Rising Rates and The Mortgage Market

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance at a Glance Chartbook for March focuses on how rising interest rates have been impacting the mortgage market. The chartbook makes a series of excellent points about current trends, although homeowners and homebuyers should keep in mind that rates remain near historic lows:

As mortgage rates have increased, there has been no shortage of articles explaining the effect of rising rates on the mortgage market. Mortgage rates began their present sustained increase immediately after the last presidential election in November 2016, 20 months ago. Enough data points have become available during thisperiod that we can now measure the effects of rising rates. Below we outline a few.

Refinances: The most immediate impact of rising rates is on refinance volumes, which fall as rates rise. For mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the refinance share of total originations declined from 63 percent in Nov 2016 to 46 percent today (page 11). For FHA, VA and USDA-insured mortgages, the refinance share dropped from 44 percent to 35 percent. In terms of volume, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac backed refinance volume totaled $390 billion in 2017, down from $550 billion in 2016. For Ginnie Mae, refi volume dropped from $197 billion in 2016 to $136 billion in 2017. Looking ahead, most estimates for 2018 point to a continued reduction in the refi share and origination volumes (page 15).

Originator profitability: Of course, less demand for mortgages isn’t good for originator profitability because lenders need to compete harder to attract borrowers. They do this often by reducing profit margins as rates rise (conversely, when rates are falling and everyone is rushing to refinance, lenders tend to respond by increasing their profit margins). Indeed, since Nov 2016, originator profitability has declined from $2.6 per $100 of loans originated to $1.93 today (page 16). Post crisis originator profitability reached as high as $5 per $100 loan in late 2012, when rates were at their lowest point.

Cash-out share: Another consequence of falling refinance volumes is the rising share of cash-out refinances. The share of cash-out refinances varies partly because borrowers’ motivations change with interest rates. When rates are low, the primary goal of refinancing is to reduce the monthly payment. Cash-out share tends to be low during such periods. But when rates are high, borrowers have no incentive to refinance for rate reasons. Those who still refinance tend to be driven more by their desire to cash-out (although this doesn’t mean that the volume is also high). As such, cash-out share of refinances increased to 63 percent in Q4 2017 according to Freddie Mac Quarterly Refinance Statistics. The last time cash-out share was this high was in 2008.

Industry consolidation: A longer-term impact of rising rates is industry consolidation: not every lender can afford to cut profitability. Larger, diversified originators are more able to accept lower margins because they can make up for it through other lines of business or simply accept lower profitability for some time. Smaller lenders may not have such flexibility and may find it necessary to merge with another entity. Industry consolidation due to higher rates is not easy to quantify as firms can merge or get acquired for various reasons. At the same time, one can’t ignore New Residential Investment’s recent acquisition of Shellpoint Partners and Ocwen’s purchase of PHH. (5)

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.

Bringing Housing Finance Reform over the Finish Line

photo by LarryWeisenberg

Mike Milkin at Milkin Institute Global Conference

The Milkin Institute have released Bringing Housing Finance Reform over the Finish Line. It opens,

The housing finance reform debate has once again gained momentum with the goal of those involved to move forward with bipartisan legislation in 2018 that results in a safe, sound, and enduring housing finance system.

While there is no shortage of content on the topic, two different conceptual approaches to reforming the secondary mortgage market structure are motivating legislative discussions. The first is a model in which multiple guarantor firms purchase mortgages from originators and aggregators and then bundle them into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) backed by a secondary federal guarantee that pays out only after private capital arranged by each guarantor takes considerable losses (the multiple-guarantor model). This approach incorporates several elements from the 2014 Johnson-Crapo Bill and a subsequent plan developed by the Mortgage Bankers Association. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs)—would continue as guarantors, but would face new competition and would no longer enjoy a government guarantee of their corporate debt or other government privileges and protections.

The second housing finance reform plan is based on a multiple-issuer, insurance-based model originally proposed by Ed DeMarco and Michael Bright at the Milken Institute, and builds on the existing Ginnie Mae system (the DeMarco/Bright model). In this model, Ginnie Mae would provide a full faith and credit wrap on MBS issued by approved issuers and backed by loan pools that are credit-enhanced either by (i) a government program such as the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) or U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), or (ii) Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)- approved private credit enhancers that arrange for the required amounts of private capital to take on housing credit risk ahead of the government guarantee. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would be passed through receivership and reconstituted as credit enhancement entities mutually owned by their seller/servicers.

