sweep up tens of thousands of homes on the cheap during the foreclosure crisis and the finances made a lot of sense. It will be interesting to see how this industry matures with home prices appreciating and expenses rising. I am not making any predictions, but I wonder when it will stop making sense for SFR operators to keep buying new homes.

Mortgage Servicing Since The Financial Crisis

photo by Dan Brown

Standard & Poors issued a report, A Decade After The Financial Crisis, What’s The New Normal For Residential Mortgage Servicing? It provides a good overview of how this hidden infrastructure of the mortgage market is functioning after it emerged from the crucible of the subprime and foreclosure crises. It reads, in part,

Ten years after the start of the financial crisis, residential mortgage servicing is finally settling into a new sense of normal. Before the crisis, mortgage servicing was a fairly static business. Traditional prime servicers had low delinquency rates, regulatory requirements rarely changed, and servicing systems were focused on core functions such as payment processing, investor accounting, escrow management, and customer service. Subprime was a specific market with specialty servicers, which used high-touch collection practices rather than the low-touch model prime servicers used. Workout options for delinquent borrowers mainly included repayment plans or extensions. And though servicers completed some modifications, short sales, and deeds in lieu of foreclosure, these were exceptions to the normal course of business.

Today, residential mortgage servicing involves complex regulation, increased mandatory workout options, and multiple layers of internal control functions. Over the past 10 years servicers have had to not only modify their processes, but also hire more employees and enhance their technology infrastructure and internal controls to support those new processes. As a result, servicing mortgage loans has become less profitable, which has caused loan servicers to consolidate and has created a barrier to entry for new servicers. While the industry expects reduced regulatory requirements under the Trump administration and delinquency rates to continue to fall, we do not foresee servicers reverting to pre-crisis operational processes. Instead, we expect states to maintain, and in some cases enhance, their regulatory requirements to fill the gap for any lifted or reduced at the federal level. Additionally, most mortgage loan servicers have already invested in new processes and technology, and despite the cost to support these and adapt to any additional requirements, we do not expect them to strip back the controls that have become their new normal. (2/10, citation omitted)

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As The Economy Improves, Delinquency Rates Have Become More Stable

Total delinquency rates have only just begun returning to around pre-crisis levels as the economy–and borrowers’ abilities to make their mortgage payments–has improved (see charts 1 and 2). Lower delinquency rates can also be attributed to delinquent accounts moving through the default management process, either becoming reperforming loans after modifications or through liquidation. New regulatory requirements have also extended workout timelines for delinquent accounts. In 2010, one year after 90-plus delinquency rates hit a high point, the percentage of prime and subprime loans in foreclosure actually surpassed the percentage that were more than 90 days delinquent–a trend that continued until 2013 for prime loans and 2014 for subprime loans. But since the end of 2014, all delinquency buckets have remained fairly stable, with overall delinquency rates for prime loans down to slightly over 4% for 2016 from a peak of just over 8% in 2009. Overall delinquency rates for subprime loans have fluctuated more since the peak at 29% in 2009. (2/10)

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Modifications Now Make Up About Half Of Loan Workout Strategies

Government agencies and government-sponsored enterprises (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) developed new formal modification programs beginning in 2008 to address the rising delinquency and foreclosure rates. The largest of these programs was HAMP, launched in March 2009. While HAMP was required for banks accepting funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), all servicers were allowed to participate. These programs required that servicers exhaust all loss mitigation options before completing foreclosure. This requirement, and the fact that servicers started receiving incentives to complete modifications, spurred the increase in modifications. (4/10)

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Foreclosure Timelines Have Become Longer

As the number of loans in foreclosure rose during the financial crisis, the requirements associated with the foreclosure process grew. As a result, the time it took to complete the foreclosure process increased to almost 475 days in 2016 from more than 160 days in 2007–an increase of almost 200%. While this is not a weighted average and therefore not adjusted for states with smaller or larger foreclosure portfolios, which could skew the average, the data show longer timelines across all states. And even though the percentage of loans in foreclosure has decreased in recent years (to 1% and 9% by the end of 2016 for prime and subprime, respectively, from peaks of 3% in 2010 and 13% in 2011) the time it takes to complete a foreclosure has still not lessened (6/10)

Running The CFPB out of Town

photo by Gabriel Villena Fernández

My latest column for The Hill is America’s Consumer Financial Sheriff and The Horse it Rides Are under Fire. It reads,

Notwithstanding its name, the Financial Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs Act, or Financial Choice Act, will be terrible for consumers. It will gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and return us to the Wild West days of the early 2000s where predatory lenders could prey on the elderly and the uneducated, knowing that there was no sheriff in town to stop ‘em.

