Dr. Carson’s Slim Housing Credentials

photo by Gage Skidmore

Law360 quoted me in Carson’s Slim Housing Credentials To Be Confirmation Focus (behind paywall). It opens,

Dr. Ben Carson will face a barrage of questions Thursday on topics ranging from his views on anti-discrimination enforcement to the basics of running a government agency with a multibillion-dollar budget at his confirmation hearing to lead the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Carson, a famed neurosurgeon and former Republican presidential candidate, was President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise choice for HUD secretary, given the nominee’s lack of experience or statements on housing issues. That lack of a track record means that senators and housing policy advocates will have no shortage of areas to probe when Carson appears before the Senate Banking Committee.

“I want to know whether he has any firm ideas at all about housing and urban policy. Is he a quick study?” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

Trump tapped Carson in early December to lead HUD, saying that his former rival for the Republican presidential nomination shared in his vision of “revitalizing” inner cities and the families that live in them.

“Ben shares my optimism about the future of our country and is part of ensuring that this is a presidency representing all Americans. He is a tough competitor and never gives up,” Trump said in a statement released through his transition team.

Carson said he was honored to get the nod from the president-elect.

“I feel that I can make a significant contribution particularly by strengthening communities that are most in need. We have much work to do in enhancing every aspect of our nation and ensuring that our nation’s housing needs are met,” he said in the transition team’s statement.

The nomination came as a bit of a surprise given that Carson, who has decades of experience in medicine, has none in housing policy. It also came soon after a spokesman for Carson said that he had no interest in a Cabinet position because of a lack of qualifications.

Now lawmakers, particularly Democrats, will likely spend much of Thursday’s confirmation hearing attempting to suss out just what the HUD nominee thinks about the management of the Federal Housing Administration, which provides insurance on mortgages to low-income and first-time home buyers; the management and funding for public housing in the U.S.; and even the basics of how he will manage an agency that had an approximately $49 billion budget and employs some 8,300 people.

“You will have to overcome your lack of experience managing an organization this large to ensure that you do not waste taxpayer dollars and reduce assistance for families who desperately need it,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in a letter to Carson earlier in the week.

To that end, Carson could help allay fears about management and experience by revealing who will be working under him, said Rick Lazio, a partner at Jones Walker LLP and a former four-term Republican congressman from New York.

“The question is will the senior staff have a diverse experience that includes management and housing policy,” Lazio said.

One area where Carson is likely to face tough questioning from Democrats is anti-discrimination and fair housing.

Carson’s only major public pronouncement on housing policy was a 2015 denunciation of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule that the Obama administration finalized after it languished for years.

The rule, which was part of the 1968 Fair Housing Act but had been languishing for decades, requires each municipality that receives federal funding to assess their housing policies to determine whether they sufficiently encourage diversity in their communities.

In a Washington Times, op-ed, Carson compared the rule to failed efforts to integrate schools through busing and at other times called the rule akin to communism.

“These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse. There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous,” Carson wrote.

Warren has already indicated that she wants more answers about Carson’s view of the rule and has asked whether Carson plans to pursue disparate impact claims against lenders and other housing market participants, as is the current policy at HUD and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Warren’s concerns are echoed by current HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who said in an interview with National Public Radio Monday that he feared Carson could pull back on the efforts the Obama administration has undertaken to enforce fair housing laws.

“I’d be lying if I said that I’m not concerned about the possibility of going backward, over the next four years,” Castro said in the interview.

HUD, as the agency overseeing the Federal Housing Administration, has also been involved in significant litigation against the likes of Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase & Co., among others, seeking to recover money the FHA lost on bad loans they sold to the agency.

“Will you commit to continuing to strictly enforce these underwriting standards in order to protect taxpayers from fraud?” Warren asked.

Carson has also drawn criticism from fair housing advocates for his views on the assistance the government provides to the poor, saying in his memoir that such programs can breed dependency when they do not have time limits.

