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.

Credit Risk Transfer and Financial Crises

photo by Dean Hochman

Susan Wachter posted Credit Risk Transfer, Informed Markets, and Securitization to SSRN. It opens,

Across countries and over time, credit expansions have led to episodes of real estate booms and busts. Ten years ago, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the most recent of these, began with the Panic of 2007. The pricing of MBS had given no indication of rising credit risk. Nor had market indicators such as early payment default or delinquency – higher house prices censored the growing underlying credit risk. Myopic lenders, who believed that house prices would continue to increase, underpriced credit risk.

In the aftermath of the crisis, under the Dodd Frank Act, Congress put into place a new financial regulatory architecture with increased capital requirements and stress tests to limit the banking sector’s role in the amplification of real estate price bubbles. There remains, however, a major piece of unfinished business: the reform of the US housing finance system whose failure was central to the GFC. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), put into conservatorship under the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA) of 2008, await a mandate for a new securitization structure. The future state of the housing finance system in the US is still not resolved.

Currently, US taxpayers back almost all securitized mortgages through the GSEs and Ginnie Mae. While pre-crisis, private label securitization (PLS) had provided a significant share of funding for mortgages, since 2007, PLS has withdrawn from the market.

The appropriate pricing of mortgage backed securities can discourage lending if risk rises, and, potentially, can limit housing bubbles that are enabled by excess credit. Securitization markets, including the over the counter market for residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) and the ABX securitization index, failed to do this in the housing bubble years 2003-2007.

GSEs have recently developed Credit Risk Transfers (CRTs) to trade and price credit risk. The objective is to bring private market discipline to bear on risk taking in securitized lending. For the CRT market to accomplish this, it must avoid the failures of financial assets to price risk. Are prerequisites for this in place? (2, references omitted)

Wachter partially answers this question in her conclusion:

CRT markets, if appropriately structured, can signal a heightened likelihood of systemic risk. Capital markets failed to do this in the run-up to the financial crisis, due to misaligned incentives and shrouded information. With sufficiently informed and appropriately structured markets, CRTs can provide market based discovery of the pricing of risk, and, with appropriate regulatory and guarantor response, can advance the stability of mortgage finance markets. (10)

Credit risk transfer has not yet been tested by a serious financial crisis. Wachter is right to bring a spotlight on it now, before events in the mortgage market overtake us.

Mortgage Bankers and GSE Reform

photo by Daniel Case

The Mortgage Bankers Association has released GSE Reform Principles and Guardrails. It opens,

This paper serves as an introduction to MBA’s recommended approach to GSE reform. Its purpose is to outline what MBA views as the key components of an end state, the principles that MBA believes should be incorporated in any future system, the “guardrails” we believe are necessary in our end state, as well as emphasize the need to ensure a smooth transition to the new secondary mortgage market. (1)

While there is very little that is new in this document, it is useful, nonetheless, as a statement of the industry’s position. The MBA has promulgated the following principles for housing finance reform:

  • The 30-year, fixed-rate, pre-payable single-family mortgage and longterm financing for multifamily mortgages should be preserved.
  • A deep, liquid TBA market for conventional single-family loans must be maintained. Eligible MBS backed by a well-defined pool of single-family mortgages or multifamily mortgages should receive an explicit government guarantee, funded by appropriately priced insurance premiums, to attract global capital and preserve liquidity during times of stress. The government guarantee should attach to the eligible MBS only, not to the guarantors or their debt.
  • The availability of affordable housing, both owned and rented, is vitally important; these needs should be addressed along a continuum, incorporating both single- and multifamily approaches for homeowners and renters.
  • The end-state system should facilitate equitable, transparent and direct access to secondary market programs for lenders of all sizes and business models.
  • A robust, innovative and purely private market should be able to co-exist alongside the government-backed market.
  • Existing multifamily financing executions should be preserved, and new options should be permitted.
  • The end-state system should rely on strong, transparent regulation and private capital (including primary-market credit enhancement such as mortgage insurance [MI] and lender recourse, or other available forms of credit risk transfer) primarily assuming most of the risk.
  • While the system will primarily rely on private capital, there should be a provision for a deeper level of government support in the event of a systemic crisis.
  • There should be a “bright line” between the primary and secondary mortgage markets, applying to both allowable activities and scope of regulation.
  • Transition risks to the new end-state model should be minimized, with special attention given to avoiding any operational disruptions. (3-4)

This set of principles reflect the bipartisan consensus that had been developing around the Johnson-Crapo and Corker-Warner housing reform bills. The ten trillion dollar question, of course, is whether the Trump Administration and Congressional leaders like Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), the Chair of the House Banking Committee, are going to go along with the mortgage finance industry on this or whether they will push for a system with far less government involvement than is contemplated by the MBA.

Co-signing: Smart or Stupid?

1200px-Alice_Sara_Ott_-_Signature

Realtor.com quoted me in Co-signing a Mortgage: Smart or Stupid? It opens,

There’s no doubt about it: Buying a home these days is hard. Even if you’re lucky enough to be a homeowner yourself, that doesn’t mean your kids or assorted loved ones can easily follow in your footsteps—at least, not without help.

One way that “help” can occur for home buyers who don’t qualify for a mortgage? Getting someone else—like you, dear reader—to co-sign. In a nutshell, that means that if they can’t pay their monthly dues, the lender will expect you to cough up the cash instead.

 It’s a noble idea, helping someone buy a home. But also, of course, a scary one. It’s no surprise that many co-signers are parents doing what parents do: putting their own financial well-being aside to help their children move into a home.

But let’s be clear here: The risks are huge. Some of them are obvious, but there are plenty more that you may not have even considered. So if you’re considering co-signing, it’s best you know exactly what you’re getting into, and how to protect your finances in case things don’t go well. Here are the main caveats and considerations to keep in mind.

