Housing Affordability and GSE Reform

Jim Parrott and Laurie Goodman of the Urban Institute have posted Making Sure the Senate’s Access and Affordability Proposal Works. It opens,

One of the most consequential and possibly promising components of the draft bill being considered in the Senate Banking Committee is the way in which it reduces the cost of a mortgage for those who need it. In the current system, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs) deliver subsidy primarily through the level pricing of their guarantee fees, overcharging lower-risk borrowers in order to undercharge higher-risk borrowers. While providing support for homeownership through cross-subsidy makes good economic and social sense, there are a number of shortcomings to the way it is done in the current system.

First, it does not effectively target those who need the help. While Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are both pushed to provide secondary market liquidity for the loans of low- and moderate-income (LMI) borrowers in order to comply with their affordable housing goals and duty to serve obligations, almost one in four beneficiaries of the subsidy are not LMI borrowers (Parrott et al. 2018). These borrowers receive the subsidy simply because their credit is poorer than the average GSE borrower and thus more costly than the average guarantee fee pricing covers. And LMI borrowers who pose less than average risk to the GSEs are picking up part of that tab, paying more in the average guarantee fee than their lower-than-average risk warrants.

Second, the subsidy is provided almost exclusively through lower mortgage rates, even though that is not the form of help all LMI borrowers need. For many, the size of their monthly mortgage is not the barrier to homeownership, but the lack of savings needed for a down payment and closing costs or to cover emergency expenses once the purchase is made. For those borrowers, the lower rate provided in the current system simply does not help.

And third, the opacity of the subsidy makes it difficult to determine who is benefiting, by how much, and whether it is actually helping. The GSEs are allocating more than $4 billion a year in subsidy, yet policymakers cannot tell how it has affected the homeownership rate of those who receive it, much less how the means of allocation compares with other means of support. We thus cannot adjust course to better allocate the support so that it provides more help those who need it.

The Senate proposal remedies each of these shortcomings, charging an explicit mortgage access fee to pay for the Housing Trust Fund, the Capital Magnet Fund, and a mortgage access fund that supports LMI borrowers, and only LMI borrowers, with one of five forms of subsidy: a mortgage rate buy-down, assistance with down payment and closing costs, funding for savings for housing-related expenses, housing counseling, and funding to offset the cost of servicing delinquent loans. Unlike the current system, the support is well targeted, helps address the entire range of impediments to homeownership, and is transparent. As a means of delivering subsidy to those who need it, the proposed system is likely to be more effective than what we have today.

If, that is, it can be designed in a way that overcomes two central challenges: determining who qualifies for the support and delivering the subsidy effectively to those who do. (1-2, footnote omitted)

This paper provides a clear framework for determining whether a housing finance reform proposal actually furthers housing affordability for those who need it most. It is unclear where things stand with the Senate housing finance reform bill as of now, but it seems like the current version of the bill is a step in the right direction.

Budding GSE Reform

The Mortgage Bankers Association has released a paper on GSE Reform: Creating a Sustainable, More Vibrant Secondary Mortgage Market (link to paper on this page). This paper builds on a shorter version that the MBA released a few months ago. Jim Parrott of the Urban Institute has provided a helpful comparison of the basic MBA proposal to two other leading proposals. This longer paper explains in detail

MBA’s recommended approach to GSE reform, the last piece of unfinished business from the 2008 financial crisis. It outlines the key principles and guardrails that should guide the reform effort and provides a detailed picture of a new secondary-market end state. It also attempts to shed light on two critical areas that have tested past reform efforts — the appropriate transition to the post-GSE system and the role of the secondary market in advancing an affordable-housing strategy. GSE reform holds the potential to help stabilize the housing market for decades to come. The time to take action is now. (1)

Basically, the MBA proposes that Fannie and Freddie be rechartered into two of a number of competitors that would guarantee mortgage-backed securities (MBS).  All of these guarantors would be specialized mortgage companies that are to be treated as regulated utilities owned by private shareholders. These guarantors would issue standardized MBS through the Common Securitization Platform that is currently being designed by Fannie and Freddie pursuant to the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s instructions.

These MBS would be backed by the full faith and credit of the the federal government as well as by a federal mortgage insurance fund (MIF), which would be similar to the Federal Housing Administration’s MMI fund. This MIF would cover catastrophic losses. Like the FHA’s MMI fund, the MIF could be restored by means of higher premiums after the catastrophe had been dealt with.  This model would protect taxpayers from having to bail out the guarantors, as they did with Fannie and Freddie at the onset of the most recent financial crisis.

The MBA proposal is well thought out and should be taken very seriously by Congress and the Administration. That is not to say that it is the obvious best choice among the three that Parrott reviewed. But it clearly addresses the issues of concern to the broad middle of decision-makers and housing policy analysts.

Not everyone is in that broad middle of course. But there is a lot for the Warren wing of the Democratic party to like about this proposal as it includes affordable housing goals and subsidies. The Hensarling wing of the Republican party, on the other hand, is not likely to embrace this proposal because it still contemplates a significant role for the federal government in housing finance. We’ll see if a plan of this type can move forward without the support of the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee.

