Mortgage Insurers and The Next Housing Crisis

photo by Jeff Turner

The Inspector General of the Federal Housing Finance Agency has released a white paper on Enterprise Counterparties: Mortgage Insurers. The Executive Summary reads,

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises) operate under congressional charters to provide liquidity, stability, and affordability to the mortgage market. Those charters, which have been amended from time to time, authorize the Enterprises to purchase residential mortgages and codify an affirmative obligation to facilitate the financing of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families. Pursuant to their charters, the Enterprises may purchase single-family residential mortgages with loan-to-value (LTV) ratios above 80%, provided that these mortgages are supported by one of several credit enhancements identified in their charters. A credit enhancement is a method or tool to reduce the risk of extending credit to a borrower; mortgage insurance is one such method. Since 1957, private mortgage insurers have assumed an ever-increasing role in providing credit enhancements and they now insure “the vast majority of loans over 80% LTV purchased by the” Enterprises. In congressional testimony in 2015, Director Watt emphasized that mortgage insurance is critical to the Enterprises’ efforts to provide increased housing access for lower-wealth borrowers through 97% LTV loans.

During the financial crisis, some mortgage insurers faced severe financial difficulties due to the precipitous drop in housing prices and increased defaults that required the insurers to pay more claims. State regulators placed three mortgage insurers into “run-off,” prohibiting them from writing new insurance, but allowing them to continue collecting renewal premiums and processing claims on existing business. Some mortgage insurers rescinded coverage on more loans, canceling the policies and returning the premiums.  Currently, the mortgage insurance industry consists of six private mortgage insurers.

In our 2017 Audit and Evaluation Plan, we identified the four areas that we believe pose the most significant risks to FHFA and the entities it supervises. One of those four areas is counterparty risk – the risk created by persons or entities that provide services to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. According to FHFA, mortgage insurers represent the largest counterparty exposure for the Enterprises. The Enterprises acknowledge that, although the financial condition of their mortgage insurer counterparties approved to write new business has improved in recent years, the risk remains that some of them may fail to fully meet their obligations. While recent financial and operational requirements may enhance the resiliency of mortgage insurers, other industry features and emerging trends point to continuing risk.

We undertook this white paper to understand and explain the current and emerging risks associated with private mortgage insurers that insure loan payments on single-family mortgages with LTVs greater than 80% purchased by the Enterprises. (2)

It is a truism that the next crisis won’t look like the last one. It is worth heeding the Inspector General’s warning about the

risks from private mortgage insurance as a credit enhancement, including increasing volume, high concentrations, an inability by the Enterprises to manage concentration risk, mortgage insurers with credit ratings below the Enterprises’ historic requirements and investment grade, the challenges inherent in a monoline business and the cyclic housing market, and remaining unpaid mortgage insurer deferred obligations. (13)

One could easily imagine a taxpayer bailout of Fannie and Freddie driven by the insolvency of the some or all of the six private mortgage insurers that do business with them. Let’s hope that the FHFA addresses that risk now, while the mortgage market is still healthy.

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.


Zoning and Housing Affordability

Vanessa Brown Calder has posted Zoning, Land-Use Planning, and Housing Affordability to SSRN. It opens,

Local zoning and land-use regulations have increased substantially over the decades. These constraints on land development within cities and suburbs aim to achieve various safety, environmental, and aesthetic goals. But the regulations have also tended to reduce the supply of housing, including multifamily and low-income housing. With reduced supply, many U.S. cities suffer from housing affordability problems.

This study uses regression analysis to examine the link between housing prices and zoning and land-use controls. State and local governments across the country impose substantially different amounts of regulation on land development. The study uses a data set of court decisions on land use and zoning that captures the growth in regulation over time and the large variability between the states.

The statistical results show that rising land-use regulation is associated with rising real average home prices in 44 states and that rising zoning regulation is associated with rising real average home prices in 36 states. In general, the states that have increased the amount of rules and restrictions on land use the most have higher housing prices.

The federal government spent almost $200 billion to subsidize renting and buying homes in 2015. These subsidies treat a symptom of the underlying problem. But the results of this study indicate that state and local governments can tackle housing affordability problems directly by overhauling their development rules. For example, housing is much more expensive in the Northeast than in the Southeast, and that difference is partly explained by more regulation in the former region.

Interestingly, the data show that relatively more federal housing aid flows to states with more restrictive zoning and land-use rules, perhaps because those states have higher housing costs. Federal aid thus creates a disincentive for the states to solve their own housing affordability problems by reducing regulation. (1)

This paper provides additional evidence for an argument that Edward Glaeser and others have been making for some time now.

Local governments won’t make these changes on their own. Nonetheless, local land-use decisions have a large negative impact on many households and businesses who are not currently located within the borders of the local jurisdictions (as well as some who are). As a result, the federal government could and should take restrictive land use regulation into account when it allocates federal aid for affordable housing.

