Fintech and Mortgage Lending

image by InvestmentZen, www.investmentzen.com

The Trump Administration released its fourth and final report on Nonbank Financials, Fintech, and Innovation in its A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunity series. The report differs from the previous three as it does not throw the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under the bus when it comes to the regulation of mortgage lending.

The report highlights how nonbank mortgage lenders, early adopters of fintech, have taken an immense amount of market share from traditional mortgage lenders like banks:

Treasury recognizes that the primary residential mortgage market has experienced a fundamental shift in composition since the financial crisis, as traditional deposit-based lender-servicers have ceded sizable market share to nonbank financial firms, with the latter now accounting for approximately half of new originations. Some of this shift has been driven by the post-crisis regulatory environment, including enforcement actions brought under the False Claims Act for violations related to government loan insurance programs. Additionally, many nonbank lenders have benefitted from early adoption of financial technology innovations that speed up and simplify loan application and approval at the front-end of the mortgage origination process. Policymakers should address regulatory challenges that discourage broad primary market participation and inhibit the adoption of  technological developments with the potential to improve the customer experience, shorten origination timelines, facilitate efficient loss mitigation, and generally deliver a more reliable, lower cost mortgage product. (11)

I am not sure that the report has its causes and effects exactly right. For instance, why would banks be more disincentivized than other financial institutions because of False Claims Act lawsuits? Is the argument that banks have superior lending opportunities that are not open to nonbank mortgage lenders? If so, is that market segmentation such a bad thing? 

That being said, I think the report is right to highlight the impact of fintech on the contemporary mortgage lending environment. Consumers will certainly benefit from a shorter and more streamlined mortgage application process.

Assessing The Ability-to-Repay and Qualified Mortgage Rule

photo by Alan Levine

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has issued a Request for Information Regarding Ability-to-Repay/Qualified Mortgage Rule Assessment. Dodd-Frank

requires the Bureau to conduct an assessment of each significant rule or order adopted by the Bureau under Federal consumer financial law. The Bureau must publish a report of the assessment not later than five years after the effective date of such rule or order. The assessment must address, among other relevant factors, the rule’s effectiveness in meeting the purposes and objectives of title X of the Dodd Frank Act and the specific goals stated by the Bureau. The assessment also must reflect available evidence and any data that the Bureau reasonably may collect. Before publishing a report of its assessment, the Bureau must invite public comment on recommendations for modifying, expanding, or eliminating the significant rule or order. (82 F.R. 25247)

The Bureau invites the public to submit the following:

  1. Comments on the feasibility and effectiveness of the assessment plan, the objectives of the ATR/QM Rule that the Bureau intends to emphasize in the assessment, and the outcomes, metrics, baselines, and analytical methods for assessing the effectiveness of the rule as described in part IV above;
  2. Data and other factual information that may be useful for executing the Bureau’s assessment plan, as described in part IV above;
  3. Recommendations to improve the assessment plan, as well as data, other factual information, and sources of data that would be useful and available to execute any recommended improvements to the assessment plan;
  4. Data and other factual information about the benefits and costs of the ATR/ QM Rule for consumers, creditors, and other stakeholders in the mortgage industry; and about the impacts of the rule on transparency, efficiency, access, and innovation in the mortgage market;
  5. Data and other factual information about the rule’s effectiveness in meeting the purposes and objectives of Title X of the Dodd-Frank Act (section 1021), which are listed in part IV above;
  6. Recommendations for modifying, expanding, or eliminating the ATR/QM Rule. (82 F.R. 25250)

As with the RESPA Assessment, this ATR/QM Assessment provides “consumers and their advocates, housing counselors, mortgage creditors and other industry representatives, industry analysts, and other interested persons” with the opportunity to help shape how the ATR/QM Rule should work going forward. (Id.)

Comments must be received on or before July 31, 2017.

Gorsuch and the CFPB

photo provided byUnited States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

Judge Gorsuch

Bankrate.com quoted me in Supreme Court Pick Could Spell Trouble for the CFPB. It opens,

President Donald Trump’s first Supreme Court pick has been identified as the “most natural successor” to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whom he would replace.

Neil Gorsuch, 49, a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, is said to share many of Scalia’s beliefs and his judicial philosophy. That could tip the high court back toward the 5-4 conservative split it held during controversial cases prior to Scalia’s death, although Justice Anthony Kennedy will remain a liberal swing vote on certain social issues before the court.

