Challenges for Modern Housing Markets

Professor Barnes

Professor Boyack

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I will be speaking in a free American Bar Association webinar tomorrow, Challenges for Modern Housing Markets:

Our current housing system is not sustainable in terms of the market, residential tenure, cost stability, and neighborhood inequality. Our panelists will discuss some key areas in which housing must be stabilized in order to strengthen our economy and society. Our panelists will address ways to lessen the volatility of housing prices and home mortgage lending, the importance of and ways to improve stability of residency, ways to improve the sustainability of affordable housing, and recent lawsuits that have reframed the problem of distressed and inequitable communities.

The other speakers are

The program will be moderated by Professor Wilson R. Freyermuth, University of Missouri School of Law.

My remarks will be drawn in part from my work on the Federal Housing Administration.

The webinar is free and open to all.  It will take place Tuesday, December 12, 2017 at 12:30 p.m. Eastern/11:30 a.m. Central/9:30 a.m. Pacific.

Register for the webinar at http://ambar.org/ProfessorsCorner.

The webinar is sponsored by the ABA Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Section Legal Education and Uniform Laws Group. It is part of a series of webinars that features a panel of law professors who address topics of interest to practitioners of real estate and trusts/estates.

 

Republicans and the Mortgage Interest Deduction

photo by Nick Youngson

There is a lot to hate in the Republican tax reform plan contained in the proposed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. (click here for a summary and here for the text of the bill itself). Overall, the bill is extraordinarily regressive, heavily favoring the wealthy. There will, of course, be all sorts of compromises to this proposal as Republicans work to get it passed. But it is worth highlighting what is good about the bill as it would be a shame to lose sight of it while the sausage is being made in Congress.

The best real-estate related provision from a policy perspective is the reduction of the mortgage interest deduction. In a section of the summary with the Orwellian title, Preserving the Mortgage Interest Deduction, the Republicans outline how they will slice the deduction in half:

For so many Americans, buying a home is often the largest investment – and perhaps most important – investment they will make in their lifetime.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will continue to support the American dream of homeownership by preserving the Mortgage Interest Deduction.

This ensures that hardworking families can continue to access this important tax relief as they buy, own, and maintain their home.

Policy Specifics

• Increasing the standard deduction means a simpler, fairer, and flatter tax code in which fewer taxpayers need to go through the trouble of determining whether they should itemize.

• Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, taxpayers will still be able to deduct mortgage interest in excess of the standard deduction, in combination with other remaining itemized deductions, including charitable contributions and property taxes.

• The mortgage interest deduction would be available for interest paid on new mortgages for up to $500,000 in home acquisition indebtedness on principal residences.

• For existing mortgages, the plan allows for current law deduction on indebtedness of up to $1,000,000 and up to $100,000 in home equity to help taxpayers who may have relied on the current mortgage-interest deduction.

How This Policy Helps the American People

Preserving the home mortgage – and the deduction for state and local property taxes – will help more Americans of all income levels achieve the American dream of homeownership. (15-16)

This plan would cut the principal amount of a mortgage that would be eligible for the mortgage interest deduction from the current maximum of $1,000,000 to $500,000. Given that wealthy households generally take the mortgage interest deduction more often and get more bang for their buck from it, it is a regressive aspect of the tax code.

It is striking that a provision with such broad support such as the mortgage interest deduction is actually on the table. It will be interesting to see how special interests in the real estate industry will respond. My bet is that at the end of day the deduction will remain mostly untouched, even though this particular Republican proposal makes good policy sense.

Can Fannie and Freddie Be Privatized?

Kroll Bond Rating Agency posted Housing Reform 2017: Can the GSEs be Privatized? The big housing finance reform question is whether there is now sufficient consensus in Washington to determine the fate of Fannie and Freddie, now approaching their ninth year in conservatorship.

Kroll concludes,

The Mortgage Bankers Association sends a very clear message about privatizing the GSEs: It will raise rates for homeowners and add systemic risk back into the financial system. Why do we need to fix a proven market mechanism that is not broken? KBRA believes that if Mr. Mnuchin and the President-elect truly want to encourage the growth of a private market for U.S. mortgages, then they must accept that true privatization of the GSEs that eliminates any government guarantee would fundamentally change the mortgage market.