The Obama Administration found that restrictive local land-use regulations stifled GDP growth in the aggregate. Perhaps reforming land-use regulation is something that could garner bipartisan support as it is a market-driven approach to the housing crisis, a cause dear to the hearts of many Democrats (and not a few Republicans).

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

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.


The Economics of Housing Supply

chart by Smallman12q

Housing economists Edward L. Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko have posted The Economic Implications of Housing Supply to SSRN (behind a paywall but you can find a slightly older version of the paper here). The abstract reads,

In this essay, we review the basic economics of housing supply and the functioning of US housing markets to better understand the distribution of home prices, household wealth and the spatial distribution of people across markets. We employ a cost-based approach to gauge whether a housing market is delivering appropriately priced units. Specifically, we investigate whether market prices (roughly) equal the costs of producing the housing unit. If so, the market is well-functioning in the sense that it efficiently delivers housing units at their production cost. Of course, poorer households still may have very high housing cost burdens that society may wish to address via transfers. But if housing prices are above this cost in a given area, then the housing market is not functioning well – and housing is too expensive for all households in the market, not just for poorer ones. The gap between price and production cost can be understood as a regulatory tax, which might be efficiently incorporating the negative externalities of new production, but typical estimates find that the implicit tax is far higher than most reasonable estimates of those externalities.

The paper’s conclusions, while a bit technical for a lay audience, are worth highlighting:

When housing supply is highly regulated in a certain area, housing prices are higher and population growth is smaller relative to the level of demand. While most of America has experienced little growth in housing wealth over the past 30 years, the older, richer buyers in America’s most regulated areas have experienced significant increases in housing equity. The regulation of America’s most productive places seems to have led labor to locate in places where wages and prices are lower, reducing America’s overall economic output in the process.

Advocates of land use restrictions emphasize the negative externalities of building. Certainly, new construction can lead to more crowded schools and roads, and it is costly to create new infrastructure to lower congestion. Hence, the optimal tax on new building is positive, not zero. However, there is as yet no consensus about the overall welfare implications of heightened land use controls. Any model-based assessment inevitably relies on various assumptions about the different aspects of regulation and how they are valued in agents’ utility functions.

Empirical investigations of the local costs and benefits of restricting building generally conclude that the negative externalities are not nearly large enough to justify the costs of regulation. Adding the costs from substitute building in other markets generally strengthens this conclusion, as Glaeser and Kahn (2010) show that America restricts building more in places that have lower carbon emissions per household. If California’s restrictions induce more building in Texas and Arizona, then their net environmental could be negative in aggregate. If restrictions on building limit an efficient geographical reallocation of labor, then estimates based on local externalities would miss this effect, too.

If the welfare and output gains from reducing regulation of housing construction are large, then why don’t we see more policy interventions to permit more building in markets such as San Francisco? The great challenge facing attempts to loosen local housing restrictions is that existing homeowners do not want more affordable homes: they want the value of their asset to cost more, not less. They also may not like the idea that new housing will bring in more people, including those from different socio-economic groups.

There have been some attempts at the state level to soften severe local land use restrictions, but they have not been successful. Massachusetts is particularly instructive because it has used both top-down regulatory reform and incentives to encourage local building. Massachusetts Chapter 40B provides builders with a tool to bypass local rules. If developers are building enough formally-defined affordable units in unaffordable areas, they can bypass local zoning rules. Yet localities still are able to find tools to limit local construction, and the cost of providing price-controlled affordable units lowers the incentive for developers to build. It is difficult to assess the overall impact of 40B, especially since both builder and community often face incentives to avoid building “affordable” units. Standard game theoretic arguments suggest that 40B should never itself be used, but rather work primarily by changing the fallback option of the developer. Massachusetts has also tried to create stronger incentives for local building with Chapters 40R and 40S. These parts of their law allow for transfers to the localities themselves, so builders are not capturing all the benefits. Even so, the Boston market and other high cost areas in the state have not seen meaningful surges in new housing development.

This suggests that more fiscal resources will be needed to convince local residents to bear the costs arising from new development. On purely efficiency grounds, one could argue that the federal government provide sufficient resources, but the political economy of the median taxpayer in the nation effectively transferring resources to much wealthier residents of metropolitan areas like San Francisco seems challenging to say the least. However daunting the task, the potential benefits look to be large enough that economists and policymakers should keep trying to devise a workable policy intervention. (19-20)

High Rents and Land Use Regulation

photo by cincy Project

The Federal Reserve’s Devin Bunten has posted Is the Rent Too High? Aggregate Implications of Local Land-Use Regulation. It is a technical paper about an important subject. It has implications for those who are concerned about the lack of affordable housing in high-growth areas. The abstract reads,