Three Paths to Housing Finance Reform

photo by theilr

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.

Road to GSE Reform

photo by Antonio Correa

A bevy of housing finance big shots have issued a white paper, A More Promising Road to GSE Reform. The main objective of the proposal

is to migrate those components of today’s system that work well into a system that is no longer impaired by the components that do not, with as little disruption as possible. To do this, our proposal would merge Fannie and Freddie to form a single government corporation, which would handle all of the operations that those two institutions perform today, providing an explicit federal guarantee on mortgage-backed securities while syndicating all noncatastrophic credit risk into the private market. This would facilitate a deep, broad and competitive primary and secondary mortgage market; limit the taxpayer’s risk to where it is absolutely necessary; ensure broad access to the system for borrowers in all communities; and ensure a level playing field for lenders of all sizes.

The government corporation, which here we will call the National Mortgage Reinsurance Corporation, or NMRC, would perform the same functions as do Fannie and Freddie today. The NMRC would purchase conforming single-family and multifamily mortgage loans from originating lenders or aggregators, and issue securities backed by these loans through a single issuing platform that the NMRC owns and operates. It would guarantee the timely payment of principal and interest on the securities and perform master servicing responsibilities on the underlying loans, including setting and enforcing servicing and loan modification policies and practices. It would ensure access to credit in historically underserved communities through compliance with existing affordable-housing goals and duty-to-serve requirements. And it would provide equal footing to all lenders, large and small, by maintaining a “cash window” for mortgage purchases.

The NMRC would differ from Fannie and Freddie, however, in several important respects. It would be required to transfer all noncatastrophic credit risk on the securities that it issues to a broad range of private entities. Its mortgage-backed securities would be backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, for which it would charge an explicit guarantee fee, or g-fee, sufficient to cover any risk that the government takes. And while the NMRC would maintain a modest portfolio with which to manage distressed loans and aggregate single- and multifamily loans for securitization, it cannot use that portfolio for investment purposes. Most importantly, as a government corporation, the NMRC would be motivated neither by profit nor market share, but by a mandate to balance broad access to credit with the safety and soundness of the mortgage market. (2-3, footnotes omitted)

The authors of the white paper are

  • Jim Parrott, former Obama Administration housing policy guru
  • Lewis Ranieri, a Wall Street godfather of the securitized mortgage market
  • Gene Sperling,  Obama Administration National Economic Advisor
  • Mark Zandi, Moody’s Analytics chief economist
  • Barry Zigas, Director of Housing Policy at Consumer Federation of America

While I think the proposal has a lot going for it, I think that the lack of former Republican government officials as co-authors is telling. Members of Congress, such as Chair of the House Financial Services Committee Jeb Hensaerling  (R-TX), have taken extreme positions that leave little room for the level of government involvement contemplated in this white paper. So, I would say that the proposal has a low likelihood of success in the current political environment.

That being said, the proposal is worth considering because we’ll have to take Fannie and Freddie out of their current state of limbo at some point in the future. The proposal builds on on current developments that have been led by Fannie and Freddie’s regulator and conservator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The FHFA has required Fannie and Freddie to develop a Common Securitization Platform that is a step in the direction of a merger of the two entities. Moreover, the FHFA’s mandate that Fannie and Freddie’s experiment with risk-sharing is a step in the direction of the proposal’s syndication of “all noncatastrophic credit risk.” Finally, the fact that the two companies have remained in conservatorship for so long can be taken as a sign of their ultimate nationalization.

In some ways, I read this white paper not as a proposal to spur legislative action, but rather as a prediction of where we will end up if Congress does not act and leaves the important decisions in the hands of the FHFA. And it would not be a bad result — better than what existed before the financial crisis and better than what we have now.

GSE Reform, by Stealth?

Photo By Greg Willis

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has issued its January 2016 Housing Finance at a Glance Chartbook. It opens by noting,

The FHFA recently released its 2016 Scorecard for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with updated guidance for credit risk transfer transactions. A year ago, under the 2015 scorecard, the FHFA had required Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to transfer credit risk on a fixed dollar amount of UPB [unpaid principal balance] – $150 billion for Fannie Mae and $120 billion for Freddie Mac. Both exceeded those targets (Fannie $187 billion and Freddie 210 billion). Additionally, the 2015 scorecard did not indicate how much credit risk should be transferred (expected or unexpected, or a specific numeric threshold for example), instead leaving it to the GSEs’ discretion.
But that changes in 2016. FHFA’s 2016 scorecard is a notable departure from 2015 in that it requires the GSEs to transfer credit risk on “at least 90 percent” of the newly acquired UPB (with exceptions for HARP refinances, mortgages with maturities 20 years and below and with loan-to-value ratios 60 percent and below). Another departure from 2015 is the added requirement to transfer a substantial portion of credit risk covering “most of the credit losses projected to occur during stressful economic scenarios.” In other words, GSEs are required to transfer nearly all credit risk on new production, except for what is catastrophic. These two requirements are highly noteworthy because over time they will put the GSEs (and hence the taxpayers) in a remote, catastrophic risk position, letting private capital bear vast majority of credit losses the vast majority of the time – a key objective of most housing finance reform proposals. (3)
I have been arguing for a long time that the private sector should bear the credit risk in the mortgage market, so I think this is a good thing in principle. The FHFA needs to ensure, of course, that the agencies are pricing the transfer of credit risk properly, but overall this is a step in the right direction. Not being privy to any conversations in the Beltway, I always wonder if things like this happen with some kind of bipartisan acquiescence, but I guess we won’t know until someone tells us what happened behind closed doors.

