GSE Shareholders Floored, Again

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued an opinion in Saxton v. FHFA (No. 17-1727, Aug. 23, 2018). The Eighth Circuit joins the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and D.C. Circuits in rejecting the arguments of Fannie and Freddie shareholders that the Federal Housing Finance Agency exceeded its authority as conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and acted arbitrarily and capriciously. The Court provides the following overview:

     The financial crisis of 2008 prompted Congress to take several actions to fend off economic disaster. One of those measures propped up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie and Freddie, which were founded by Congress back in 1938 and 1970, buy home mortgages from lenders, thereby freeing lenders to make more loans. See generally 12 U.S.C. § 4501. Although established by Congress, Fannie and Freddie operate like private companies: they have shareholders, boards of directors, and executives appointed by those boards. But Fannie and Freddie also have something most private businesses do not: the backing of the United States Treasury. 

     In 2008, with the mortgage meltdown at full tilt, Congress enacted the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA or the Act). HERA created the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), and gave it the power to appoint itself either conservator or receiver of Fannie or Freddie should either company become critically undercapitalized. 12 U.S.C. § 4617(a)(2), (4). The Act includes a provision limiting judicial review: “Except as  provided in this section or at the request of the Director, no court may take any action to restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of the [FHFA] as a conservator or a receiver.” Id. § 4617(f). 

     Shortly after the Act’s passage, FHFA determined that both Fannie and Freddie were critically undercapitalized and appointed itself conservator. FHFA then entered an agreement with the U.S. Department of the Treasury whereby Treasury would acquire specially-created preferred stock and, in exchange, would make hundreds of billions of dollars in capital available to Fannie and Freddie. The idea was that Fannie and Freddie would exit conservatorship when they reimbursed the Treasury.

     But Fannie and Freddie remain under FHFA’s conservatorship today. Since the conservatorship began, FHFA and Treasury have amended their agreement several times. In the most recent amendment, FHFA agreed that, each quarter, Fannie and Freddie would pay to Treasury their entire net worth, minus a small buffer. This so-called “net worth sweep” is the basis of this litigation. 

     Three owners of Fannie and Freddie common stock sued FHFA and Treasury, claiming they had exceeded their powers under HERA and acted arbitrarily and capriciously by agreeing to the net worth sweep. The shareholders sought only an injunction setting aside the net worth sweep; they dismissed a claim seeking money damages. Relying on the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in Perry Capital LLC v. Mnuchin, 864 F.3d 591 (D.C. Cir. 2017), the district court dismissed the suit.

What amazes me as a longtime watcher of the GSE litigation is how supposedly dispassionate investors lose their heads when it comes to the GSE lawsuits. They cannot seem to fathom that judges will come to a different conclusion regarding HERA’s limitation on judicial review.

While I do not rule out that the Supreme Court could find otherwise, particularly if Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed, it seems like this unbroken string of losses should provide some sort of wake up call for GSE shareholders. But somehow, I doubt that it will.

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.

GSE Investors’ Hidden Win

Judge Brown

The big news yesterday was that the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in the main for the federal government in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin, one of the major cases that investors brought against the federal government over the terms of the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships.

In a measured and carefully reasoned opinion, the court rejected most but not all of the investors’ claims.  The reasoning was consistent with my own reading of the broad conservatorship provisions of the Housing and Economic Recover Act of 2008 (HERA).

Judge Brown’s dissent, however, reveals that the investors have crafted an alternative narrative that at least one judge finds compelling. This means that there is going to be some serious drama when this case ultimately wends its way to the Supreme Court. And there is some reason to believe that a Justice Gorsuch might be sympathetic to this narrative of government overreach.

Judge Brown’s opinion indicts many aspects of federal housing finance policy, broadly condemning it in the opening paragraph:

One critic has called it “wrecking-ball benevolence,” James Bovard, Editorial, Nothing Down: The Bush Administration’s Wrecking-Ball Benevolence, BARRONS, Aug. 23, 2004, http://tinyurl.com/Barrons-Bovard; while another, dismissing the compassionate rhetoric, dubs it “crony capitalism,” Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr., Commentary, Fannie/Freddie Bailout Baloney, CATO INST., http://tinyurl.com/Cato-O-Driscoll (last visited Feb. 13, 2017). But whether the road was paved with good intentions or greased by greed and indifference, affordable housing turned out to be the path to perdition for the U.S. mortgage market. And, because of the dominance of two so-called Government Sponsored Entities (“GSE”s)—the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae” or “Fannie”) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac” or “Freddie,” collectively with Fannie Mae, the “Companies”)—the trouble that began in the subprime mortgage market metastasized until it began to affect most debt markets, both domestic and international. (dissent at 1)

While acknowledging that the Fannie/Freddie crisis might justify “extraordinary actions by Congress,” Judge Brown states that

even in a time of exigency, a nation governed by the rule of law cannot transfer broad and unreviewable power to a government entity to do whatsoever it wishes with the assets of these Companies. Moreover, to remain within constitutional parameters, even a less-sweeping delegation of authority would require an explicit and comprehensive framework. See Whitman v. Am. Trucking Ass’ns, Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001) (“Congress . . . does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions—it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes.”) Here, Congress did not endow FHFA with unlimited authority to pursue its own ends; rather, it seized upon the statutory text that had governed the FDIC for decades and adapted it ever so slightly to confront the new challenge posed by Fannie and Freddie.

