Housing Finance Reform Endgame?

The Hill published my column, There is Hope of Housing Finance Reform That Works for Americans.  It opens,

The Trump administration released its long awaited housing finance reform report and it is a game changer. The report makes clear that it is game over for the status quo of leaving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in their conservatorship limbo. Instead, it sets forth concrete steps to recapitalize and release the two entities. This has been a move that investors, particularly vulture investors who bought in after the two companies entered into their conservatorships, have clamored for.

It is not, however, one that is in the best interests of homeowners and taxpayers. The report recognizes that there are better alternatives. Indeed, it explicitly states that the “preference and recommendation is that Congress enact comprehensive housing finance reform legislation.” But the report also states that the conservatorships, which are more than a decade old, have gone on for too long. So the report throws down a gauntlet to Congress that if it does not take action, the administration will begin the formal process of implementing the next best solution.

Hope for GSE Shareholders

Judge Lamberth issued an opinion in Fairholme Funds, Inc. v. FHFA (Civ. No.13-1439) (Sept. 28, 2018) that gives some hope to the private shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These shareholders have been on the losing end of nearly every case brought against the government relating to its handling of the conservatorships of the two companies.  Readers of this blog know that I have long been a skeptic of the shareholders’ claims because of the broad powers granted the government by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, passed during the height of the financial crisis, as well as the highly regulated environment in which the two companies operate. This highly regulated environment means that GSE profits are driven by regulatory decisions much more than those of other financial institutions. As such, Fannie and Freddie live and die by the sword of government intervention in the mortgage market.

Judge Lamberth had dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims in their entirety, but was reversed in part on appeal. In this case, he revisits the issues arising from the reversal of his earlier dismissal. Once again, Judge Lamberth dismisses a number of the plaintiffs’ claims, but he finds that that their claim that the government breached the duty of good faith survives.

The opinion gives a road map that shareholders can follow to success. The judge identifies allegations that, if true, would be a sufficient factual basis for a holding that the government breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. It is plausible that the preponderance of proof may support these allegations. Some evidence has already come to light that indicates that at least some government actors had good reason to believe that Fannie and Freddie were on the cusp of sustained profitability when the government implemented the net worth sweep. The net worth sweep had redirected the net profits of the two companies to the U.S. Treasury.

Judge Lamberth highlights some of aspects of the plaintiffs’ argument that he found compelling at the motion to dismiss phase of this litigation. First, he notes that absence of “any increased funding commitment” is atypical when senior shareholders receive “enhanced disbursement rights,” as was the case when the government implemented the net worth sweep. (21) He also states that the plaintiffs would not have expected that the GSEs would have extinguished “the possibility of dividends arbitrarily or unreasonably.” (22)

While this opinion is good news for the plaintiffs, it is still unclear what their endgame would be if they were to get a final judgment that the net worth sweep was invalid. Depending on the outcome of regulatory and legislative debates about the future of the two companies, the win may be a pyrrhic one. Time will tell. In the interim, expect more discovery battles, motions for summary judgment and even a trial in this case. So, while this opinion gives shareholders some hope of ultimate success, and perhaps some leverage in political and regulatory debates, I do not see it as a game changer in itself.

In terms of the bigger picture, there are a lot of changes on the horizon regarding the future of the housing finance system. The midterm elections; Hensarling and Corker’s departure from Congress; and the Trump Administration’s priorities are all bigger drivers of the housing finance reform train, at least for now.

Housing in the Trump Era

 

The Real Estate Transactions Section of the American Association of Law Schools has issued the following Call for Papers:

Access + Opportunity + Choice: Housing Capital, Equity, and Market Regulation in the Trump Era

Program Description:

The year 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the 2008 housing crisis—an event described as the most significant financial and economic upheaval since the Great Depression. This year is also the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which upended many decades of overt housing discrimination. Both events remind us of the significant role that housing has played in the American story—both for good and for bad.

Of the many aspects of financial reform that followed 2008, much of the housing finance-related work was centered around mortgage loan origination and creating incentives and rules dealing with underwriting and the risk of moral hazard. Some of these reforms include the creation of the qualified mortgage safe-harbor and the skin-in-the-game risk retention rules. But when it came to the secondary mortgage market, little significant reform was undertaken. The only government action of any serious importance related to the federal government—through the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)—taking over control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This major government intervention into the workings of the country’s two mortgage giants yielded takings lawsuits, an outcry from shareholders, and the decimation of the capital reserves of both companies. Despite Fannie and Freddie having both paid back all the bailout funds given to them, the conservatorship remains in place to this day.

