FHFA’s Strategic Plan for Fannie and Freddie

The Federal Housing Finance Agency released its Strategic Plan for fiscal years 2018-2022 for public input. As discussed in yesterday’s post, Director Watt is very focused on maintaining the health of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Strategic Plan reiterates that focus:

As conservator of the Enterprises, FHFA will also promote stability by working to preserve and conserve the Enterprises’ assets and business operations. Additionally, FHFA will encourage the Enterprises and the housing industry to adopt standards and practices that promote market and stakeholder confidence. (8)

The Plan goes into depth to describe the FHFA’s role as conservator:

The Enterprises were placed into conservatorships in September 2008 in the midst of a severe financial crisis. Their ongoing participation in the housing finance market has been an important factor in maintaining market liquidity and stability. Conservatorship permitted the U.S. Government to take greater control over management of the Enterprises and gave investors in the Enterprises’ debt and MBS confidence that the Enterprises would have the capacity to honor their financial obligations. As conservator, FHFA establishes restrictions and expectations for the Enterprises’ boards and for their managements while authorizing them to conduct the Enterprises’ day-to-day operations.

As detailed earlier, FHFA’s authority as both regulator and conservator of the Enterprises is based upon statutory mandates. FHFA, acting as regulator and conservator, must follow the mandates assigned to it by statute and the missions assigned to the Enterprises by their charters. Congress may choose to revise the statutory mandates governing the Enterprises at any time.

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The Enterprises are also parties to PSPAs with the Treasury Department. Under the PSPAs, the Enterprises are provided U.S. taxpayer backing with explicit dollar limits. The PSPA commitment still available to Fannie Mae is $117.6 billion and the commitment still available to Freddie Mac is $140.5 billion. Additional draws would reduce these commitments, and dividend payments do not replenish or increase the commitments under the terms of the PSPAs. Starting in 2013, the PSPAs provided each Enterprise with a capital buffer of $3 billion to protect each Enterprise against making additional draws of taxpayer support in the event of an operating loss in any quarter, and the PSPAs provide mandated declines of $600 million each year to these capital buffers. On January 1, 2017, each Enterprise’s capital buffer declined to $600 million and the capital buffer is scheduled to decline to zero on January 1, 2018.

FHFA continues to encourage Congress to complete the important work of housing finance reform. FHFA has reiterated the urgency of reform and that it is up to Congress to determine what future, if any, the Enterprises will have in the future housing finance system. (16-17)

Reading between the lines, I see the FHFA under Watt doing whatever it has to in order to maintain stability and liquidity in the mortgage markets. If Congress does not act, if the Treasury does not act, I think that Director Watt will go it alone and do what it takes to maintain Fannie and Freddie’s reputation with mortgage lenders and MBS investors.

The Housing Market Under Trump

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

TheStreet.com quoted me in Interest Rates Likely to Rise Under Trump, Could Affect Confidence of Homebuyers. It opens,

Interest rates should increase gradually during the next four years under a Donald Trump administration, which could dampen growth in the housing industry, economists and housing experts predict.

The 10-year Treasury rose over the 2% threshold on Wednesday for the first time in several months, driving mortgage rates higher with the 30-year conventional rate rising to 3.73% according to Bankrate.com. Mortgage pricing is tied to the 10-year Treasury.

Housing demand will remain flat with a rise in interest rates as many first-time homebuyers will be saddled with more debt, said Peter Nigro, a finance professor at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I.

“With first-time homebuyers more in debt due to student loans, I don’t expect much growth in home purchasing,” he said.

Interest rates will also be affected by the size of the fiscal stimulus since additional infrastructure spending and associated debt “could push interest rates up through the issuance of more government debt,” Nigro said.

Even if interest rates spike in the next year, banks will not benefit, because there is a lack of demand, said Peter Borish, chief strategist with Quad Group, a New York-based financial firm. The economy is slowing down, and consumers have already borrowed money at very “cheap” interest rates, he said.

The policies set forth by a Trump administration will lead to contractionary results and will not spur additional growth in the housing market.

“I prefer to listen to the markets,” Borish said. “This will put downward pressure on the prices in the market. Everyone complained about Dodd-Frank, but why is JPMorgan Chase’s stock at all time highs?”