Identify if your borrowers (and you) are good candidates

We’re not saying co-signing is a terrible idea across the board. There are plenty of legit reasons why those near and dear to you may have trouble getting the loan on their own—say, because they’re self-employed, which makes banks leery. But if your kid can’t get a loan because he just can’t seem to pay his AmEx card on time, well, that’s a different story. Judge your own risk accordingly.

Co-signers should also consider whether they’re good candidates to be taking on more financial commitments. Generally, you should consider co-signing only if you meet a few requirements. For example, “You own your home free and clear and don’t require much credit or have a need for it,” says Mary Anne Daly, senior mortgage adviser with San Francisco–based Sindeo.

Consider the pitfalls

If your borrower has a less-than-stellar history of paying back creditors or holding down a job, proceed with caution. Extreme caution.

“Unfortunately, I’ve seen parents dig further into their savings to pay the mortgage when their child can’t make the payment,” says Ryan Halset, a Realtor® with Seattle-based Boardwalk Real Estate. And if you can’t pay, it will tarnish your credit history and future odds of borrowing money.

“Your chance of getting a loan yourself in the future could be in jeopardy,” says Janine Acquafredda, an associate broker with Brooklyn-based House N Key Realty. “Not to mention the risk of ruining relationships if things go sour.” But maybe that last part’s a given.

Think like a lender

Hard as it might be, try to keep your personal relationship with the home buyer from coloring your decision. Even if it’s your child or a longtime pal, it shouldn’t (entirely) trump the warning signs.

“Before you commit, think like a lender and look at the borrower’s income, work history, and existing debt to determine if the borrower is worthy and not a potential liability to your good credit,” says Frank Tarala, owner of Sterling Heights, MI–based Principal Brokers Network.

Saying no may be tough, but it could save you tons of heartache down the road. David Reiss, professor of law and academic program director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, recounts a situation where parents stepped in as co-signers just before the financial crisis hit. The home’s value plunged by more than half. The borrower then left the area—and his home—in search of a new gig and couldn’t make both the mortgage payments and the rent on his new apartment.

“The parents, retirees living on a modest pension in their own home, found themselves dealing with the default of their son’s mortgage with no financial resources available as a buffer,” Reiss says. “This situation has devolved into a nightmare of defaults and attempted short sales with no end in sight.”

Top Ten Issues for Housing Finance Reform

Laurie Goodman of the Urban Institute has posted A Realistic Assessment of Housing Finance Reform. This paper is quite helpful, given the incredible complexity of the topic. The paper includes a lot of background, but I assume that readers of this blog are familiar with that.  Rather, let me share her Top Ten Design Issues:

  1. What form will the private capital that absorbs the first loss take: A single guarantor (a utility), multiple guarantors, or multiple guarantors along with capital markets execution? How much capital will be required?
  2. Who will play what role in the system? Will the same entity be permitted to be an originator, aggregator, and guarantor?
  3. How will the system ensure that historically underserved borrowers and communities are well served? To what extent will the pricing be cross subsidized?
  4. Who will have access to the new government-backed system (loan limits)? How big should the credit box be, and how does that box relate to FHA?
  5. Will mortgage insurance be separate from the guarantor function? (It is separate under most proposals, but in reality both sets of institutions are guaranteeing credit risk. The separation is a relic of the present system, in which, by charter, the GSEs can’t take the first loss on any mortgage above 80 LTV. However, if you allow the mortgage insurers and the guarantors to be the same entity, capital requirements must be higher to adequately protect the government and, ultimately, the taxpayers.)
  6. How will small lenders access the system? (All proposals attempt to ensure access, some through an aggregator dedicated to smaller lenders—a role that the Home Loan Banks can play.)
  7. What countercyclical features should be included? If the insurance costs provided by the guarantors are “too high” should the regulatory authority be able to adjust capital levels down to bring down mortgage rates? Should the regulatory authority be able to step in as an insurance provider?
  8. Will multifamily finance be included? How will that system be designed? Will it be separate from the single-family business? (The multifamily features embedded in Johnson-Crapo had widespread bipartisan support, but the level of support for a stand-alone multifamily legislation is unclear.)
  9. The regulatory structure for any new system is inevitably complex. Who charters new guarantors? What are the approval standards? Who does the stress tests? How does the new regulator interact with existing regulators? What enforcement authority will it have concerning equal access goals? What is the extent of data collection and publication?
  10. What does the transition look like? How do we move from a duopoly to more guarantors? Will Fannie and Freddie turn back to private entities and operate as guarantors alongside the new entrants? How will the new entities be seeded? What is the “right” number of guarantors, and how do we achieve that? How quickly does the catastrophic insurance fund build? (16-17)

None of this is new, but it is nice to see it all in one place. These design issues need to thought about in the context of the politics of housing reform as well — what system is likely to maintain its long-term financial health and stay true to its mission, given the political realities of Washington, D.C.?

Speaking of politics, her prognosis for reform in the near term is not too hopeful:

The current state of the GSEs can best be summed up in a single word: limbo. Despite the fact that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were placed in conservatorship in 2008, with the clear intent that they not emerge, there is little progress on a new system, with a large role for private capital, to take their place. Legislators have realized it is easy to agree on a set of principles for a new system but much harder to agree on the system’s design. It is unclear whether any legislation will emerge from Congress before the 2016 election; there is a good chance there will be none. (26)

She does allow that the FHFA can administratively move housing finance reform forward to some extent on its own, but she rightly notes that reform is really the responsibility of Congress. Like Goodman, I am not too hopeful that Congress will act in the near term. But it is crystal clear that there is a cost of doing nothing. In all likelihood, it will be the taxpayer will pay that cost, one way or another.