The subprime boom of the early 2000s has receded in memory the past 15 years, but a recent Supreme Court decision reminds us of what that kind of predatory behavior could look like. In Bank of America Corp. v. Miami this year, the court ruled that a municipality could sue financial institutions for violations of the Fair Housing Act arising from predatory lending.

Miami alleged that the banks’ predatory lending led to a disproportionate increase in foreclosures and vacancies which decreased property tax revenues and increased the demand for municipal services. Miami alleged that those “‘predatory’ practices included, among others, excessively high interest rates, unjustified fees, teaser low-rate loans that overstated refinancing opportunities, large prepayment penalties, and — when default loomed — unjustified refusals to refinance or modify the loans.”

The Dodd-Frank Act was intended to address just those types of abusive practices. Dodd-Frank barred many of them from much of the mortgage market through its qualified mortgage and ability-to-repay rules. More importantly, Dodd-Frank created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB was designed to be an independent regulator with broad authority to police financial institutions that engaged in all sorts of consumer credit transactions. The CFPB was the new sheriff in town. And like Wyatt Earp, it has been very effective at driving the bad guys out of Dodge.

The Financial Choice Act would bring the abusive practices of the subprime boom back to life. The act would gut the CFPB. Among other things, it would make the Director removable at will, unlike other financial institution regulators. It would take away the CFPB’s supervisory function of large banks, credit unions and other consumer finance institutions. It would take away the CFPB’s power to address unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices. It would restrict the CFPB from monitoring the mortgage market and thereby responding to rapidly developing abusive practices.

The impacts on consumers will be immediate and harmful. The bad guys will know that the sheriff has been undercut by its masters, its guns loaded with blanks. The bad guys will re-enter the credit market with the sorts of products that brought about the subprime crisis: teaser rates that quickly morph into unaffordable payments, high costs and fees packed into credit products, and all sorts of terms that will result in exorbitant and unsustainable credit.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is the chief proponent of the Financial Choice Act. Hensarling claims that Dodd-Frank and the CFPB place massive burdens on consumer credit providers. That is not the case. Interest rates remain near all-time lows. Consumer credit markets have many providers. Credit availability has eased up significantly since the financial crisis

One only needs to look at his top donors to see how the Financial Choice Act lines up with the interests of those consumer credit companies that are paying for his re-election campaign. These top donors include people affiliated to Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Capital One Financial, Discover Financial Services, and the American Bankers Association, among many others.

Dodd-Frank implemented regulations that work very well in the consumer credit markets. It created a regulator, the CFPB, that has been very effective at keeping the bad guys out of those markets. The Financial Choice Act will seriously weaken the CFPB. When vulnerable consumers cry out for help, Hensarling would heave the CFPB over its saddle and let its horse slowly trot it out of town.

What Is at Stake with the FHA?

The Hill published my column, The Future of American Home Ownership Under President Trump. It reads, 

One of the Trump Administration’s first official actions was to reverse the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage insurance premium cut that was announced in the last days of President Obama’s term.  This is a pretty obscure action for Trump to lead with in his first week in office, so it is worth understanding what is at stake with the FHA and what it may tell about the future of homeownership in the United States. 

The FHA has roots that stretch back to the Great Depression.  It was created to provide liquidity in a mortgage market that was frozen over and to encourage consumer-friendly practices in the Wild West mortgage and home construction markets of the early 20th century.  It was a big success on both fronts

After the Great Depression, the federal government deployed the FHA to achieve a variety of other social goals, such as supporting civilian mobilization during World War II, helping veterans returning from the War, stabilizing urban housing markets during the 1960s, and expanding minority homeownership rates during the 1990s. It achieved success with some of these goals and had a terrible record with others, leading to high rates of default for some FHA programs.

In the last few years, there have been calls to significantly restrict the FHA’s activities because of some of its more recent failures. Trump’s policy decisions for the FHA will have a big impact on the nation’s homeownership rate, which is at its lowest in over 50 years. This is because the FHA is heavily relied upon by first-time homebuyers.

We do not yet have a good sense of how President Trump views the FHA because he had very little to say about housing policy during his campaign. And his choices to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, and the Treasury Department, Steven Mnuchin, had little to add on this subject during their Senate confirmation hearings.

The 2016 Republican Party Platform does, however, offer a sense of where we might be headed: “The Federal Housing Administration, which provides taxpayer-backed guarantees in the mortgage market, should no longer support high-income individuals, and the public should not be financially exposed by risks taken by FHA officials.”