An interest rate increase could still occur in December, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based real estate company. With nearly five weeks before the December Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, the market can contemplate the potential outcomes.

“While the market is now indicating a reduced probability of a short-term rate hike at that meeting, the Fed has repeatedly indicated that they would be data-driven in their decision,” he said in a written statement. “If the markets calm down and November employment data look solid on December 2, a rate hike could still happen. The market moves yesterday are already indicating that financial markets are pondering that the Trump effect could be positive for the economy.

“The Fed is likely to start increasing the federal funds rate at a “much faster pace starting next year,” said K.C. Sanjay, chief economist for Axiometrics, a Dallas-based apartment market and student housing research firm. “This will cause single-family mortgage rates to increase slightly, however they will remain well below the long-term average.”

Since Trump has remained mum on many topics, including housing, predicting a short-term outlook is challenging. One key factor is the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who are the main players in the mortgage market, because they own or guarantee over $4 trillion in mortgages, remain in conservatorship and “play a critical role in keeping mortgage rates down through the now explicit subsidy or government backing which allows them to raise funds more cheaply,” Nigro said.

It is unlikely any changes will occur with them, because “Trump has not articulated a plan to deal with them and coming up with a plan to deal with these giants is unlikely,” he said.

Trump could attempt to take on government sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, said Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist for Trulia, a San Francisco-based real estate website.

“If he does, it’s going to be a hairy endeavor for him, because he’ll need bipartisan support to do so,” he said.

Since he has alluded to ending government conservatorship and allowing government sponsored enterprises to “recapitalize by allowing retention of their own profits instead of passing them on to the Treasury,” the result is that banks could have their liquidity and lending activity increase, which could help boost demand for homes, McLaughlin said.

“We caution President-elect Trump that he would also need to simultaneously help address housing supply, which has been at a low point over the past few years,” he said. “The difficulty for him is that most of the impediments to new housing supply rest and the state and local levels, not the federal.”

Even on Trump’s campaign website, there is “next to nothing” about his ideas on housing, said David Reiss, a law professor at the Brooklyn Law School in New York. The platform of the Republican Party and Vice President-elect Mike Pence could mean that the federal government will have a smaller footprint in the mortgage market.

“There will be a reduction in the federal government’s guaranty of mortgages, and this will likely increase the interest rates charged on mortgages, but will reduce the likelihood of taxpayer bailouts,” he said. “Fannie and Freddie will likely have fewer ties to the federal government and the FHA is likely to be limited to the lower end of the mortgage market.”

Who are Fannie and Freddie?

photo by Mark Warner

Realtor.com quoted me in What Is Fannie Mae? And Freddie Mac, for That Matter? It opens,

Whether you are shopping for a mortgage or just occasionally read financial news stories, you’ve probably heard of Fannie Mae. But what is Fannie Mae, anyway? And for that matter, what about her buddy Freddie Mac? While they may sound like a Nashville singer and standup comic, respectively, they aren’t actual people. Rather, they’re oddly cute nicknames for major forces in the mortgage market.

Fannie Mae stands for the Federal National Mortgage Association, or FNMA (FNMA becomes Fannie Mae, get it?). Fannie’s brother organization is Freddie Mac, aka the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, or FHLMC. In a nutshell, these two government-sponsored enterprises—hybrids of government agencies and private corporations—help thousands of Americans get loans for homes, so it pays to familiarize yourself with what they do in more detail.

How Fannie and Freddie help homeowners

Fannie Mae was born in 1938, during the height of the Great Depression, when about 25% of Americans were defaulting on their mortgages. As part of the New Deal, the federal government created Fannie (followed by Freddie in 1970) to stimulate the housing market by making mortgages more accessible to lower-income borrowers who might not qualify otherwise. So how do they do that, exactly?

For starters, Fannie and Freddie don’t actually make loans—which is why you may have only heard about them in vague terms, since you wouldn’t approach them directly for a mortgage. Instead, these organizations purchase other lenders’ loans on the secondary market, package them (into mortgage-backed securities), and sell them to investors such as hedge funds.

By buying up banks’ loans, Fannie and Freddie essentially flood those companies with cash, which they can then turn around and lend to more home buyers. This, in turn, helps more buyers get homes who might not qualify otherwise.