In the area of fair housing, the past several years saw the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities case whereby the U.S. Supreme Court upheld (and narrowed the scope of) the disparate impact theory under the Fair Housing Act. We also saw efforts aimed at reducing geographic concentrations of affordable housing through the Obama administration’s promulgation of the affirmatively furthering fair housing rule.

Yet, meaningful housing reform remains elusive. None of the major candidates in the most recent presidential election meaningfully addressed the issue in their policy platforms, and a lack of movement in resolving the Fannie/Freddie conservatorship is viewed as a major failure of the Obama administration. Additionally, housing segregation and access to affordable mortgage credit continues to plague the American economy.

In recent months, the topics of housing finance reform and providing Americans with credit (including mortgage credit) choices have been a point of focus on Capitol Hill and in the Trump White House. Will these conservations result in meaningful legislation or changes in regulatory approaches in these areas? Will programs like the low-income-housing tax credit, the CFPB’s mandatory underwriting requirements, public housing subsidies, and the government’s role in guaranteeing and securitizing mortgage loans significantly change? Where are points of possible agreement between the country’s two major parties in this area and what kinds of compromises can be made?

Call for Papers:

The Real Estate Transactions Section looks to explore these and related issues in its 2019 AALS panel program titled: “Access and Opportunity: Housing Capital, Equity, and Market Regulation in the Trump Era.” The Section invites the submission of abstracts or full papers dealing broadly with issues related to real estate finance, the secondary mortgage market, fair housing, access to mortgage credit, mortgage lending discrimination, and the future of mortgage finance. There is no formal paper requirement associated with participation on the panel, but preference will be given to those submissions that demonstrate novel scholarly insights that have been substantially developed. Untenured scholars in particular are encouraged to submit their work. Please email your submissions to Chris Odinet at codinet@sulc.edu by Friday, August 3, 2018. The selection results will be announced in early September 2018. In additional to confirmed speakers, the Section anticipates selecting two to three papers from the call.

Confirmed Speakers:

Rigel C. Oliveri, Isabelle Wade and Paul C. Lyda Professor of Law, University of Missouri School of Law

Todd J. Zywicki, Foundation Professor of Law, George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

David Reiss, Professor of Law and Research Director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, Brooklyn Law School

Eligibility:

Per AALS rules, only full-time faculty members of AALS member law schools are eligible to submit a paper/abstract to Section calls for papers. Faculty at fee-paid law schools, foreign faculty, adjunct and visiting faculty (without a full-time position at an AALS member law school), graduate students, fellows, and non-law school faculty are not eligible to submit.

All panelists, including speakers selected from this Call for Papers, are responsible for paying their own annual meeting registration fee and travel expenses.

Nonbanks and The Next Crisis

 

 

Researchers at the Fed and UC Berkeley have posted Liquidity Crises in the Mortgage Markets. The authors conclusions are particularly troubling:

The nonbank mortgage sector has boomed in recent years. The combination of low interest rates, well-functioning GSE and Ginnie Mae securitization markets, and streamlined FHA and VA programs have created ample opportunities for nonbanks to generate revenue by refinancing mortgages. Commercial banks have been happy to supply warehouse lines of credit to nonbanks at favorable rates. Delinquency rates have been low, and so nonbanks have not needed to finance servicing advances.

In this paper, we ask “What happens next?” What happens if interest rates rise and nonbank revenue drops? What happens if commercial banks or other financial institutions lose their taste for extending credit to nonbanks? What happens if delinquency rates rise and servicers have to advance payments to investors—advances that, in the case of Ginnie Mae pools, the servicer cannot finance, and on which they might take a sizable capital loss?

We cannot provide reassuring answers to any of these questions. The typical nonbank has few resources with which to weather these shocks. Nonbanks with servicing portfolios concentrated in Ginnie Mae pools are exposed to a higher risk of borrower default and higher potential losses in the event of such a default, and yet, as far as we can tell from our limited data, have even less liquidity on hand than other nonbanks. Failure of these nonbanks in particular would have a disproportionate effect on lower-income and minority borrowers.

In the event of the failure of a nonbank, the government (through Ginnie Mae and the GSEs) will probably bear the majority of the increased credit and operational losses that will follow. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the government shared some mortgage credit losses with the banking system through putbacks and False Claims Act prosecutions. Now, however, the banks have largely retreated from lending to borrowers with lower credit scores and instead lend to nonbanks through warehouse lines of credit, which provide banks with numerous protections in the event of nonbank failure.