To that end, housing policy experts will want to hear what Carson wants to do to ease the affordability crisis, boost multifamily building and improve conditions inside public housing units. HUD also plays a major role in disaster relief operations, another area where people will be curious about Carson’s thinking.

“I’d be looking at hints of his positive agenda, not just critiques of past programs,” Reiss said.

The Housing Market Under Trump

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

TheStreet.com quoted me in Interest Rates Likely to Rise Under Trump, Could Affect Confidence of Homebuyers. It opens,

Interest rates should increase gradually during the next four years under a Donald Trump administration, which could dampen growth in the housing industry, economists and housing experts predict.

The 10-year Treasury rose over the 2% threshold on Wednesday for the first time in several months, driving mortgage rates higher with the 30-year conventional rate rising to 3.73% according to Bankrate.com. Mortgage pricing is tied to the 10-year Treasury.

Housing demand will remain flat with a rise in interest rates as many first-time homebuyers will be saddled with more debt, said Peter Nigro, a finance professor at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I.

“With first-time homebuyers more in debt due to student loans, I don’t expect much growth in home purchasing,” he said.

Interest rates will also be affected by the size of the fiscal stimulus since additional infrastructure spending and associated debt “could push interest rates up through the issuance of more government debt,” Nigro said.

Even if interest rates spike in the next year, banks will not benefit, because there is a lack of demand, said Peter Borish, chief strategist with Quad Group, a New York-based financial firm. The economy is slowing down, and consumers have already borrowed money at very “cheap” interest rates, he said.

The policies set forth by a Trump administration will lead to contractionary results and will not spur additional growth in the housing market.

“I prefer to listen to the markets,” Borish said. “This will put downward pressure on the prices in the market. Everyone complained about Dodd-Frank, but why is JPMorgan Chase’s stock at all time highs?”

An interest rate increase could still occur in December, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based real estate company. With nearly five weeks before the December Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, the market can contemplate the potential outcomes.

“While the market is now indicating a reduced probability of a short-term rate hike at that meeting, the Fed has repeatedly indicated that they would be data-driven in their decision,” he said in a written statement. “If the markets calm down and November employment data look solid on December 2, a rate hike could still happen. The market moves yesterday are already indicating that financial markets are pondering that the Trump effect could be positive for the economy.

“The Fed is likely to start increasing the federal funds rate at a “much faster pace starting next year,” said K.C. Sanjay, chief economist for Axiometrics, a Dallas-based apartment market and student housing research firm. “This will cause single-family mortgage rates to increase slightly, however they will remain well below the long-term average.”

Since Trump has remained mum on many topics, including housing, predicting a short-term outlook is challenging. One key factor is the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who are the main players in the mortgage market, because they own or guarantee over $4 trillion in mortgages, remain in conservatorship and “play a critical role in keeping mortgage rates down through the now explicit subsidy or government backing which allows them to raise funds more cheaply,” Nigro said.

It is unlikely any changes will occur with them, because “Trump has not articulated a plan to deal with them and coming up with a plan to deal with these giants is unlikely,” he said.

Trump could attempt to take on government sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, said Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist for Trulia, a San Francisco-based real estate website.

“If he does, it’s going to be a hairy endeavor for him, because he’ll need bipartisan support to do so,” he said.

Since he has alluded to ending government conservatorship and allowing government sponsored enterprises to “recapitalize by allowing retention of their own profits instead of passing them on to the Treasury,” the result is that banks could have their liquidity and lending activity increase, which could help boost demand for homes, McLaughlin said.

“We caution President-elect Trump that he would also need to simultaneously help address housing supply, which has been at a low point over the past few years,” he said. “The difficulty for him is that most of the impediments to new housing supply rest and the state and local levels, not the federal.”

Even on Trump’s campaign website, there is “next to nothing” about his ideas on housing, said David Reiss, a law professor at the Brooklyn Law School in New York. The platform of the Republican Party and Vice President-elect Mike Pence could mean that the federal government will have a smaller footprint in the mortgage market.