Gorsuch’s big judicial decisions have favored religious freedom over government regulation and state’s rights over the power of the federal government.

But how might that impact consumers or their wallets directly?

“I think with a judge like Gorsuch, you can see there probably will be a tendency in that direction to dissuade innovation,” says David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School and the academic program director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.

That could mean the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose unique management structure a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last fall called unconstitutional, could face an obstacle on the bench should the legal fight over its construction ever reach the Supreme Court.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who wrote the majority opinion for the D.C. circuit panel, said because this independent agency is headed by a director whom the president cannot fire at will – and not, say, a set of commissioners like other agencies within the government – it is a threat to individual liberty.

“In short, when measured in terms of unilateral power, the director of the CFPB is the single most powerful official in the entire U.S. government, other than the president,” Kavanaugh wrote. “In essence, the director is the president of consumer finance.”

How Gorsuch May Rule

Supporters of the bureau are trying to get a hearing before the full U.S. Court of Appeals, but the issue could well wind up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court – that is if Congress doesn’t take action first.

Legal scholars say should Gorsuch win Senate confirmation he is unlikely to look favorably on the bureau’s structure.

Indeed, Gorsuch is likely to “echo the views of Judge Kavanaugh,” Melissa Malpass, senior legal editor for consumer regulatory finance at Thompson Reuters Practical Law, said in an email.

“Judge Gorsuch, through recent decisions, has expressed his disfavor with permitting government agencies to not only determine what the law is, but also to interpret and re-interpret the law as they see fit, often based on the political climate,” Malpass says.

If the Supreme Court were to uphold the Kavanaugh ruling, it “may, in effect, destroy the CFPB as we know it, and that will have an effect on consumers,” Reiss says.

Not everyone, though, thinks restructuring the CFPB as a commission-led agency like the Federal Communications Commission, for example, would be bad for consumers.

Gorsuch’s Path to the High Court

Democrats, still stung over the Senate’s refusal to consider Merrick Garland, then-President Barack Obama’s pick to succeed Scalia, could try to block Gorsuch’s nomination. Under current Senate rules, at least eight Democrats will need to cross the aisle to prevent a filibuster of the appointment.

Gorsuch, who was confirmed for his current post in 2006 by Senate voice vote, has won widespread acclaim in Republican circles. He also received a vote of confidence from a former Obama administration official.

“I think the Democrats are going to ask questions to determine if the nominee is outside what they call the political mainstream,” Reiss says. “We know this battle will be a brutal one, almost definitely because of the treatment of Merrick Garland’s nomination under the Obama administration.”

Consumer-Friendly Financial Innovation

lightbulbsThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a Final Policy Statement on No-Action Letters. According to the press release, the policy is intended to facilitate consumer access to financial products and services that promise substantial benefit to consumers.” More specifically, according to the Final Policy Statement itself,

Under the Policy, Bureau staff would, in its discretion, issue no-action letters (NALs) to specific applicants in instances involving innovative financial products or services that promise substantial consumer benefit where there is substantial uncertainty whether or how specific provisions of statutes implemented or regulations issued by the Bureau would be applied (for example if, because of intervening technological developments, the application of statutes and regulations to a new product is novel and complicated). The Policy is also designed to enhance compliance with applicable federal consumer financial laws. A NAL would advise the recipient that, subject to its stated limitations, the staff has no present intention to recommend initiation of an enforcement or supervisory action against the requester with respect to a specified matter. NALs would be subject to modification or revocation at any time at the discretion of the staff, and may be conditioned on particular undertakings by the applicant with respect to product or service usage and data-sharing with the Bureau. Issued NALs generally would be publicly disclosed. NALs would be nonbinding on the Bureau, and would not bind courts or other actors who might challenge a NAL recipient’s product or service, such as other regulators or parties in litigation. The Bureau believes that there may be significant opportunities to facilitate innovation and access, and otherwise substantially enhance consumer benefits, through the Policy. (1-2)

Colleagues and I had commented on this policy when it was first proposed, arguing that it should incorporate metrics to ensure that it is achieving its stated goals. It does not seem that the CFPB agreed with our comments. So, while I think the final policy is a step in the right direction, I am not sure if we can really measure how good of a step it is.