Highly productive U.S. cities are characterized by high housing prices, low housing stock growth, and restrictive land-use regulations (e.g., San Francisco). While new residents would benefit from housing stock growth in cities with highly productive firms, existing residents justify strict local land-use regulations on the grounds of congestion and other costs of further development. This paper assesses the welfare implications of these local regulations for income, congestion, and urban sprawl within a general-equilibrium model with endogenous regulation. In the model, households choose from locations that vary exogenously by productivity and endogenously according to local externalities of congestion and sharing. Existing residents address these externalities by voting for regulations that limit local housing density. In equilibrium, these regulations bind and house prices compensate for differences across locations. Relative to the planner’s optimum, the decentralized model generates spatial misallocation whereby high-productivity locations are settled at too-low densities. The model admits a straightforward calibration based on observed population density, expenditure shares on consumption and local services, and local incomes. Welfare and output would be 1.4% and 2.1% higher, respectively, under the planner’s allocation. Abolishing zoning regulations entirely would increase GDP by 6%, but lower welfare by 5.9% because of greater congestion.

The important sentence from the abstract is that “Welfare and output would be 1.4% and 2.1% higher, respectively, under the planner’s allocation.” Those are significant effects when we are talking about  real people and real places. The introduction provides a bit more context for the study:

Neighborhoods in productive, high-rent regions have very strict controls on housing development and very limited new housing construction. Home to Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area is the most productive and most expensive metropolitan region in the country, and yet new housing construction has been very slow, especially in contrast to less-productive large cities like Houston, Texas. The evidence suggests that this slow-growth environment results from locally determined regulatory constraints. Existing residents justify these constraints by appealing to the costs of new development, including increased vehicle traffic and other types of congestion, and claim that they see few, if any, of the benefits from new development. However, the effects of local regulation extend beyond the local regulating authorities: regions with highly regulated municipalities experience less-elastic housing supply. (2, footnotes omitted)

The bottom line, as far as I am concerned, is that localities that are attempting to deal with their affordable housing problems have to directly address how they go about their zoning. If the zoning does not support housing construction, then no amount of affordable housing incentives will address the demand for housing in high growth places like NYC and San Francisco.

Dodd-Frank Repeal Unappealing for Homeowners

photo by Gage Skidmore

Congressman Jeb Hensarling

The Hill published my latest column, Why Repealing Dodd-Frank Is Unappealing if You Own a Home. It opens, 

President Trump has made it clear that he wished to dismantle the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Just two weeks after his inauguration, he issued an executive order to get the ball rolling by means of agency action, an effort that will be led by the Department of the Treasury. Trump will have lots of allies in Congress as he pursues this agenda. A recent memo by House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) to his committee’s leadership team outlines a legislative path that leads to much the same goal.

One of the key components of the Dodd-Frank regulatory regime was the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The bureau is responsible for administering a range of consumer protection regulations, some of which predate Dodd-Frank and some of which were mandated by it. Homeowners should sit up and take notice because a lot of protections they can now take for granted will be stripped away if this push is successful.

Many of these regulations protect homeowners as they obtain mortgages for their homes. Others protect homeowners over the life of the mortgages, particularly when they are having trouble keeping up with their mortgage payments because of those common life events that still knock us for a loop when they happen to us: job loss, divorce, medical bills, a death in the family.

Hensarling’s memo makes clear the extent to which he wants to weaken the CFPB. Among many other things, he wants to eliminate the bureau’s consumer education functions, bar it from commencing actions involving unfair, deceptive or abusive acts and practices, end its practice of tracking consumer complaints, and stop if from monitoring and conducting research on the consumer credit market.

Before the financial crisis, homeowners suffered from a range of abusive and predatory behaviors that were prevalent in the mortgage industry for years and years. Lenders would lend without regard to a borrower’s ability to repay a loan, so long as there was sufficient equity in the home to make the lender whole after a foreclosure. Dodd-Frank’s ability-to-repay rule keeps lenders from doing that now. Lenders would make loans that had large balloon payments at the end of the term, forcing unsophisticated borrowers to refinance with all of the fees and costs that that entails. The lenders would look at those refinancing costs as another profit center. Dodd-Frank’s qualified mortgage rule banned those abusive balloon payments for the most part.

While Hensarling claims that Dodd-Frank “clogs the arteries of capitalism,” he seems to forget that unfettered capitalism nearly gave us a fatal heart attack just 10 years ago, when the subprime mortgage crisis led us to the brink of a second Great Depression. He seems to forget that predatory mortgage lending is not only bad for the individuals affected by it, but also for the housing market and economy in general. Housing prices did not just fall for those with unsustainable mortgages—they fell for all of us.

The push to get rid of the CFPB is not being driven by the consumer finance industry. The industry has learned to live with the bureau. It has come to see that there are some benefits that accrue from primarily dealing with one regulator, in place of the patchwork of regulators that was the norm before Dodd-Frank. Rather, the push is being driven by an unfettered free market ideology that is out of step with the workings of the modern economy.

Getting rid of the CFPB will be bad for homeowners. They will no longer be able to assume that a mortgage they receive is one that has payments they can make month-in and month-out. They will need to treat lenders as predators because predatory lending will certainly return to the mortgage market. Caveat emptor.