While the multiple guarantor and DeMarco/Bright models differ in many ways, they share important common features; both address key elements of housing finance reform that any effective legislation must embrace. In the remainder of this paper, we first identify these key reform elements. We then assess some common features of the two models that satisfy or advance these elements. The final section delves more deeply into the operational challenges of translating into legislative language specific reform elements that are shared by or unique to one of the two models. Getting housing finance reform right requires staying true to high-level critical reform elements while ensuring that technical legislative requirements make economic and operational sense.  (2-3, footnotes omitted)

The report does a good job of outlining areas of broad (not universal, just broad) agreement on housing finance reform, including

  • The private sector must be the primary source of mortgage credit and bear the primary burden for credit losses.
  • There must be an explicit federal backstop after private capital.
  • Credit must remain available in times of market stress.
  • Private firms benefiting from access to a government backstop must be subject to strong oversight. (4-5)

We are still far from having a legislative fix to the housing finance system, but it is helpful to have reports like this to focus us on where there is broad agreement so that legislators can tackle the areas where the differences remain.

The Next Taxpayer Bailout for the Mortgage Market?

 

 

The HUD Office of the Inspector General issued an audit on Nonbank Oversight by Ginnie Mae. This audit is one of those dry government documents that contain whispers of crises to come. The worrisome sentence is buried at the end of the audit: “If disruption in servicing occurs, Ginnie Mae may need to request additional funds from the U.S. Treasury to pay investors.” (8) To understand what is at stake, it is worth reviewing the background of the audit:

The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 created the Government National Mortgage Association (Ginnie Mae), a wholly owned U.S. Government corporation within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to pursue the creation of a mortgage-backed security market for government-insured loans. Through its mortgage-backed securities programs, Ginnie Mae guarantees securities backed by pools of mortgages and issued by mortgage lenders approved by Ginnie Mae. Ginnie Mae refers to these mortgage lenders as Ginnie Mae issuers.

Ginnie Mae depends on its issuers to take full responsibility for servicing, remitting, and reporting activities for the mortgages in every pool. If the borrower fails to make a timely payment on its mortgage, the issuer must use its own funds to ensure that the investors receive timely payment. If an issuer cannot ensure the timely payment of principal and interest to investors, Ginnie Mae, in accordance with its guaranty, defaults the issuer, acquires the servicing of the loans, and uses its own funds to manage the portfolio and make any necessary advances to investors. Ginnie Mae’s risk for loss occurs almost entirely at the point of issuer default, when Ginnie Mae must step in and exercise its guaranty. Counterparty risk refers to the risk of issuer default.

Following the financial crisis, the demand for government-insured loans increased, which created an increased demand for Ginnie Mae’s product. Ginnie Mae’s total remaining principal outstanding increased from $427.6 billion in 2007 to $1.7 trillion in 2016. This represents a 300 percent increase. The chart below shows the growth of the outstanding remaining principal balance of Ginnie Mae’s mortgage-backed securities programs from 2007 to 2016.

In addition to an increase in demand for Ginnie Mae’s products, Ginnie Mae’s issuer base had shifted dramatically since the financial crisis. Banks retreated from mortgage lending, causing a shift in Ginnie Mae’s issuer base from banks to nonbanks. For the purpose of this report, a bank refers to an institution licensed to receive deposits and make loans, whereas a nonbank refers to institutions that offer only mortgage-related services. In 2014, Ginnie Mae reported that 6 of its top 10 issuers were nonbanks. The chart below illustrates the shift in Ginnie Mae’s issuer base since 2010.

When banks dominated Ginnie Mae’s issuer base, Ginnie Mae outsourced a significant portion of its risk management to bank regulators, such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Reserve, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the National Credit Union Association. While the Consumer Financial Protections Bureau regulates nonbanks for consumerrelated issues, nonbanks are not subject to the same safety and soundness regulation as banks. No equivalent regulator exists for nonbanks. Therefore, Ginnie Mae must function as the first line of defense to evaluate nonbank institutions for financial and operational soundness. Ginnie Mae’s Office of Issuer and Portfolio Management is responsible for overseeing Ginnie Mae issuers concerning all matters related to participation in its mortgage-backed security programs, including monitoring issuer participation and executing issuer defaults.

Unlike banking institutions, nonbanks tend to have complex financial and operating structures and frequently use subservicers instead of servicing the loans in their portfolios. Additionally, nonbanks rely on credit lines for funding, which may limit a nonbank’s access to liquidity to meet the financial obligations of being a Ginnie Mae issuer. Banking institutions have standardized corporate ownership and lines of business, substantial liquidity, and the ability to service the loans in their portfolios.

Our audit objective was to determine whether Ginnie Mae responded adequately to changes in its issuer base. (3-4, charts omitted)

Unfortunately, the audit found that Ginnie Mae has come up short in dealing with the risks that it now faces. Time will tell whether it meaningfully responds to these deficiencies.

Three Paths to Housing Finance Reform

photo by theilr

The Urban Institute’s Jim Parrott has posted Clarifying the Choices in Housing Finance Reform. It opens,

The housing finance reform debate has often foundered under the weight of its complexity. Not only is it a complicated topic, both in its substance and its politics, but the way that we talk about it makes the issues involved indecipherable to all but a few. Each proponent brings a different nomenclature, a different frame of reference, often an entirely different language, making it enormously difficult to sort through where there is agreement and where there is not.