Principal-ed Reduction

Torn Dollar


The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has issued a report, Principal Reduction and the GSEs: The Moment for a Big Impact Has Passed. It opens,

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) prohibits Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs) from unilaterally reducing the principal balance of loans that they guarantee, known as principal reduction. When director Ed DeMarco established the prohibition, he was concerned that reducing principal would cost the GSEs too much, not only in setting up the systems required to implement it, but also— and to him more important — in encouraging borrowers to default in order to receive the benefit. DeMarco’s position generated significant controversy, as advocates viewed principal reduction as a critical tool for reducing borrower distress and pointed out that the program the Obama administration had put forward to provide the relief had largely eliminated the cost to the GSEs, including the moral hazard. We believe that at the time the advocates had the better side of the argument.

The FHFA is now revisiting that prohibition, though in a very different economic environment than the one faced by Director DeMarco. Home prices are up 35.4 percent since the trough in 2011, adding $5 trillion in home equity and reducing the number of underwater homeowners from a peak of 25 percent to 10 percent. This means that far fewer borrowers would likely benefit under a GSE principal reduction program today. (1, footnote omitted)

Principal reduction was highly disfavored at the start of the financial crisis as it was perceived as a sort of giveaway to irresponsible borrowers. Some academics have disputed this characterization, but it probably remains a political reality.

In any event, I think this report has the analysis of the current situation right — the time for principal reduction has passed. But it is worth considering the conditions under which it might be appropriate in the future (for that next crisis, or the one after that). The authors make four  assumptions for a politically feasible principal reduction program:

  1. borrowers must be delinquent at the time the program is announced, in order to avoid the moral hazard of encouraging borrowers to default;
  2. borrowers must be underwater;
  3. the house must be owner-occupied; and
  4. the principal reduction is in the economic interest of Fannie and Freddie.

It is worth noting that during the Great Depression, the federal government figured out ways to reduce the burden of rapidly dropping house prices on lenders and borrowers alike without resorting to principal reduction much. Borrowers benefited from longer repayment terms and lower interest rates. Below-market interest rates are similar to principal reduction because they also reduce monthly costs for borrowers. They are also politically more feasible. It would be great to have a Plan B stored away at the FHFA, the FHA and the VA that outlines a systematic response to a nation-wide drop in housing prices. It could involve principal reduction but it does not need to.

Be Careful What You Wish For GSEs

Genie Lamp

Jim Parrott and Mark Zandi have released a report, Privatizing Fannie and Freddie: Be Careful What You Ask For. The authors go through a very useful exercise in which they break down the cost of reprivatizing. The report opens,

Few are happy with the current housing finance system that has Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in conservatorship and taxpayers backing most of the nation’s residential mortgage loans. Yet legislative efforts to replace the system have largely faltered, raising concern that we may not have the political will or competence to replace it any time soon.

This has created an opening for those who contend that we should not replace the system at all, but simply recapitalize the government-sponsored enterprises and release them from conservatorship. Fannie and Freddie were remarkably profitable prior to the financial crisis, after all, and have been consistently in the black recently. Why embark on the laborious, risky and now stalled process of fundamental reform when we can simply return to a model that we know can provide steady access to affordable, long-term fixed-rate lending?

While we both have serious concerns with the wisdom of releasing the duopoly back into the market, we thought it useful to set those concerns aside for the moment to explore the economics of the move. The discussion often takes for granted that this path would take us back to the world precrisis, but economic conditions and the regulatory environment have changed in ways that would significantly affect how Fannie and Freddie would function as reprivatized institutions. (2)

Parrott and Zandi conclude that

The debate over whether to recapitalize and release the GSEs into the private market is often framed as a choice of whether or not to return to a prior period in lending. For all its shortcomings, the argument goes, at least we know what to expect in the cost and availability of mortgage credit. But this is a misconception. In releasing the GSEs into the private market again, we would release them into a very different regulatory and economic environment, and they would respond, not surprisingly, by charging very different mortgage rates. (4)

I really have no argument with Parrott and Zandi’s paper, but I would note that their conclusions don’t differ so much from the pre-crisis academic papers that attempted to quantify the increase in mortgage rates that would result from privatizing the two companies — fifty basis points, give or take (see, for example, The GSE Implicit Subsidy and Value of Government Ambiguity).

I value Parrott and Zandi’s paper because it reminds us to keep pushing forward with real housing finance reform even though Congress has not yet made any progress on that front.