This vague language refers to two concrete policies that have their roots in actions taken by the FHA during the Bush and Obama administrations. The reference to the support given to “high-income individuals” refers to the fact that Congress significantly raised FHA loan limits starting in 2008, so that the FHA could provide liquidity to a wider swath of the mortgage market. The GOP is right to question whether that the FHA still needs to provide insurance for $500,000 and more mortgages now that the market has stabilized.

The GOP’s statement that taxpayers “should not be financially exposed by risks taken by FHA officials” refers to the fact that the FHA had a lot of losses as a result of the financial crisis. These losses resulted in the FHA failing to meet its statutorily-required minimum capital ratio starting in 2009. In response to these losses, the FHA increased the mortgage insurance premiums it charged to borrowers.

While the FHA has been meeting its minimum capital ratio for the last couple of years, premiums have remained high compared to their pre-crisis levels. Thus, the GOP’s position appears to back off from support for homeownership, which has been a bipartisan goal for nearly 100 years.

The FHA should keep its premiums high enough to meet its capital requirements, but should otherwise promote homeownership with the lowest premiums it can responsibly charge. At the same time, FHA underwriting should be required to balance access to credit with households’ ability to make their mortgage payments over the long term. That way the FHA can extend credit responsibly to low- and moderate-income households while minimizing the likelihood of future bailouts by taxpayers.

This is the most responsible way for the Trump administration to rebuild sustainable homeownership for a large swath of Americans as we recover from the brutal and compounding effects of the subprime crisis, financial crisis and foreclosure crisis.

Mnuchin, When No One Is Watching

Alexander Hamilton

My latest column for The Hill is Hamilton Acted in Good Faith. Will Steven Mnuchin Do The Same? It reads:

UCLA’s legendary basketball coach John Wooden famously said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

Steven Mnuchin, another leading citizen of Los Angeles, is now in the spotlight as President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Running the Treasury Department requires financial know-how, which this former Goldman Sachs banker has in spades. But it also requires character, as a large part of the Treasury secretary’s job is to embody the good faith that the American people want the rest of the world to have in us.

In Alexander Hamilton’s Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit, written just after he became the first U.S. Treasury secretary, he notes that the government must maintain public credit “by good faith, by a punctual performance of contracts. States, like individuals, who observe their engagements, are respected and trusted, while the reverse is the fate of those, who pursue an opposite conduct.”

OneWest’s actions during Mnuchin’s tenure as chief executive officer raise questions about whether Mnuchin has demonstrated the character necessary to be a worthy successor to Hamilton.

A recently disclosed memo by lawyers at California’s Office of the Attorney General documents a pattern of bad faith toward homeowners with OneWest mortgages. The memo documents evidence of widespread wrongdoing that helped the bank and hurt the homeowners. The evidence includes the backdating of notarized and recorded documents in 99.6 percent of the examined mortgage files and unlawful credit bids and substitutions of trustees in 16.0 percent of those files.

These are not merely technical violations. They shortened the time that homeowners had to get their mortgages back in good standing and they violated a number of procedural protections for homeowners facing non-judicial foreclosures.

Non-judicial foreclosures give lenders the ability to bypass the courts so long as they strictly abide by the procedural protections set forth by statute. Non-judicial foreclosures can only maintain their legitimacy if lenders respect those procedural protections. This is because there is no judge to make sure that the procedural protections are being adhered to. Without them, a homeowner can be no more than a sheep being led to the financial slaughterhouse of an improper foreclosure.

Some bankers have argued that focusing on violations of mortgage terms is overly legalistic, and beside the point given the widespread defaults during the financial crisis. It isn’t. The violations documented in the memo benefited the bank and harmed homeowners by allowing foreclosures to occur faster than they would if the formalities were followed.

They also allowed the bank to avoid paying various taxes relating to the sale of foreclosed properties. Some of the violations documented in the memo can result in felony convictions, which shows just how seriously California views the procedural requirements relating to non-judicial foreclosures. Ultimately, California’s then-Attorney General (and now U.S. Senator) Kamala Harris, chose not to file this complex lawsuit, but the memo’s findings are disturbing nonetheless.

As Hamilton knew, acting in good faith, performing agreements as they are written and keeping promises lead to respect and trust, “while the reverse is the fate of those, who pursue an opposite conduct.” The American people deserve a leader at Treasury with those traits, one who cherishes the rule of law as the basis of a both a healthy market economy and a well-functioning democratic government.

Other nations expect that we meet this standard, too. If they see us as just another bully on the world stage, we will lose our ability to lead by example. Members of the Senate Finance Committee should ask Mnuchin whether his actions at OneWest met the standard set forth by Hamilton.

We won’t be in the rooms where important decisions happen, so we need to have confidence in how Mnuchin will act when he thinks that no one is watching.