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private label securitization (PLS) had provided a significant share of funding for mortgages, since 2007, PLS has withdrawn from the market.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.

Friday’s Government Reports

  • Federal Housing Finance Agency released its annual Guarantee Fee Report, which tracks the upward trend in single family guarantee fees charged by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 requires FHFA to submit a report to Congress annually on guarantee fees.  Guarantee fees are intended to cover the costs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac incur for guaranteeing the payment of principal and interest on single-family loans they purchase from mortgage lenders.  These costs include projected credit losses from borrower defaults over the life of the loans, administrative costs, and a return on capital.
  • The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in conjunction with Vanderbilt University released the Family Options Study in which presents the short-term impacts of the interventions in five domains related to family well-being: (1) housing stability, (2) family preservation, (3) adult well-being,(4) child well-being, and (5) self-sufficiency.

Affordable Housing for which Low-Income Households?

The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s latest issue of Housing Spotlight provides its annual examination of “the availability of rental housing affordable to” extremely low income “and low income renter households . . ..” (1) It finds that

the gap between the number of ELI households and the number of rental homes that are both affordable and available to them has grown dramatically since the foreclosure crisis and recession. Despite this growing need, most new rental units being built are only affordable to households with incomes above 50% of AMI. At the same time, the existing stock of federally subsidized housing is shrinking through demolition and contract expirations, and waiting lists for housing assistance remain years long in many communities. Federal housing assistance is so limited that just one out of every four eligible households receives it. (1, emphasis in the original)
The article, “Affordable Housing is Nowhere to be Found for Millions,” describes the role of the National Housing Trust Fund, signed into law by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, but only recently funded by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac:
The NHTF is structured as a block grant to states, and at least 90% of all funding will be used to produce, preserve, rehabilitate and operate rental housing. Further, 75% of rental housing funding must benefit ELI. The funding of the NHTF will make a difference in the lives of many ELI renters by supporting the development and preservation of housing affordable to this income group. However, additional funding to the NHTF will be necessary to assure support to all income eligible households in need of housing. (1, footnote omitted)
The NLIHC’s key findings from this work include,
  • The number of ELI renter households rose from 9.6 million in 2009 to 10.3 million in 2013 and they made up 24% of all renter households in 2013.
  • There was a shortage of 7.1 million affordable rental units available to ELI renter households in 2013. Another way to express this gap is that there were just 31 affordable and available units per 100 ELI renter households. The data show no change from the analysis a year ago.
  • For the 4.1 million renter households DLI renter households in 2013, there was a shortage of 3.4 million affordable rental units available to them. There were just 17 affordable and available units per 100 DLI renter households.
  • Seventy-five percent of ELI renter households spent more than half of their income on rent and utilities; 90% of DLI renter households spent more than half of their income for rent and utilities.
  • In every state, at least 60% of ELI renters paid more than half of their income on rent and utilities. (1)

Given that housing affordability remained a problem during both boom times and bust and given that we should not expect another dramatic expansion of federal subsidies for rental housing, now might be a good time to ask what we can reasonably expect from the Housing Trust Fund. Should it be spread wide and thin, helping many a bit, or narrow and deep, helping a few a lot? No right answers here.

The Government Takeover of Fannie and Freddie

Richard Epstein has posted a draft of The Government Takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: Upending Capital Markets with Lax Business and Constitutional Standards. The paper addresses “the various claims of the private shareholders, both preferred and common, of Fannie and Freddie.” (2) He notes that those claims have

now given rise to seventeen separate lawsuits against the Government, most of which deal with the Government’s actions in August, 2012. One suit also calls into question the earlier Government actions to stabilize the home mortgage market between July and September 2008, challenging the constitutionality of the decision to cast Fannie and Freddie into conservatorship in September 2008, which committed the Government to operating the companies until they became stabilized. What these suits have in common is that they probe, in overlapping ways, the extent to which the United States shed any alleged obligations owed to the junior preferred and common shareholders of both Fannie and Freddie. At present, the United States has submitted a motion to dismiss in the Washington Federal case that gives some clear indication as to the tack that it will take in seeking to derail all of these lawsuits regardless of the particular legal theory on which they arise. Indeed, the brief goes so far to say that not a single one of the plaintiffs is entitled to recover anything in these cases, be it on their individual or derivative claims, in light of the extensive powers that HERA vests in FHFA in its capacity as conservator to the funds. (2-3, citations omitted)

Epstein acknowledges that his “work on this project has been supported by several hedge funds that have hired me as a legal consultant, analyst, and commentator on issues pertaining to litigation and legislation over Fannie and Freddie discussed in this article.”(1, author footnote) Nonetheless, as a leading scholar, particularly of Takings jurisprudence, his views must be taken very seriously.