Although the monitoring of nonbanks on the part of the GSEs, Ginnie Mae, and the state regulators has increased substantially over the past few years, the prudential regulatory minimums, available data, and staff resources still seem somewhat lacking relative to the risks. Meanwhile, researchers and analysts without access to regulatory data have almost no way to assess the risks. In addition, although various regulators are engaged in micro-prudential supervision of individual nonbanks, less thought is being given, in the housing finance reform discussions and elsewhere, to the question of whether it is wise to concentrate so much risk in a sector with such little capacity to bear it, and a history, at least during the financial crisis, of going out of business. We write this paper with the hope of elevating this question in the national mortgage debate. (52-53)

As with last week’s paper on Mortgage Insurers and The Next Housing Crisis, this paper is a wake-up call to mortgage-market policymakers to pay attention to where the seeds of the next mortgage crisis may be hibernating, awaiting just the right conditions to sprout up.

De Facto Housing Finance Reform

photo by The Tire Zoo

David Finkelstein, Andreas Strzodka and James Vickery of the NY Fed have posted Credit Risk Transfer and De Facto GSE Reform. It opens,

Nearly a decade into the conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, no legislation has yet been passed to reform the housing finance system and resolve the long-term future of these two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs). The GSEs have, however, implemented significant changes to their operations and practices over this period, even in the absence of legislation. The goal of this paper is to summarize and evaluate one of the most important of these initiatives – the use of credit risk transfer (CRT) instruments to shift mortgage credit risk from the GSEs to the private sector.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have significant mortgage credit risk exposure, largely because they provide a credit guarantee to investors on the agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) they issue. Since the CRT programs began in 2013, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have transferred to the private sector a portion of the credit risk on approximately $1.8 trillion in single-family mortgages (as of December 2017; source: Fannie Mae, 2017, Freddie Mac, 2017). The GSEs have experimented with a range of different risk transfer instruments, including reinsurance, senior-subordinate securitizations, and transactions involving explicit lender risk sharing. The bulk of CRT, however, has occurred via the issuance of structured debt securities whose principal payments are tied to the credit performance of a reference pool of securitized mortgages. A period of elevated mortgage defaults and losses will  trigger automatic principal write-downs on these CRT bonds, partially offsetting credit losses experienced by the GSEs.

Our thesis is that the CRT initiative has improved the stability of the  housing finance system and advanced a number of important objectives of GSE reform. In particular the CRT programs have meaningfully reduced the exposure of the Federal government to mortgage credit risk without disrupting the liquidity or stability of secondary mortgage markets. In the process, the CRT programs have created a new financial market for pricing and trading mortgage credit risk, which has grown in size and liquidity over time. Given diminished private-label securitization activity in recent years, these CRT securities are one of the primary ways for private-sector capital market investors to gain exposure to residential mortgage credit risk.

An important reason for this success is that the credit risk transfer programs do not disrupt the operation of the agency MBS market or affect the risks facing agency MBS investors. Because agency MBS carry a GSE credit guarantee, agency MBS investors assume that they are exposed to interest rate risk and prepayment risk, but not credit risk. This reduces the set of parameters on which pass-through MBS pools differ from one another, improving the standardization of the securities underlying the liquid to-be-announced (TBA) market where agency MBS mainly trade. Even though the GSEs now use CRT structures to transfer credit risk to a variety of private sector investors, these arrangements do not affect agency MBS investors, since the agency MBS credit guarantee is still being provided only by the GSE. In other words, the GSE stands in between the agency MBS investors and private-sector CRT investors, acting in a role akin to a central counterparty.

Ensuring that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s credit risk sharing efforts occur independently of the agency MBS market is important for both market functioning and financial stability. The agency MBS market, which remains one of the most liquid fixed income markets in the world, proved to be quite resilient during the 2007-2009 financial crisis, helping to support the supply of mortgage credit during that period. The agency market financed $2.89 trillion of mortgage originations during 2008 and 2009, experiencing little drop in secondary market trading volume during that period. In contrast, the non-agency MBS market, where MBS investors are exposed directly to credit risk, proved to be much less stable; Issuance in this market essentially froze in the second half of 2007, and has remained at low levels since that time.4 (1-2, citations and footnotes omitted)

One open question, of course, is whether the risk transfer has been properly priced. We won’t be able to fully answer that question until the next crisis tests these CRT securities. But in the meantime, we can contemplate the authors’ conclusion:

the CRT program represents a valuable step forward towards GSE
reform, as well as a basis for future reform. Many proposals have been put forward for long-term reform of mortgage market since the GSE conservatorships began in 2008. Although the details of these proposals vary, they generally share in common the goals of

(1) ensuring that mortgage credit risk is borne by the private sector (probably with some form of government backstop and/or tail insurance to insure catastrophic risk and stabilize the market during periods of stress), while

(2) maintaining the current securitization infrastructure as well as the standardization and liquidity of agency MBS markets.