The Dense State of NYC’s Housing

NYU_Campus

NYU’s Furman Center released its State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods in 2014. I found its discussion of urban density to be the most notable aspect of this nexcellent and data-rich annual report. The discussion on density concludes,

The renewed attractiveness of New York City since the 1970s means population will likely keep increasing, and so will population and housing density. In 2010, few other U.S. cities had any neighborhoods that matched the density experienced by the typical New Yorker. Yet, by recent historical standards, today’s density levels are not extreme. In recent years, the typical New Yorker lived in a lower-density neighborhood than the typical New Yorker in 1970, as population growth in the city since 1980 was focused in moderate-density neighborhoods. Further, while great disparities in education and crime across neighborhoods exist, these differences are not generally associated with density levels.

High density cities like New York are playing an increasingly important role in the economy as drivers of productivity and innovation. This means the accessibility of the city to new residents is important both for New Yorkers and the nation. We have demonstrated that significant numbers of new residents can be accommodated without elevating density to levels above what the city has historically experienced, and that high-density neighborhoods do not perform lower on key quality of life indicators. City officials will need to ensure that neighborhoods have sufficient infrastructure to accommodate their new residents. (20)

This last point is key: density is not a problem so long as the appropriate infrastructure is built to support it. And while current residents are concerned about the impact of local increases in density, the city as a whole benefits from the increased economic activity and cultural creativity that comes along with heightened density. The De Blasio Administration knows this. Other local elected officials should sign on to increased density along with thoughtful zoning and infrastructure policies.

As a final note, I would compare the transparent acknowledgement of the report’s financial sponsors in the front matter with the much less transparent acknowledgment found in Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies State of the Nation’s Housing 2015 report that I blogged about yesterday.

Housing Subsidies For Those Who Need Them

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has posted Aligning Federal Low Income Housing Programs with Housing Need. The Executive Summary goes right to the heart of the matter:

The number of renters in the United States has steadily increased since 2006 and will continue to rise as new households form in the post-recession economy. In 2012, one out of four renter households had incomes at or below 30% of the area median income (AMI) for a total of 10.3 million households categorized as extremely low income (ELI). In the same year there were just 3.2 million units affordable and available to ELI households, creating a shortage of 7.1 million rental units affordable to these households.

Despite this evidence of a substantial need for deeply affordable rental housing, the low income housing resources that are provided by the federal government are only able to reach 23% of the eligible population. (iii)
This study looks at the extent to which the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), the HOME program and the Federal Home Loan Banks’ Affordable Housing Program (AHP) serve ELI households. It finds that in general, “these three programs do not serve ELI households on their own. Their ability to serve ELI households depends on the addition of one or more forms of subsidy, usually housing choice vouchers (HCV).” (iii)
The study identifies common themes from its research on this topic:
  • Developers layer multiple funding sources while adapting to rapidly changing political and fiscal environments. Many also rely on non-traditional resources, such as private donations, to fill funding gaps.
  • Reducing or eliminating mortgage debt is critical to be able to serve ELI households.
  • Cultivating strong local partnerships is a key factor affecting developers’ ability to serve ELI households. Often, local jurisdictions that have prioritized affordable housing are willing to donate land or property at a low cost.
  • Cross-subsidization is an important strategy used by many developers committed to inclusive properties that serve ELI households. This strategy incorporates units affordable to ELI households into projects containing other units occupied by households with a broader mix of incomes. The rents paid by higher income households supplement the overall operating expenses of the project, compensating for the lower rents that ELI households can afford.
  • While the case studies highlighted some very effective strategies for serving ELI households without the use of vouchers, there is not one model that can be easily replicated. (iii-iv)

None of this is particularly earth shattering, but it is useful to to look into this topic in a systematic way. The Coalition hopes that this report “will contribute to the broader conversation about simplifying the process of financing affordable housing developments, refining existing programs so that they incentivize developers to serve ELI households, and finding ways to fund the ongoing operating costs of units that do serve ELI renters.” (iv)

As an off-the-cuff response, I wonder if the nation’s affordable housing agenda is benefited from such a complex funding environment for housing for extremely low income households. Can it just be funded more comprehensively, acknowledging the reality that it requires deep subsidies from the get-go? What is the opportunity cost of requiring developers to devote so much time to creating such complicated deal structures? In the current political environment, I doubt that affordable housing advocates have the stomach to raise these questions, lest Congress decides to cut back affordable housing subsidies even further. But in the long term, these are questions worth asking.