“They are the behemoths of the housing finance sector, owning or guaranteeing nearly half of all the residential mortgages in the United States,” says David Reiss, professor of law and academic program director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.

FHFA Wins on “Actual Knowledge”

Judge Cote issued an Opinion and Order in Federal Housing Finance Agency v. HSBC North America Holdings Inc., et al. (11-cv-06189 July 25, 2014). The opinion and order granted the FHFA’s motion for partial summary judgment concerning whether Fannie and Freddie knew of the falsity of various representations contained in offering documents for residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) issued by the remaining defendants in the case.

I found there to be three notable aspects of this lengthy opinion. First, it provides a detailed exposition of the process by which Fannie and Freddie purchased mortgages from the defendants (who included most of the major Wall Street firms, although many of them have settled out of the case by now). it goes into great length about how loans were underwritten and how originators and aggregators reviewed them as they were evaluated  as potential collateral for RMBS issuances.

Second, it goes into great detail about the discovery battle in a high, high-stakes dispute with very well funded parties. While not of primary interest to readers of this blog, it is amazing to see just how much of a slog discovery can be in a complex matter like this.

Finally, it demonstrates the importance of litigating with common sense in mind. Judge Cote was clearly put off by the inconsistent arguments of the defendants. She writes, with clear frustration,

It bears emphasis that at this late stage — long after the close of fact discovery and as the parties prepare their Pretrial Orders for three of these four cases — Defendants continue to argue both that their representations were true and that underwriting defects, inflated appraisals and borrower fraud were so endemic as to render their representations obviously false to the GSEs. Using the example just given, Goldman Sachs argues both that Fannie Mae knew that the percentage of loans with an LTV ratio below 80% was not 67%, but also that the true figure was, in fact, 67%. (65)

Servicer Safety & Soundness and Consumer Protection

The FHFA’s Inspector General issued an audit, FHFA Actions to Manage Enterprise Risks from Nonbank Servicers Specializing in Troubled Mortgages. The audit identified two major risks in the current environment:

  • Using short-term financing to buy servicing rights for troubled mortgage loans that may only begin to pay out after long-term work to resolve their difficulties. This practice can jeopardize the companies’ operations and also the Enterprises’ timely payment guarantees and reputation for loans they back; and
  • Assuming responsibilities for servicing large volumes of mortgage loans that may be beyond what their infrastructures can handle. For example, of the 30 largest mortgage servicers, those that were not banks held a 17% share of the mortgage servicing market at the end of 2013, up from 9% at the end of 2012, and 6% at the end of 2011. This rise in nonbank special servicers has been accompanied by consumer complaints, lawsuits, and other regulatory actions as the servicers’ workload outstrips their processing capacity. (1-2)

The audit notes that “nonbank special servicers do not have a prudential safety and soundness regulator at the federal level for their mortgage servicing operations.” (6)

I think the important story here is more about consumer protection than it is about safety and soundness regulation. That is not to say that the Inspector General’s audit ignored consumer protection. Indeed, it it does spend a significant amount of time addressing that topic, noting that other federal regulators such as the CFPB have also zeroed in on the impact that non-bank servicers have on consumers.

But the safety and soundness risks may a bit overblown. A significant number of consumers, on the other hand, continue to be treated poorly, poorly, poorly by servicers.

Reiss on GSE Transfer Taxes

Law360 quoted me in Fannie, Freddie Look Unstoppable In Transfer Tax Fight (behind a paywall).  It reads in part,

Class actions against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid transfer taxes in states and cities around the country continue to pile up, but experts say any attempt to challenge the housing giants’ exempt status is likely futile as court after court rules in their favor.

The Eighth Circuit on Friday joined the Third, Fourth, Sixth and Seventh circuits in ruling that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are exempt from local transfer taxes when it ruled in favor of the government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs, after reviewing a suit brought by Swift County, Minnesota.

Swift County, as with a multitude of counties, municipalities and states before it, sought to dispute Fannie and Freddie’s claim that while they must pay property taxes, they are exempt from additional taxes on transfers of assets. But in what some experts say has come to seem like an inevitable answer, the Eighth Circuit found in favor of Fannie and Freddie.

“The federal statutes that set forth the charters of Fannie and Freddie are pretty clear that the two companies have a variety of regulatory privileges that other companies don’t,” David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, said. “One of the privileges is an exemption from nearly all state and local taxation.”