Epstein states that “major question of both corporate and constitutional law is whether the actions taken unilaterally by these key government officials could be attacked on the grounds that they confiscated the wealth of the Fannie and Freddie shareholders and thus required compensation from the Government under the Takings Clause. In addition, there are various complaints both at common law and under the Administrative Procedure Act.” (4)

Like Jonathan Macey, Epstein forcefully argues that the federal government has greatly overreached in its treatment of Fannie and Freddie. I tend in the other direction. But I do agree with Epstein that it “is little exaggeration to say that the entire range of private, administrative, and constitutional principles will be called into question in this litigation.” (4) Because of that, I am far from certain how the courts should and will decide the immensely complicated claims at issue in these cases.

In any event, Epstein’s article should be read as a road map to the narrative that the plaintiffs will attempt to convey to the judges hearing these cases as they slowly wend their way through the federal court system.

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.

Reiss on Fannie and Freddie Conservatorship Litigation

I have posted An Overview of the Fannie and Freddie Conservatorship Litigation to  SSRN (and to BePress as well). The abstract reads:

The fate of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are subject to the vagaries of politics, regulation, public opinion, the economy, and not least of all the numerous cases that have been filed in 2013 against various government entities arising from the placement of the two companies into conservatorship. This short article will provide an overview of the last of these. The litigation surrounding Fannie and Freddie’s conservatorship raises all sorts of issues about the federal government’s involvement in housing finance. 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 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.

Reiss on Fannie/Freddie Suits

Bloomberg BNA quoted me in No Basis for Discovery by GSE Investors, Treasury Department, FHFA Memos Say. It reads

[Reproduced with permission from BNA’s Banking Report, 102 BBR 417, 3/11/14. Copyright  2014 by The Bureau
of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033) http://www.bna.com]

The Treasury Department and the Federal Housing Finance Agency March 4 said a federal judge should deny a motion for discovery in lawsuits by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac investors, citing an agreed-upon schedule and saying the motion would do nothing to address legal questions at the core of the case (Fairholme Funds v. Federal Housing Finance Agency, D.D.C., No. 13-cv-01053, 3/4/14).

In its memo filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Treasury said Fairholme’s Feb. 12 motion for discovery (31 DER EE-6, 2/14/14) would be “improper” under a November scheduling order, and urged the court to dismiss the Fairholme suit and related cases.

“These cases should proceed on the agreed briefing schedule, which already provided ample time to the plaintiffs to file their substantive briefs, and the Court, upon review of a completed set of briefing with respect to the defendants’ dispositive motions, should dismiss these cases,” Treasury said March 4.

In its March 4 filing, the FHFA memo said “no discovery is necessary to assess the purely legal arguments” before the court, adding the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA) bars second-guessing of the FHFA’s actions as conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Litigation Ongoing

The suit is one of several in at least two district courts and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims that challenge Treasury and FHFA action in August 2012 that restructured contracts governing preferred stock issued by the two government-sponsored enterprises.

Fairholme and other investors say the August 2012 amendment amounted to an expropriation of their assets and have variously sought damages and compensation in response.

The government has sought to dismiss the Fairholme case and others, but in its Feb. 12 motion, Fairholme said the government’s motion to dismiss was too expansive and raised questions that require access to government documents, e-mails and other materials.

Arrowood Indemnity Co., the plaintiff in a related case in the district court and a separate case in the Claims Court, Feb. 20 sought to link its own bid for discovery to Fairholme’s (36 DER EE-8, 2/24/14).

Fairholme has already prevailed on its discovery motion in the Claims Court. In a Feb. 26 order, Judge Margaret M. Sweeney granted Fairholme’s motion for a continuance to pursue discovery in that case.

March Reply Scheduled

In the district court, Fairholme is scheduled to respond to the government’s March 4 memos by mid-March.

“We are reviewing the opposition briefs filed by the defendants just yesterday, and we will respond to them in our reply brief, due on March 14,” a spokesman for Fairholme told Bloomberg BNA March 5.

High Stakes Seen

Professor David Reiss of Brooklyn Law School in New York March 5 said discovery usually occurs after motions to dismiss have been decided.

In this case, he said, “the stakes are so high and the quality of lawyering so high that there is litigation over the scheduling order itself.”

“This is a hard-fought battle and the issues are incredibly complex,” Reiss told Bloomberg BNA. “Each side characterizes their arguments as relatively straightforward, but I think the judge will have a hard time parsing out the issues, because there are different statutory regimes, policy issues and the like that must be rationalized with each other. I think this is just the beginning of a long slog,” he said.