Loan Mods Amidst Rising Interest Rates

photo by Chris Butterworth

The Urban Institute’s Laurie Goodman et al. have posted Government Loan Modifications: What Happens When Interest Rates Rise?. This brief is another product of the newly formed Mortgage Servicing Collaborative. This brief

examines the current loan modification product suite for government loans insured or guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), or the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). When a delinquent borrower with a government loan obtains a modification, the mortgage rate is typically reset to the prevailing market rate, which can be higher or lower than the original note rate. When the market rate is below the original rate, providing payment reduction becomes inherently easier and less expensive for the investor. Conversely, when market rates are above the note rate, providing payment reduction becomes more expensive and challenging, making it more difficult to cure the delinquency. This can result in more redefaults and foreclosures, larger losses for government insurers, and greater distress for borrowers, communities, and neighborhoods. In addition, most government mortgage borrowers are first-time homebuyers and minorities, who tend to have limited incomes and savings, making loan modifications all the more important. (1)

Given the recent upward trend in interest rates, this is more than a theoretical exercise. And indeed, the brief “explains why FHA, VA, and USDA borrowers who fall behind on their payments are unlikely to receive adequate payment relief when the market interest rate is higher than the original note rate. ” (3)

The brief outlines some options that could increase payment relief for those borrowers, including deploying a 40-year extended term and principal forbearance to reduce the monthly mortgage payment. The brief acknowledges that there are barriers to implementing the options it has identified but it also proposes ways to overcome those barriers.

As I had stated previously, the Mortgage Servicing Collaborative is providing sorely needed guidance through some of the darker corners of the mortgage market. This brief sheds some welcome light on an obscured problem that may cause trouble in the years to come.

Aggressive Retirement Investing in Real Estate Lending

InsuranceNewsNet.com quoted me in Investors ‘Flocking In’ to Real Estate Lending. It reads, in part,

The stock market is off to a roaring start in 2018, but there’s no shortage of investment gurus who warn that continued equities growth is far from guaranteed.

The dreaded market correction could be coming sooner, rather than later, some say.

That gives some money managers pause about what asset tools to steer in and out of a client’s retirement portfolio. But there’s an emerging school of thought that one specific alternative investment could be good protection against a stock market correction.

“We’re seeing financial experts weigh in with their 2018 investing recommendations, citing everything from mutual funds to value stocks,” said Bobby Montagne, chief executive officer at Walnut Street Finance, a private lender.

But one prime retirement savings vehicle often gets overlooked — real estate lending, Montagne said.

Real estate lending means investing in a private loan fund managed by a private lender. Walnut Street is one such lender in the $56 billion home-flipping market.

“Your money helps finance individuals who purchase distressed properties, renovate them, and then quickly resell at a profit,” Montagne explained. “Investments are first-lien position and secured by real assets.”

With real estate lending, investors can put small percentages of their 401(k)s or IRAs in a larger pool of funds, which lenders then match with budding entrepreneurs working on home flipping projects, he said.

“It allows investors to diversify their portfolios without having to collect rent or renovate homes, as they would in hands-on real estate investing,” Montagne added.

*     *     *

An Aggressive Investment

Some investment experts deem any investment associated with real estate flipping as a higher-risk play.

“Investing a percentage of a retirees funds in real estate flipping would be considered an aggressive investment,” said Sid Miramontes, founder and CEO of Irvine, Calif.-based Miramontes Capital, which has more than $250 million in assets under management.

Even though the investor would not directly manage the real estate project, he or she has to understand the risks involved in funding the project, material costs, project completion time, the current interest rate environment, where the properties are located geographically and the state of the economy, he said.

“I have had pre-retirees invest in these projects with significant returns, as well as clients that did not have experience and results were very poor,” he added. “The investor needs to realize the risks involved.”

A 1 percent to 5 percent allocation is appropriate, only if the investor met the aggressive investment criteria and understood the real estate market, Miramontes said.

Investment advisors and their clients should also be careful about grouping all real estate lending into one basket.

“You could invest in a mortgage REIT, which would be a more traditional vehicle to get exposure to real estate lending,” said David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, N.Y. “If you’re doing something less traditional, research the fund’s track record, volatility, management, performance and expenses.

“You should be very careful about buying into a fund that does not check out on those fronts.”

What’s with 1031 Exchanges?

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US News & World Report quoted me in Why 1031 Exchange Investments Are Worth a Look. It opens,

With tax reform nearing final passage in Congress, one of the most underlooked, but potentially overpowering, tax-advantaged investment tools is the 1031 exchange, which was spared major changes in the proposed legislation.