The legal onslaught against the GSEs began in 2012 after U.S. District Judge Victoria A. Roberts ruled in March that they should not be considered federal agencies. In a suit filed by Oakland County, Michigan, over millions in unpaid transfer taxes, Judge Roberts rejected the charter exemption argument and, citing a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Wells Fargo, found that “all taxation” refers only to direct taxes and not excise taxes like those imposed on asset transfers.

Counties, municipalities and states across the country were emboldened by the decision. Putative class actions soon followed in West Virginia, Illinois, Minnesota, Florida, Rhode Island, Georgia and elsewhere as plaintiffs rushed to see if they could elicit a similar ruling and recoup millions of dollars allegedly lost thanks to the inability to tax Fannie and Freddie’s mortgage foreclosure operations.

But Judge Roberts’ decision was later overturned by the Sixth Circuit, as were other similar orders, though many district judges found in favor of Fannie and Freddie from the start.

*     *    *

Many cases remain in the lower courts as well, but experts say the outcomes will likely echo those that played out in the Third, Fourth Sixth, Seventh and Eighth circuits, because the defendants’ chartered exemption defense appears waterproof.

“I find the circuit court decisions unsurprising and consistent with the letter and spirit of the law,” Reiss said. “I am guessing that other federal courts will follow this trend.”

Tough Row to Hoe for Frannie Shareholders

Inside Mortgage Finance quoted me in a story, GSE Jr. Preferred Shareholders Have a Tough ‘Row to Hoe’ in Winning Their Lawsuits (behind a paywall). It reads,

Expect a long and winding legal road to resolution of investor lawsuits challenging the Treasury Department’s “net worth sweep” of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac earnings, warn legal experts.

More than a dozen lawsuits filed against the government – including hedge funds Perry Capital and Fairholme Capital Management – are pending in federal district court in Washington, DC, and in the Court of Federal Claims. The private equity plaintiffs allege that the Treasury’s change in the dividend structure of its preferred stock leaves the government-sponsored enterprises with no funds to pay anything to junior shareholders.

The complaints raise complex constitutional and securities law issues, according to Emily Hamburger, a litigation analyst for Bloomberg Industries. “It may be a year before the crucial questions can be answered by the courts because the parties are still in the early stages of gathering evidence,” explained Hamburger during a recent webinar.

Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss agrees. “The plaintiffs, in the main, argue that the federal government has breached its duties to preferred shareholders, common shareholders, and potential beneficiaries of a housing trust fund authorized by the same statute that authorized their conservatorships. At this early stage, it appears that the plaintiffs have a tough row to hoe,” notes Reiss in a draft paper examining the GSE shareholder lawsuits.

Government attorneys argue that Treasury has authority to purchase Fannie and Freddie stock when it’s determined such actions are necessary to provide stability to the financial markets, prevent disruptions in the availability of mortgage finance and protect the taxpayer. The government also argues that the plaintiffs do not have a legal property interest for purposes of a Fifth Amendment “takings” claim due to the GSEs’ status in conservatorship.

Hamburger predicted that the judges in the various suits won’t be able to ignore the “obvious equitable tensions” involved. “The government is changing the terms years after their bailout, but on the other hand, the timing and motivation of investors is going to be challenged too,” she noted.

While Reiss agrees that the junior shareholders “look like they are receiving a raw deal from the federal government,” it’s a tall order to sue the federal government even under the most favorable of circumstances. The plaintiffs will have to overcome the government’s sovereign immunity, unless it is waived, and the government has additional defenses, including immunity from Administrative Procedures Act claims, under the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008.

Reiss explained that HERA states that except “at the request of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, no court may take any action to restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of [FHFA] as conservator or receiver.” It remains to be seen how this language might apply to Treasury’s change in the preferred stock agreement, but Reiss said it could be read to give the government broad authority to address the financial situation of the two companies.

“The litigation surrounding GSE conservatorship raises all sorts of issues about the federal government’s involvement in housing finance,” said Reiss. “These issues are worth setting forth as the proper role of these two companies in the housing finance system is still very much up in the air.”

The full paper, An Overview of the Fannie and Freddie Conservatorship Litigation (SSRN link), can also be found on BePress.