The Future of Homeownership

Brooklyn Law Notes - Fall 2018I wrote a short article, Restoring The American Dream, for Brooklyn Law Notes. It is based on my forthcoming book on federal housing finance policy. It opens,

Two movie scenes can bookend the last hundred years of housing finance. In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), George Bailey speaks to panicked depositors who are demanding their money back from Bailey Bros. Building and Loan. This tiny thrift in the little town of Bedford Falls had closed its doors after it had to repay a large loan and temporarily ran out of money to return to its depositors. George tells them:

You’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house…right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and then, they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can.

Local lenders lent locally, and local conditions caused local problems. And in the early 20th century, that was largely how Americans bought homes.

In Adam McKay’s movie The Big Short (2015), the character Jared Vennett is based on Greg Lippmann, a former Deutsche Bank trader who made well over a billion dollars for his employer betting against subprime mortgages before the market collapse. Vennett demonstrates with a set of stacked wooden blocks how the modern housing finance market has been built on a shaky foundation:

This is a basic mortgage bond. The original ones were simple, thousands of AAA mortgages bundled together and sold with a guarantee from the U.S. government. But the modern-day ones are private and are made up of layers of tranches, with the AAA highest-rated getting paid first and the lowest, B-rated getting paid last and taking on defaults first.

Obviously if you’re buying B-levels you can get paid more. Hey, they’re risky, so sometimes they fail…

Somewhere along the line these B and BB level tranches went from risky to dog shit. I’m talking rock-bottom FICO scores, no income verification, adjustable rates…Dog shit. Default rates are already up from 1 to 4 percent. If they rise to 8 percent—and they will—a lot of these BBBs are going to zero.

After the whole set of blocks comes crashing down, someone watching Vennett’s presentation asks, “What’s that?” He responds, “That is America’s housing market.” Global lenders lent globally, and global conditions caused global and local problems. And in the early 21st century, that was largely how Americans bought homes.

 

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The Regulation of Residential Real Estate Finance Under Trump

I published a short article in the American College of Real Estate Lawyers (ACREL)  (ACREL) News & Notes, The Regulation of Residential Real Estate Finance Under Trump. The abstract reads,

Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs was one of President Trump’s first Executive Orders. He signed it on January 30, 2017, just days after his inauguration. It states that it “is the policy of the executive branch to be prudent and financially responsible in the expenditure of funds, from both public and private sources. . . . [I]t is essential to manage the costs associated with the governmental imposition of private expenditures required to comply with Federal regulations.” The Reducing Regulation Executive Order outlined a broad deregulatory agenda, but was short on details other than the requirement that every new regulation be accompanied by the elimination of two existing ones.

A few days later, Trump issued another Executive Order that was focused on financial services regulation in particular, Core Principles for Regulating the United States Financial System. Pursuant to this second Executive Order, the Trump Administration’s first core principle for financial services regulation is to “empower Americans to make independent financial decisions and informed choices in the marketplace, save for retirement, and build individual wealth.” The Core Principles Executive Order was also short on details.

Since Trump signed these two broad Executive Orders, the Trump Administration has been issuing a series of reports that fill in many of the details for financial institutions. The Department of Treasury has issued three of four reports that are collectively titled A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities that are directly responsive to the Core Principles Executive Order. While these documents cover a broad of topics, they offer a glimpse into how the Administration intends to regulate or more properly, deregulate, residential real estate finance in particular.

This is a shorter version of The Trump Administration And Residential Real Estate Finance, published earlier this year in the Westlaw Journal: Derivatives.

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.

The Budgetary Impact on Housing Finance

slide by MIT Golub

The MIT Golub Center for Finance and Policy has posted some interesting infographics on The President’s 2019 Budget: Proposals Affecting Credit, Insurance and Financial Regulators:

The White House released the President’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 on February 12, just days after President Trump signed a bill extending spending caps for military and domestic spending and suspending the debt ceiling. While the new law has already established government-wide tax and spending levels for the coming fiscal year, the specific proposals contained in the budget request reflect Administration priorities and may still be considered by the Congress. Here, we consider how such proposals may affect the Federal Government in its role as a lender, insurer, and financial regulator.

Between its lending and insurance balances, it is apparent that the U.S. Government has more assets and insured obligations than the five largest bank holding companies combined.

Through various agencies, the US government is deeply involved in the extension of credit and the provision of insurance. It also plays an active regulatory and oversight role in the financial marketplace. While individual credit and insurance programs serve different target populations, they collectively reach into the lives of most Americans, from homeowners to small business owners to bank account holders and students. Note that this graphic does not reflect social insurance, such as Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid.

I was particularly interested, of course, in the slides that focused on housing finance, but I found this one slide about all federal loans outstanding to be eye-opening:

The overall amount is huge, $4.34 trillion, and housing finance’s share is also huge, well over half of that amount.

As we slowly proceed down the path to housing finance reform, we should try to determine a principled way to evaluate just how big of a role the federal government needs to have in the housing finance market in order to serve the broad swath of American households. Personally, I think there is a lot of room for private investors to take on more credit risk so long as underserved markets are addressed and consumers are protected.

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.