The credit risk transfer program, now into its fifth year, represents an effective mechanism for achieving these twin goals. (21, footnote omitted)

The Housing Market Since the Great Recession

photo by Robert J Heath

CoreLogic has posted a special report on Evaluating the Housing Market Since the Great Recession. It opens,

From December 2007 to June 2009, the U.S. economy lost over 8.7 million jobs. In the months after the recession began, the unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent, reaching double digits for the first time since September 1982, and American households lost over $16 trillion in net worth.

After a number of economic stimulus measures, the economy began to grow in 2010. GDP grew 19 percent from 2010 to 2017; the economy added jobs for 88 consecutive months – the longest period on record – and as of December 2017, unemployment was down to 4 percent.

The economy has widely recovered and so, too, has the housing market. After falling 33 percent during the recession, housing prices have returned to peak levels, growing 51 percent since hitting the bottom of the market. The average house price is now 1 percent higher than it was at the peak in 2006, and the average annual equity gain was $14,888 in the third quarter of 2017.

However, in some states – including Illinois, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida – housing prices have failed to reach pre-recession levels, and today nearly 2.5 million residential properties with a mortgage are still in negative equity. (4, footnotes omitted)

By the end of 2017, ” the most populated metro areas in the U.S. remained at an almost even split between markets that are undervalued, overvalued and at value, indicating that while housing markets have recovered, many homes have surpassed the at-value [supported by local market fundamentals] price.” (10) This even split between undervalued and overvalued metro areas is hiding all sorts of ups and downs in what looks like a stable national average.  You can get a sense of this by comparing the current situation to what existing at the beginning of 2000, when 87% of metro areas were at-value.

And what does this all mean for housing finance reform? I think it means that we should not get complacent about the state of our housing markets just because the national average looks okay. Congress should continue working on a bipartisan fix for a broken system.

 

A Fix Already in Place for Housing Finance?

photo byy George Becker

Executives at Pimco, the world’s largest bond fund manager, have posted U.S. Housing Finance Reform: Why Fix What Isn’t Broken? I think their analysis is interesting, but seriously flawed:

The topic of housing finance reform has come in and out of focus on Capitol Hill since Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs) were taken into conservatorship back in 2008. As one of the largest participants in the mortgage-backed securities (MBS) market, and given our fiduciary role as a steward of other people’s assets, we at PIMCO are devoted to a liquid and stable mortgage market. Not surprisingly, we have taken a keen interest in the various reform proposals introduced over the past several years.

Housing finance reform need not be revolutionary

While we have refrained from commenting on specific plans, we believe housing finance reform must be comprehensive, above all else. And while we agree with a focus on shrinking the government’s role in housing finance, we believe similar attention must be paid to a responsible and thoughtful rebuilding of the private mortgage market – the alternative to the government balance sheet.

When it comes to the GSEs, we think policymakers should take a “do no harm” approach to reform that contains several key elements:

  • An explicit government guarantee for both future and legacy MBS
  • A continuation of the national mortgage rate (e.g., a borrower in Spartanburg, SC, can access a similar mortgage rate to a borrower in San Francisco, CA)
  • A guarantee fee that is counter-cyclical (versus a pro-cyclical, floating fee)
  • A continuation of the GSEs’ current credit risk transfer (CRT) program
  • Loan limits transitioned thoughtfully to be based on income levels, not housing prices

So far, so good. But they continue,

What you do not hear PIMCO calling for is a wholesale change or even an end to the status quo for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Indeed, from our perspective as a large market participant, the delivery of mortgage credit has never been so efficient or so fair, nor has the market for MBS ever been so deep, liquid and stable as it has been during the years that Fannie and Freddie have been under conservatorship. What’s more, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)’s heightened oversight has put an end to the pernicious activities that gave rise to the GSEs’ conservatorship – namely, buying subprime private-label securities collateralized by poor-credit-quality loans and putting them on their balance sheets – thereby mitigating the threat they pose to taxpayers.

The authors call for the formal “folding” in of Fannie and Freddie into the U.S. government. This would result in the Ginnie-fication of Fannie and Freddie, converting them to a government instrumentality that would be subject to the whims of the congressional budgetary process. That has not worked out so well for Ginnie Mae which has suffered from antediluvian technology and operational challenges for much of its history. Fannie and Freddie have historically been far more innovative and responsive to changes in market conditions than Ginnie. We should expect to lose those characteristics if the two companies were nationalized.

There is certainly an argument for keeping part of Fannie and Freddie’s existing operations within the federal government. But keeping the whole thing there will cause a new set of problems that we will likely bemoan a few years down the line. This proposal may appear to be a bright idea on first glance, but if you look at it the cracks show right away.