As a case in point, three prominent proposals for reform have been put on the table in recent months: one offered by Lew Ranieri, Gene Sperling, Mark Zandi, Barry Zigas, and me (Promising Road Proposal); one offered by Ed DeMarco and Michael Bright (Milken Proposal); and one offered by the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA Proposal). These proposals have been discussed and debated in many forums, each assessed for its respective merits, risks, and likelihood of passage in Congress, but each largely in isolation from one another. That is, they are not compared in any intelligible way, forcing those hoping to come to an informed view to choose among what appear to be entirely different visions of reform, without any easy way to make sense of the choice.

In this brief essay, I thus bring these three proposals together into a single framework, making it clearer what they share and where they differ. Once the explanatory fog is lifted, one can see that they actually share a great deal and that deciding among them is not prohibitively complex, but a matter of assessing two or three key differences. (1-2)

After a review of each proposal, Parrott finds that there are two critical differences between the three proposals.

  • Ginnie versus CSP. For the securitization infrastructure in the new system, Milken uses the Ginnie Mae infrastructure, while the MBA and our proposal both use the CSP.
  • What to do with Fannie and Freddie. The MBA would turn them into privately owned utilities that compete with other market participants over the distribution of the system’s non-catastrophic credit risk, Milken would turn them into lender-owned mutuals that do the same, and we would combine them with the CSP to distribute that risk and manage the system’s securitization.

With these distinctions in mind, the proposals can be much more easily compared across the criteria that should ultimately drive our decisions on housing finance reform:

  • Access to sustainable credit. Which best maintains broad access to mortgage loans for those in a financial position to be a homeowner at the lowest rates?
  • Protecting the taxpayer. Which best insulates taxpayers behind private capital, aligns incentives systemwide and addresses the too-big-to-fail risk that undermined the prior system?
  • Promoting healthy competition. Which best maximizes the kinds of competition that will improve options and services for consumers, lenders, and investors?
  • Ease of transition. Which provides the least disruptive, least costly path of reform? (7-8)

This is a very useful tool for understanding the choices that we face if we are to move beyond the limbo of Fannie and Freddie’s conservatorships.  One limitation is that Parrott does not address the Hensarling wing of the Republican Party which is looking to completely privatize the housing finance system for conforming mortgages. Given that Hensarling is the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee, he will have a powerful role in enacting any reform legislation.

I am not all that hopeful that Congress will be able to come up with a bill that can pass both houses in the near future.  But Parrott’s roadmap is helpful preparation for when we are ready.

Investing in Mortgage-Backed Securities

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

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.”

The End of Private-Label Securities?

Steve Jurvetson

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase

J.P. Morgan’s Securitized Products Weekly has a report, Proposed FRTB Ruling Endangers ABS, CMBS and Non-Agency RMBS Markets. This is one of those technical studies that have a lot of real world relevance to those of us concerned about the housing markets more generally.

The report analyzes proposed capital rules contained in the Fundamental Review of the Trading Book (FRTB). JPMorgan believes that these proposed rules would make the secondary trading in residential mortgage-backed securities unprofitable. It also believes that “there is no sector that escapes unscathed; capital will rise dramatically across all securitized product sectors, except agency MBS.” (1) It concludes that “[u]ltimately, in its current form, the FRTB would damage the availability of credit to consumers, reduce lending activity in the form of commercial mortgage and set back private securitization, entrenching the GSEs as the primary securitization vehicle in the residential mortgage market.” (1)

JPMorgan finds that the the impact of these proposed regulations on non-agency residential-mortgage backed securities (jumbos and otherwise) “is so onerous that we wonder if this was the actual intent of the regulators.” Without getting too technical, the authors thought “that the regulators simply had a mathematical mistake in their calculation (and were off by a factor of 100, but unfortunately this is what was intended.” (4) Because these capital rules “would make it highly unattractive for dealers to hold inventory in non-agency securities,” JPMorgan believes that they threaten the entire non-agency RMBS market. (5)

The report concludes with a policy takeaway:

Policymakers have at various times advocated for GSE reform in which the private sector (and private capital) would play a larger role. However, with such high capital requirements under the proposal — compared with capital advantages for GSE securities and a negligible amount of capital for the GSEs themselves — we believe this proposal would significantly set back private securitization, entrenching the GSEs as the primary securitization vehicle in the mortgage market. (5, emphasis removed)

I am not aware if JPMorgan’s concerns are broadly held, so it would important to hear others weigh in on this topic.

If the proposed rule is adopted, it is likely not to be implemented for a few years.  As a result, there is plenty of time to get the right balance between safety and soundness on the one hand and credit availability on the other. While the private-label sector has been a source of trouble in the past, particularly during the subprime boom, it is not in the public interest to put an end to it:  it has provided capital to the jumbo sector and provides much needed competition to Fannie, Freddie and Ginnie.