The privatization of the GSEs implies, in the short term at least, a significant decrease in the financing available to the U.S. housing market. In the absence of a TBA market, no coupon would be high enough to support the entire range of demand for mortgage finance, only pockets of higher quality loans as with the jumbo mortgage market today. Unless the U.S. moved to the Danish model with 100% variable rate notes, no nonbank could fund the production of home mortgages efficiently and commercial banks are unlikely to pick up the slack for the reasons discussed above.

In the event of full privatization of the GSEs, private loans will have significantly higher cost for consumers and offer equally more attractive returns for financial institutions and end investors, a result that would generate enormous political opposition among the numerous constituencies in the housing market. Needless to say, getting such a proposal through Congress should prove to be quite an achievement indeed. (4)

I disagree with Kroll’s framing of the issue:  “Why do we need to fix a proven market mechanism that is not broken?” To describe Fannie and Freddie as “not broken” seems farcical to me. They are in a state of limbo with extraordinary backing from the federal government. It might be that we would want to continue them with much the same functionality that they currently have, but we would still want this transition to be done intentionally.  Nobody, but nobody, was thinking that putting them into conservatorship was the end game,

While the current structure has some advantages over privatization, the reverse is true too.  The greatest benefit of privatization is getting rid of the taxpayer backstop in case of a failure by one or both of the companies.

We shouldn’t be saying — hey, what we have now is good enough. Rather, we should be asking — what do we expect out of our housing finance system and how do we get it?

There appears to be a broad consensus to reduce taxpayer exposure to a bailout.  There also appears to be a broad consensus (one that I do not support as broadly as others) to protect the 30 year fixed rate mortgage that remains so popular in the United States.

Industry insiders believe that a fully private system would not provide sufficient capital for the mortgage market. They are also concerned that a fully private system would put the kibosh on the To Be Announced (TBA) market that provides so much stability for the mortgage origination process.

A thoughtful reform proposal could incorporate all of these concerns while also clearing away the sticky problems built into the Fannie/Freddie model of housing finance.

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is not a good enough philosophy after we have lived through the financial crisis. We should focus on the big questions of what we want from our 21st century housing finance system and then design a system that will implement it accordingly.

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

The Importance of Understanding G-Fees

United_States_Capitol_west_front_edit2

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has released Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Single-Family Guarantee Fees in 2014. Ok, ok, this is some really technical stuff. But it gives us a lot of important information about what goes into the cost of a home mortgage.

The executive summary opens, “The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA) requires the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to submit reports to Congress annually on the guarantee fees charged by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises).” (2, footnotes omitted) The report finds that “the average level of guarantee fees charged has increased since 2009. The guarantee fees are currently two-and-a-half times their previous level; from 2009 to 2014, average fees increased from 22 basis points to 58 basis points. From 2013 to 2014, average fees increased from 51 basis points to 58 basis points.” (2, footnote omitted)

For all of you non-experts out there, a basis point is 1/100th of a percentage point. So a guarantee fee (or g-fee in the lingo) of 58 basis points increases the interest rate paid by more than half a percentage point (for instance, from 4.5% to 5.08%).  So homeowners should want to understand why g-fees have more than doubled since 2009.

The report breaks down how g-fees gradually increased in response to Congressional and FHFA requirements, some of which are not tied to housing finance goals at all. For instance, Congress added ten basis points to fund an extension of a tax cut.

Many have argued that g-fees should be kept as low as possible in order to help out the housing market. I do not take that position, in large part because cheap credit does not necessarily lower the cost of housing; sellers may just be able to raise the price of their homes in a cheap credit environment. I also believe that the housing market and the mortgage market need to achieve some sort of equilibrium and unnaturally low g-fees will distort such an equilibrium.

The price of the g-fee should reflect the real costs of the g-fee. For instance, it should cover the cost of losses that result from borrower default. It should not be used to fund programs unrelated to housing. G-fees that are unnaturally high distort the housing finance market and make homeowners subsidize other constituencies. Federal housing finance policy tends to get screwed up if it veers too much from its fundamentals, so we should not ask too much of the g-fee.

Fannie and Freddie have been in limbo ever since they entered conservatorship in 2008. The longer they are in that limbo, the more likely it is that Congress will use them to do all sorts of things that do not relate to maintaining a liquid housing finance market. This study outlines how the g-fee has morphed over time and is a wake-up call to homeowners and policy makers alike to set Fannie and Freddie on a healthy course for the long term, starting with that obscure and technical g-fee.