*     *     *

[Congress] chose a well-understood and clearly-defined statutory framework—one that drew upon the common law to clearly delineate the outer boundaries of the Agency’s conservator or, alternatively, receiver powers. FHFA pole vaulted over those boundaries, disregarding the plain text of its authorizing statute and engaging in ultra vires conduct. Even now, FHFA continues to insist its authority is entirely without limit and argues for a complete ouster of federal courts’ power to grant injunctive relief to redress any action it takes while purporting to serve in the conservator role. See FHFA Br. 21  (2-3)

What amazes me about this dissent is how it adopts the decidedly non-mainstream history of the financial crisis that has been promoted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Peter Wallison.  It also takes its legislative history from an unpublished Cato Institute paper by Vice-President Pence’s newly selected chief economist, Mark Calabria and a co-author.  There is nothing wrong with a judge giving some context to an opinion, but it is of note when it seems as one-sided as this. The bottom line though is that this narrative clearly has some legs so we should not think that this case has played itself out, just because of this decision.

National Survey of Mortgage Originations

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The Federal Housing Finance Agency has issued a request for comments on the National Survey of Mortgage Originations. The NSMO is

a recurring quarterly survey of individuals who have recently obtained a loan secured by a first mortgage on single-family residential property. The survey questionnaire is sent to a representative sample of approximately 6,000 recent mortgage borrowers each calendar quarter and typically consists of between 90 and 95 multiple choice and short answer questions designed to obtain information about borrowers’ experiences in choosing and in taking out a mortgage.

*     *     *

The NSMO is one component of a larger project, known as the “National Mortgage Database” (NMDB) Project, which is a multi-year joint effort of FHFA and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) (although the NSMO is sponsored only by FHFA). The NMDB Project was created, in part, to satisfy the Congressionally-mandated requirements of section 1324(c) of the Federal Housing Enterprises Financial Safety and Soundness Act of 1992, as amended by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (Safety and Soundness Act). Section 1324(c) requires that FHFA conduct a monthly survey to collect data on the characteristics of individual prime and subprime mortgages, and on the borrowers and properties associated with those mortgages, in order to enable it to prepare a detailed annual report on the mortgage market activities of the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) for review by the appropriate Congressional oversight committees. Section 1324(c) also authorizes and requires FHFA to compile a database of timely and otherwise unavailable residential mortgage market information to be made available to the public. (81 F.R. 62889)

Obviously, this is another post on a technical subject that is not for the faint of heart, but it is very important for the health of the mortgage market. During the Subprime Boom of the early 2000s, mortgage characteristics changed so quickly that information became outdated within months.  Policymakers and academics did not have good access to newest data and thus were operating, to a large extent, in the dark.

The information in the NSMO will not only help regulators, but will also outside researchers to “more effectively monitor emerging trends in the mortgage origination process . . ..” (81 F.R. 62890) The FHFA requests comments on whether “the collection of information is necessary for the proper performance of FHFA functions, including whether the information has practical utility.” (Id.) The FHFA is also looking for comments on ways “to enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information collected.” (Id.) Those with an interest in securing a safe future for our mortgage markets should take a look at the survey instrument (attached to the Comment Request) and respond to the FHFA’s request. Comments are due on or before November 14, 2016.

What If . . . Fannie and Freddie Imploded?

photo by US HUD

So, I was spending some quality time with the Federal Housing Finance Agency Office of the Inspector General’s most recent Semiannual Report to the Congress. The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) is the regulator of Fannie and Freddie as well as their conservator. Essentially, the FHFA calls all of the shots for the two companies.

It got me to wondering, does the Office of the Inspector General really have a handle on whether Fannie and Freddie are in good shape or not? The report opens with a Snapshot of OIG Accomplishments. The Snapshot contains the following categories:

  • OIG Investigations Monetary Results
  • Judicial Actions
  • Hotline Contacts
  • Audit and Evaluation Reports Issued
  • White Papers Issued
  • Office of Compliance and Special Projects Reports Issued
  • Nonmonetary Recommendations Made
  • Regulations Reviewed
  • Responses to Requests Under the Freedom of Information Act

As I read through the report, I had the distinct feeling that I had got lost among the trees of bureaucratic oversight and had lost sight of the contours of the Frannie forest.

