The Hunger Games: Amazon Edition

photo by SounderBruce

The New York Law Journal published commentary of mine, The Hunger Games: Amazon Edition. It opens,

Last week Amazon finally announced that New York and Northern Virginia would be the sites of its planned major expansion. While many are caught up in the excitement of Amazon bringing 25,000 high-paid jobs to both metropolitan areas, it is worth thinking through the costs that beauty contests like this one impose on state and local governments. Amazon extracted billions of dollars in concessions from the winners and could have extracted even more from some of the other cities courting them.

It is economically rational for companies to create such Hunger Games-type competitions among communities. These competitions reduce their costs and improve their bottom lines. But is it economically rational for the cities? As long as governments are acting independently, yes, it is rational for them to race to the bottom to secure a win. So long as they are a bit better off by snagging the prize than they would have been otherwise, they come out ahead. But the metrics that politicians use are unlikely to be limited to a hard-nosed accounting of costs and increased tax revenues. Positive buzz may be enough to satisfy them.

Consider Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s deal with Foxconn. Just over a year ago, he was touting the $3 billion state subsidy for FoxConn’s manufacturing plant. This was the year leading up to his hard fought election fight, a fight he ultimately lost. His public statements focused on Foxconn’s promise to create 13,000 jobs. While that was a lot of jobs, it was a hell of a lot of subsidy—more than $230,000 per job, more than six times the largest amount Wisconsin had ever paid to subsidize a promised job. Walker got his campaign issue, FoxConn got its $3 billion and Wisconsin residents got … had. The $3 billion dollar subsidy has grown to over $4 billion at the same time that Foxconn is slowing down its investment in Wisconsin. So now taxpayers are subsidizing each job by well over $300,000 each. Nonpartisan analysts have determined that it will take decades, at the earliest, for Wisconsin to recoup its “investment.”

Likewise, hundreds of millions of dollars are thrown at stadiums and arenas even though economists have clearly demonstrated that those investments do not generate a positive financial return for the governments that provide these subsidies. Fancy consultants set forth all of the supposed benefits: job creation, direct spending by all of the people drawn to the facility, indirect spending by those who service the direct spenders. This last metric is meant to capture the increase in restaurant staff, Uber drivers and others who will cater to the new employees, residents and visitors to the facility. But as has been shown time and time again, these metrics are vastly overstated and willingly accepted at face value by politicians eager to generate some good headlines. They also ignore the opportunity cost of the direct subsidies—monies spent on attracting a company is money that can’t be spent on anything else. While we don’t know what it would have been spent on, it is likely to have been public schools, mass transit, roads or affordable housing in many communities.

 

Promoting Equitable Transit-Oriented Development

graphic by USGAO

Enteprise has released a report, Promoting Opportunity through Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (eTOD): Navigating Federal Transportation Policy. It opens,

Transportation, housing and land use decisions that form the foundation of our development patterns are made at every level of government. While the local regulatory environment significantly impacts the amount and type of development that occurs, the federal government plays a major role in local development in both overt and hidden ways. Federal funding is the most obvious source of influence. However, this funding comes with a catch, as the incentives and regulations that govern funding programs can have a significant impact – both positive and negative – on the type of housing and transportation infrastructure that is built and how it is maintained over time.

The federal ability to influence development patterns gives it both direct and indirect influence on a community’s strength and composition. Individual families, the local economy, municipal governments and the environment all benefit when well-located housing, jobs and other necessary resources are connected by efficient transportation and infrastructure networks. Equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD, see sidebar for definition) is an important approach to facilitating these connections. eTOD supports the achievement of multiple cross-sector goals, including regional economic growth, enhanced mobility and access, efficient municipal and transportation network operations, improved public health and decreased cost of living. For a full discussion of the benefits of eTOD, read Promoting Opportunity through eTOD: Making the Case.

In recent years, the federal government has taken several actions that are more conducive to fostering eTOD. Notable examples include the adoption of incentives for creating and preserving affordable housing near transit, the provision of planning and technical assistance resources to support eTOD, and the reduction of barriers to producing affordable housing on federally-funded property. However, a wide range of policies and incentives that do not explicitly address eTOD can also support or detract from the conditions that make such development possible.

Navigating Federal Transportation Policy is the third report in our Promoting Opportunity through eTOD research series. This report seeks to assist stakeholders involved in achieving eTOD, such as public entities, developers and practitioners, as they work to navigate the federal policy landscape, with a focus onFederal Transit Administration (FTA) policies and programs. These policies and programs generally offer several funding and technical assistance opportunities that can address eTOD (among a range of other uses), but housing practitioners may be less familiar with these resources and how to access them. (2, footnote omitted)

While the report explicitly acknowledges the changed environment since President Trump’s election, it does not seem to fully integrate those changes into its recommendations. While there are a lot of good ideas in the report, I am afraid that it will take a few years, or longer, for them to find a sympathetic ear in the Executive Branch.