The 1031 exchange, especially when related to real estate investments, is all about “timing and taxes” and the better you manage the two, the more money you can make.

What is a 1031 exchange? By and large, IRS Section 1031 covers “exchanges” or swaps of a specific investable asset (such as real estate) for another. The end game for the taxpayer/investor is to avoid having exchanges listed as taxable sales. But if they’re executed within the confines of a 1031 exchange, taxes are either significantly reduced or eliminated altogether.

The primary benefit of 1031 exchanges related to real estate investments is tax deferral, or avoidance of capital gains taxes on the sale of appreciated investment property, says Kevin O’Brian, a certified financial planner at Peak Financial Services, in Northborough, Massachusetts.
“If held inside owner’s estate at death, the asset would receive a step-up in cost basis to the market value, as of the date of death,” O’Brian says. “Therefore, heirs could avoid capital gains taxes, if sold after inheriting it as well.”
Others note that following IRS guidelines on Section 1031 are a must.
“1031 exchanges allow a real estate investor to sell one property that has appreciated in value and not pay capital gains tax so long as the investor buys another property,” says David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School. “This is a powerful tax deferral tool that many sophisticated real estate investors use. It is, however, somewhat complicated to pull off and involves some additional costs and planning so it is not for those looking for a quick and easy way to defer capital gains.”
What are the rules for a 1031 exchange? The rules governing 1031 exchanges have to be followed carefully and it makes sense to plan for it with an appropriate team of professional advisors and a reputable 1031 exchange company, Reiss says.
“Generally, the investor needs to sell the property that has appreciated in value; place the proceeds in escrow with an intermediary; and then use those proceeds to buy a replacement property within a certain period of time,” he says. “If the investor fails to follow the requirements for the exchange, he or she may be taxed on the full capital gain.”
Investors should also be sure to use a 1031 exchange company that meets specific criteria. “Not the least of which is that it’s properly insured to protect you in case your funds disappear from escrow,” Reiss says. “This has been known to happen.”

A Shortage of Short Sales

Calvin Zhang of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia has posted A Shortage of Short Sales: Explaining the Under-Utilization of a Foreclosure Alternative to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The Great Recession led to widespread mortgage defaults, with borrowers resorting to both foreclosures and short sales to resolve their defaults. I first quantify the economic impact of foreclosures relative to short sales by comparing the home price implications of both. After accounting for omitted variable bias, I find that homes selling as a short sale transact at 8.5% higher prices on average than those that sell after foreclosure. Short sales also exert smaller negative externalities than foreclosures, with one short sale decreasing nearby property values by one percentage point less than a foreclosure. So why weren’t short sales more prevalent? These home-price benefits did not increase the prevalence of short sales because free rents during foreclosures caused more borrowers to select foreclosures, even though higher advances led servicers to prefer more short sales. In states with longer foreclosure timelines, the benefits from foreclosures increased for borrowers, so short sales were less utilized. I find that one standard deviation increase in the average length of the foreclosure process decreased the short sale share by 0.35-0.45 standard deviation. My results suggest that policies that increase the relative attractiveness of short sales could help stabilize distressed housing markets.

The paper highlights the importance of aligning incentives in the mortgage market among lenders, investors, servicers and borrowers. Zhang makes this clear in his conclusion:

While these individual results seem small in magnitude, the total economic impact is big because of how large the real estate market is. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that having 5% more short sales than foreclosures would have saved up to $5.8 billion in housing wealth between 2007 and 2011. Thus, there needs to be more incentives for short sales to be done. The government and GSEs already began encouraging short sales by offering programs like HAFA [Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives] starting in 2009 to increase the benefits of short sales for both the borrower and the servicer, but more could be done such as decreasing foreclosure timelines. If we can continue to increase the incentives to do short sales so that they become more popular than foreclosures, future housing downturns may not be as extreme or last as long. (29)

Fannie and Freddie’s Credit Risk Transfers

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has released its February 2017 Housing Finance at a Glance Chartbook, always a great resource for housing geeks. Each Chartbook highlights one topic. This one focuses on GSE credit risk transfers, an important but technical subject:

The GSE’s credit risk transfer (CRT) program is growing and tapping into a more diverse investor base, reducing the costs of CRTs and improving liquidity in this market. At the same time, the continued reliance on back-end transactions is cause for concern
.
Freddie Mac‘s first two capital markets CRT transactions of 2017 have been different from previous Structured Agency Credit Risk (STACR) transactions in one important way. Unlike the pre-2017 deals, in which the first loss piece (Tranche B) was 100 basis points thick, the first loss piece (Tranche B2) in the latest transactions is only 50 basis points thick while second loss piece (B1) is also 50 basis points thick. Splitting the old B tranche more granularly in this manner is a noteworthy development for a few reasons.
Although this is hardly the first improvement the GSEs have made to their back-end CRT execution, it is an important one. Splitting the offering into more granular risk buckets will force investors to price the tranches more accurately, thus facilitating more precise price discovery of credit risk. More granular tranching will also help increase the demand for STACR securities. Investors who were previously willing, but unable to invest in the B tranche because investment guidelines prohibited them from taking first loss credit risk will now instead be able to invest in the second loss B1 tranche, which offers a higher expected returns than the previous second loss tranche (M2). Growing and diversifying the investor base is important because it makes the bidding process more efficient and minimizes the cost of risk transfer for Freddie Mac and the taxpayer. A larger, more diverse investor base also bodes well for the liquidity of the CRT market, which is still in its infancy.
Clearly, these innovations are important steps towards improving the efficiency of back-end CRT. But at the same time, they must be viewed in the context of the broader objectives of credit risk transfer and housing finance reform which have near unanimous support: reducing taxpayer risk, passing the benefits of CRT on to borrowers, facilitating broad availability of credit through the economic cycle, ensuring adequate access for lenders of all sizes, and promoting a variety of CRT executions, including at the front end to facilitate an understanding of which programs are most favorable under which circumstances.
Although the GSEs have experimented with front end mechanisms like lender recourse and deeper MI, these transactions have been few and far between, and with very little transparency about pricing and other terms. But more importantly, the GSEs’ continued and significant reliance on back-end capital markets transactions doesn’t put us on a path towards achieving some of the program objectives outlined above. This matters because it signals that the GSEs’ current strategy for credit risk transfer, which revolves largely around the success of back-end transactions, may ultimately keep the program from realizing its full potential. (5)
 So, all in all Fannie and Freddie are taking a step in the right direction, but it is just a small step on the road to housing finance reform.

Three Paths to Housing Finance Reform

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The Urban Institute’s Jim Parrott has posted Clarifying the Choices in Housing Finance Reform. It opens,

The housing finance reform debate has often foundered under the weight of its complexity. Not only is it a complicated topic, both in its substance and its politics, but the way that we talk about it makes the issues involved indecipherable to all but a few. Each proponent brings a different nomenclature, a different frame of reference, often an entirely different language, making it enormously difficult to sort through where there is agreement and where there is not.

As a case in point, three prominent proposals for reform have been put on the table in recent months: one offered by Lew Ranieri, Gene Sperling, Mark Zandi, Barry Zigas, and me (Promising Road Proposal); one offered by Ed DeMarco and Michael Bright (Milken Proposal); and one offered by the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA Proposal). These proposals have been discussed and debated in many forums, each assessed for its respective merits, risks, and likelihood of passage in Congress, but each largely in isolation from one another. That is, they are not compared in any intelligible way, forcing those hoping to come to an informed view to choose among what appear to be entirely different visions of reform, without any easy way to make sense of the choice.

In this brief essay, I thus bring these three proposals together into a single framework, making it clearer what they share and where they differ. Once the explanatory fog is lifted, one can see that they actually share a great deal and that deciding among them is not prohibitively complex, but a matter of assessing two or three key differences. (1-2)

After a review of each proposal, Parrott finds that there are two critical differences between the three proposals.

  • Ginnie versus CSP. For the securitization infrastructure in the new system, Milken uses the Ginnie Mae infrastructure, while the MBA and our proposal both use the CSP.
  • What to do with Fannie and Freddie. The MBA would turn them into privately owned utilities that compete with other market participants over the distribution of the system’s non-catastrophic credit risk, Milken would turn them into lender-owned mutuals that do the same, and we would combine them with the CSP to distribute that risk and manage the system’s securitization.

With these distinctions in mind, the proposals can be much more easily compared across the criteria that should ultimately drive our decisions on housing finance reform:

  • Access to sustainable credit. Which best maintains broad access to mortgage loans for those in a financial position to be a homeowner at the lowest rates?
  • Protecting the taxpayer. Which best insulates taxpayers behind private capital, aligns incentives systemwide and addresses the too-big-to-fail risk that undermined the prior system?
  • Promoting healthy competition. Which best maximizes the kinds of competition that will improve options and services for consumers, lenders, and investors?
  • Ease of transition. Which provides the least disruptive, least costly path of reform? (7-8)

This is a very useful tool for understanding the choices that we face if we are to move beyond the limbo of Fannie and Freddie’s conservatorships.  One limitation is that Parrott does not address the Hensarling wing of the Republican Party which is looking to completely privatize the housing finance system for conforming mortgages. Given that Hensarling is the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee, he will have a powerful role in enacting any reform legislation.