I want to know one thing — are the two companies solvent and will they be solvent for the foreseeable future? The OIG’s Snapshot is pretty backward facing and focuses on a lot of pretty minor issues, like counting hotline contacts, instead of focusing on the fundamentals.

I know, I know — if we can measure something, then we want to share it with the world, but the Snapshot actually decreases my faith that OIG and FHFA are taking care of the entire forest and not just a few of the trees they were able to measure.

That being said, the report does get  to some of the important issues later on. It acknowledges that

Since September 2008, FHFA has administered two conservatorships of unprecedented scope and undeterminable duration. Under HERA,the Agency’s actions as conservator are not subject to judicial review or intervention, nor are they subject to procedural safeguards that are ordinarily applicable to regulatory activities such as rulemaking. As conservator of the Enterprises, FHFA exercises control over trillions of dollars in assets and billions of dollars in revenue, and makes business and policy decisions that influence and impact the entire mortgage finance industry. For reasons of efficiency, concordant goals with the Enterprises, and operational savings, FHFA has determined to delegate revocable authority for general corporate governance and day-to-day matters to the Enterprises’ boards of directors and executive management. (10)

The OIG clearly understands what is at stake in the conservatorships. But as I read the remainder of the report, I did not see sufficient emphasis on the range of risks that Fannie and Freddie face, such as hedging risk and operational risk. Hopefully, someone at the FHFA is paying sufficient attention to the range of risks the two companies face. If not, we can expect a new type of crisis down the pike.

Fannie, Freddie & The Affordable Housing Feint

ShapiroPhoto

Robert J. Shapiro

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Elaine C. Kamarck

 

 

 

 

 

Robert J. Shapiro and Elaine C. Kamarck have posted A Strategy to Promote Affordable Housing for All Americans By Recapitalizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. While it presents as a plan to fund affordable housing, the biggest winners would be speculators who bought up shares of Fannie and Freddie stock and who may end up with nothing if a plan like this is not adopted.  The Executive Summary states that

This study presents a strategy for ending the current conservatorship and majority government ownership of Fannie and Freddie in a way that will enable them, once again, to effectively promote greater homeownership by average Americans and greater access to affordable housing by low-income households. This strategy includes regulation of both enterprises to prevent a recurrence of their effective insolvency in 2008 and the associated bailouts, including 4.0% capital reserves, regular financial monitoring, examinations and risk assessments by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), as dictated by HERA. Notably, an internal Treasury analysis in 2011 recommended capital requirements, consistent with the Basel III accords, of 3.0% to 4.0%. In addition, the President should name a substantial share of the boards of both enterprises, to act as public interest directors. The strategy has four basic elements to ensure that Fannie and Freddie can rebuild the capital required to responsibly carry out their basic missions, absorb losses from future housing downturns, and expand their efforts to support access to affordable housing for all households:

  • In recognition of Fannie and Freddie’s repayments to the Treasury of $239 billion, some $50 billion more than they received in bailout payments, the Treasury would write off any remaining balance owed by the enterprises under the “Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements” (PSPAs).
  • The Treasury also would end its quarterly claim or “sweep” of the profits earned by Fannie and Freddie, so their future retained earnings can be used to build their capital reserves.
  • Fannie and Freddie also should raise roughly $100 billion in additional capital through several rounds of new common stock sales into the market.
  • The Treasury should transfer its warrants for 79.9% of Fannie and Freddie’s current common shares to the HTF [Housing Trust Fund] and the CMF [Capital Magnet Fund], which could sell the shares in a series of secondary stock offerings and use the proceeds, estimated at $100 billion, to endow their efforts to expand access to affordable housing for even very low-income households.

Under this strategy, Fannie and Freddie could once again ensure the liquidity and stability of U.S. housing markets, under prudent financial constraints and less exposure to the risks of mortgage defaults. The strategy would dilute the common shares holdings of current private investors from 20% to 10%, while increasing their value as Fannie and Freddie restore and claim their profitability. Finally, the strategy would establish very substantial support through the HTF and CPM for state programs that increase access to affordable rental housing by very low-income American and affordable home ownership by low-to-moderate income households.

Wow — there is a lot that is very bad about this plan.  Where to begin? First, we would return to the same public/private hybrid model for Fannie and Freddie that got us into so much trouble to begin with.

Second, it would it would reward speculators in Fannie and Freddie stock. That is not terrible in itself, but the question would be — why would you want to? The reason given here would be to put a massive amount of money into affordable housing. That seems like a good rationale, until you realize that that money would just be an accounting move from one federal government account to another. It does not expand the pie, it just makes one slice bigger and one slice smaller. This is a good way to get buy-in from some constituencies in the housing industry, but from a broader public policy perspective, it is just a shuffling around of resources.

There’s more to say, but this blog post has gone on long enough. Fannie and Freddie need to be reformed, but this is not the way to do it.

 

The Importance of Understanding G-Fees

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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.