Planning for a Wetter Future

 

picture by Charly W. Karl

Enterprise has issued Safer and Stronger Cities: Strategies for Advocating for Federal Resilience Policy. The report

offers a menu of federal recommendations organized into five chapters focusing on infrastructure, housing, economic development and public safety. Each chapter includes a set of strategies, background on the issue, explanations of the role of the Federal Government, listing of potential allies in advocating for the recommendations, and relevant examples of current or previous local, state, and federal actions.

To better support city resilience, these recommendations include high level proposals for cities to coordinate with federal government for both legislative and agency actions, which cities can drive forward. Policy and program changes will increase or leverage investment from the private sector are highlighted. (2)

The report recommends, among other things, that the federal government should

  1. Create a National Infrastructure Bank that supports private-public investments in resilient infrastructure, including retrofits.
  2. Align cost-benefit analyses across federal agencies and require agencies to consider the full life cycle costs and benefits of infrastructure over the asset’s design life and in consideration of future conditions.
  3. Cultivate partnerships between cities and the Defense Department to promote resilience of city assets that are critical to national security and military installations.
  4. Implement a system that scores infrastructure based on its resilience to better prioritize scarce federal funds.
  5. Coordinate Federal Government grant-making and permitting related to hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. (10)

These are good proposals, no question about it. I am not too optimistic that the current leadership in Washington will heed any of them. Local partnerships with the Defense Department might have some legs in today’s environment though, particularly given recent news reports about foreign hacking into the electrical grid.

Even those who discount the global risks arising from climate change should acknowledge the need to bolster the resiliency of our coastal cities. Let’s hope we start planning for a wetter future sooner rather than later.

Mortgage Servicing Since The Financial Crisis

photo by Dan Brown

Standard & Poors issued a report, A Decade After The Financial Crisis, What’s The New Normal For Residential Mortgage Servicing? It provides a good overview of how this hidden infrastructure of the mortgage market is functioning after it emerged from the crucible of the subprime and foreclosure crises. It reads, in part,

Ten years after the start of the financial crisis, residential mortgage servicing is finally settling into a new sense of normal. Before the crisis, mortgage servicing was a fairly static business. Traditional prime servicers had low delinquency rates, regulatory requirements rarely changed, and servicing systems were focused on core functions such as payment processing, investor accounting, escrow management, and customer service. Subprime was a specific market with specialty servicers, which used high-touch collection practices rather than the low-touch model prime servicers used. Workout options for delinquent borrowers mainly included repayment plans or extensions. And though servicers completed some modifications, short sales, and deeds in lieu of foreclosure, these were exceptions to the normal course of business.

Today, residential mortgage servicing involves complex regulation, increased mandatory workout options, and multiple layers of internal control functions. Over the past 10 years servicers have had to not only modify their processes, but also hire more employees and enhance their technology infrastructure and internal controls to support those new processes. As a result, servicing mortgage loans has become less profitable, which has caused loan servicers to consolidate and has created a barrier to entry for new servicers. While the industry expects reduced regulatory requirements under the Trump administration and delinquency rates to continue to fall, we do not foresee servicers reverting to pre-crisis operational processes. Instead, we expect states to maintain, and in some cases enhance, their regulatory requirements to fill the gap for any lifted or reduced at the federal level. Additionally, most mortgage loan servicers have already invested in new processes and technology, and despite the cost to support these and adapt to any additional requirements, we do not expect them to strip back the controls that have become their new normal. (2/10, citation omitted)

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As The Economy Improves, Delinquency Rates Have Become More Stable

Total delinquency rates have only just begun returning to around pre-crisis levels as the economy–and borrowers’ abilities to make their mortgage payments–has improved (see charts 1 and 2). Lower delinquency rates can also be attributed to delinquent accounts moving through the default management process, either becoming reperforming loans after modifications or through liquidation. New regulatory requirements have also extended workout timelines for delinquent accounts. In 2010, one year after 90-plus delinquency rates hit a high point, the percentage of prime and subprime loans in foreclosure actually surpassed the percentage that were more than 90 days delinquent–a trend that continued until 2013 for prime loans and 2014 for subprime loans. But since the end of 2014, all delinquency buckets have remained fairly stable, with overall delinquency rates for prime loans down to slightly over 4% for 2016 from a peak of just over 8% in 2009. Overall delinquency rates for subprime loans have fluctuated more since the peak at 29% in 2009. (2/10)

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Modifications Now Make Up About Half Of Loan Workout Strategies

Government agencies and government-sponsored enterprises (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) developed new formal modification programs beginning in 2008 to address the rising delinquency and foreclosure rates. The largest of these programs was HAMP, launched in March 2009. While HAMP was required for banks accepting funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), all servicers were allowed to participate. These programs required that servicers exhaust all loss mitigation options before completing foreclosure. This requirement, and the fact that servicers started receiving incentives to complete modifications, spurred the increase in modifications. (4/10)