I am not all that hopeful that Congress will be able to come up with a bill that can pass both houses in the near future.  But Parrott’s roadmap is helpful preparation for when we are ready.

Investing in Mortgage-Backed Securities

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US News & World Report quoted me in Why Investors Own Private Mortgage-Backed Securities. It opens,

Private-label, or non-agency backed mortgage securities, got a black eye a few years ago when they were blamed for bringing on the financial crisis. But they still exist and can be found in many fixed-income mutual funds and real estate investment trusts.

So who should own them – and who should stay away?

Many experts say they’re safer now and are worthy of a small part of the ordinary investor’s portfolio. Some funds holding non-agency securities yield upward of 10 percent.

“The current landscape is favorable for non-agency securities,” says Jason Callan, head of structured products at Columbia Threadneedle Investments in Minneapolis, pointing to factors that have reduced risks.

“The amount of delinquent borrowers is now at a post-crisis low, U.S. consumers continue to perform quite well from a credit perspective, and risk premiums are very attractive relative to the fundamental outlook for housing and the economy,” he says. “Home prices have appreciated nationwide by 5 to 6 percent over the last three years.”

Mortgage-backed securities are like bonds that give their owners rights to share in interest and principal received from homeowners’ mortgage payments.

The most common are agency-backed securities like Ginnie Maes guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration, or securities from government-authorized companies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The agency securities carry an implicit or explicit guarantee that the promised principal and interest income will be paid even if homeowners default on their loans. Ginnie Mae obligations, for instance, can be made up with federal tax revenues if necessary. Agency securities are considered safe holdings with better yields than alternatives like U.S. Treasurys.

The non-agency securities are issued by financial firms and carry no such guarantee. Trillions of dollars worth were issued in the build up to the financial crisis. Many contained mortgages granted to high-risk homeowners who had no income, poor credit or no home equity. Because risky borrowers are charged higher mortgage rates, private-label mortgage securities appealed to investors seeking higher yields than they could get from other holdings. When housing prices collapsed, a tidal wave of borrower defaults torpedoed the private-label securities, triggering the financial crisis.

Not many private-label securities have been issued in the years since, and they accounted for just 4 percent of mortgage securities issued in 2015, according to Freddie Mac. But those that are created are considered safer than the old ones because today’s borrowers must meet stiffer standards. Also, many of the non-agency securities created a decade or more ago continue to be traded and are viewed as safer because market conditions like home prices have improved.

Investors can buy these securities through bond brokers, but the most common way to participate in this market is with mutual funds or with REITs that own mortgages rather than actual real estate.

Though safer than before, non-agency securities are still risky because, unlike agency-backed securities, they can incur losses if homeowners stop making their payments. This credit risk comes atop the “prepayment” and “interest rate” risks found in agency-backed mortgage securities. Prepayment risk is when interest earnings stop because homeowners have refinanced. Interest rate risk means a security loses value because newer ones offer higher yields, making the older, stingier ones less attractive to investors.

“With non-agencies, you own the credit risk of the underlying mortgages,” Callan says, “whereas with agencies the (payments) are government guaranteed.”

Another risk of non-agency securities: different ones created from the same pool of loans are not necessarily equal. Typically, the pool is sliced into “tranches” like a loaf of bread, with each slice carrying different features. The safest have first dibs on interest and principal earnings, or are the last in the pool to default if payments dry up. In exchange for safety, these pay the least. At the other extreme are tranches that pay the most but are the first to lose out when income stops flowing.

Still, despite the risks, many experts say non-agency securities are safer than they used to be.

“Since the financial crisis, issuers have been much more careful in choosing the collateral that goes into a non-agency MBS, sticking to plain vanilla mortgage products and borrowers with good credit profiles,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who studies the mortgage market.

“It seems like the Wild West days of the mortgage market in the early 2000s won’t be returning for quite some time because issuers and investors are gun shy after the Subprime Crisis,” Reiss says. “The regulations implemented by Dodd-Frank, such as the qualified residential mortgage rule, also tamp down on excesses in the mortgage markets.”