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Foreclosure Timelines Have Become Longer

As the number of loans in foreclosure rose during the financial crisis, the requirements associated with the foreclosure process grew. As a result, the time it took to complete the foreclosure process increased to almost 475 days in 2016 from more than 160 days in 2007–an increase of almost 200%. While this is not a weighted average and therefore not adjusted for states with smaller or larger foreclosure portfolios, which could skew the average, the data show longer timelines across all states. And even though the percentage of loans in foreclosure has decreased in recent years (to 1% and 9% by the end of 2016 for prime and subprime, respectively, from peaks of 3% in 2010 and 13% in 2011) the time it takes to complete a foreclosure has still not lessened (6/10)

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)

Muddled Future for Fannie & Freddie

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The United States Government Accountability Office released a report, Objectives Needed for the Future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac After Conservatorships.  The GAO’s findings read a bit like a “dog bites man” story — stating, as it does, the obvious:  “Congress should consider legislation that would establish clear objectives and a transition plan to a reformed housing finance system that enables the enterprises to exit conservatorship. FHFA agreed with our overall findings.” (GAO Highlights page) I think everyone agrees with that, except unfortunately, Congress.  Congress has let the two companies languish in the limbo of conservatorship for over eight years now.

Richard Shelby, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, asked the GAO to prepare this report in order to

examine FHFA’s actions as conservator. This report addresses (1) the extent to which FHFA’s goals for the conservatorships have changed and (2) the implications of FHFA’s actions for the future of the enterprises and the broader secondary mortgage market. GAO analyzed and reviewed FHFA’s actions as conservator and supporting documents; legislative proposals for housing finance reform; the enterprises’ senior preferred stock agreements with Treasury; and GAO, Congressional Budget Office, and FHFA inspector general reports. GAO also interviewed FHFA and Treasury officials and industry stakeholders (Id.)

The GAO’s findings are pretty technical, but still very important for housing analysts:

In the absence of congressional direction, FHFA’s shift in priorities has altered market participants’ perceptions and expectations about the enterprises’ ongoing role and added to uncertainty about the future structure of the housing finance system. In particular, FHFA halted several actions aimed at reducing the scope of enterprise activities and is seeking to maintain the enterprises in their current state. However, other actions (such as reducing their capital bases to $0 by January 2018) are written into agreements for capital support with the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and continue to be implemented.

In addition, the change in scope for the technology platform for securitization puts less emphasis on reducing barriers facing private entities than previously envisioned, and new initiatives to expand mortgage availability could crowd out market participants.

Furthermore, some actions, such as transferring credit risk to private investors, could decrease the likelihood of drawing on Treasury’s funding commitment, but others, such as reducing minimum down payments, could increase it.

GAO has identified setting clear objectives as a key principle for providing government assistance to private market participants. Because Congress has not established objectives for the future of the enterprises after conservatorships or the federal role in housing finance, FHFA’s ability to shift priorities may continue to contribute to market uncertainty. (Id.)

One finding seems particularly spot on to me. As I wrote yesterday, it appears as if the FHFA is not focusing sufficiently on building the infrastructure to serve secondary mortgage markets other than Fannie and Freddie.  It seems to me that a broader and deeper bench of secondary mortgage market players will benefit the housing market in the long run.

 

Fannie/Freddie Scorecard

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The Federal Housing Finance Agency released its 2017 Scorecard for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Common Securitization Solutions.  The scorecard highlights how the FHFA’s reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is proceeding apace, absent direction from Congress.  This reform path had been set by Acting Director DeMarco, appointed by President Bush, and has continued relatively unchanged under Director Watt, appointed by President Obama.

The scorecard’s assessment criteria for the two companies are,

  • The extent to which each Enterprise conducts initiatives in a safe and sound manner consistent with FHFA’s expectations for all activities;
  • The extent to which the outcomes of their activities support a competitive and resilient secondary mortgage market to support homeowners and renters;
  • The extent to which each Enterprise conducts initiatives with consideration for diversity and inclusion consistent with FHFA’s expectations for all activities;
  • Cooperation and collaboration with FHFA, each other, the industry, and other stakeholders; and
  • The quality, thoroughness, creativity, effectiveness, and timeliness of their work products. (2)

The scorecard states that Fannie and Freddie should increase credit risk transfers to investors.  Currently, the focus is on transferring risk from pretty safe and standard mortgages, but the FHFA is pushing Fannie and Freddie to increase risk transfers on a broader array of mortgage types.

The scorecard also states that the effort to integrate Fannie and Freddie through the Common Securitization Platform and the Single Security should continue so that the Single Security is operational in 2018.  The scorecard emphasizes that the Platform should allow “for the integration of additional market participants in the future.” (6)  While this has been a design requirement from the get-go, I have heard through the grapevine that this element of the Platform has not been pursued so vigorously.  To my mind, it seems like a key component if we want to build the infrastructure for a healthy secondary mortgage market for the rest of the 21st century.