“There will be a reduction in the federal government’s guaranty of mortgages, and this will likely increase the interest rates charged on mortgages, but will reduce the likelihood of taxpayer bailouts,” he said. “Fannie and Freddie will likely have fewer ties to the federal government and the FHA is likely to be limited to the lower end of the mortgage market.”

Friday’s Government Reports Roundup

  • The U.S. Government Accountability Office released “Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) Report,” showing the Treasury’s participation for TARP housing programs.
  • The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report on SNAP Benefits, or what used to be known as food stamps, finding that between 500,000 and one million people will no longer received these benefits in 2016.
  • A report from Joseph A. Smith found that JPMorgan Chase has fulfilled its obligations under the required $4 billion 2013 Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Settlement.

The End of Private-Label Securities?

Steve Jurvetson

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase

J.P. Morgan’s Securitized Products Weekly has a report, Proposed FRTB Ruling Endangers ABS, CMBS and Non-Agency RMBS Markets. This is one of those technical studies that have a lot of real world relevance to those of us concerned about the housing markets more generally.

The report analyzes proposed capital rules contained in the Fundamental Review of the Trading Book (FRTB). JPMorgan believes that these proposed rules would make the secondary trading in residential mortgage-backed securities unprofitable. It also believes that “there is no sector that escapes unscathed; capital will rise dramatically across all securitized product sectors, except agency MBS.” (1) It concludes that “[u]ltimately, in its current form, the FRTB would damage the availability of credit to consumers, reduce lending activity in the form of commercial mortgage and set back private securitization, entrenching the GSEs as the primary securitization vehicle in the residential mortgage market.” (1)

JPMorgan finds that the the impact of these proposed regulations on non-agency residential-mortgage backed securities (jumbos and otherwise) “is so onerous that we wonder if this was the actual intent of the regulators.” Without getting too technical, the authors thought “that the regulators simply had a mathematical mistake in their calculation (and were off by a factor of 100, but unfortunately this is what was intended.” (4) Because these capital rules “would make it highly unattractive for dealers to hold inventory in non-agency securities,” JPMorgan believes that they threaten the entire non-agency RMBS market. (5)

The report concludes with a policy takeaway:

Policymakers have at various times advocated for GSE reform in which the private sector (and private capital) would play a larger role. However, with such high capital requirements under the proposal — compared with capital advantages for GSE securities and a negligible amount of capital for the GSEs themselves — we believe this proposal would significantly set back private securitization, entrenching the GSEs as the primary securitization vehicle in the mortgage market. (5, emphasis removed)

I am not aware if JPMorgan’s concerns are broadly held, so it would important to hear others weigh in on this topic.

If the proposed rule is adopted, it is likely not to be implemented for a few years.  As a result, there is plenty of time to get the right balance between safety and soundness on the one hand and credit availability on the other. While the private-label sector has been a source of trouble in the past, particularly during the subprime boom, it is not in the public interest to put an end to it:  it has provided capital to the jumbo sector and provides much needed competition to Fannie, Freddie and Ginnie.

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

Bank Settlements and the Arc of Justice

Ron Cogswell

MLK Memorial in DC

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” A recent report by SNL Financial (available here, but requires a lot of sign-up info) offers us a chance to evaluate that claim in the context of the financial crisis.

SNL reports that the six largest bank holding companies have paid over $132 billion to settle credit crisis and mortgage-related lawsuits brought by governments, investors and other financial institutions.

In the context of the litigation over the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships, I had considered whether it is efficient to respond to financial crises by allowing the government to do what it needs to do during the crisis and then “use litigation to make an accounting to all of the stakeholders once the situation has stabilized.” (121)

Given that the biggest bank settlements are now in the rear view window, we can now say that the accounting for the financial crisis comes in at around $132 billion give or take. Does that number do justice for the wrongs of the boom times?  I don’t think I have my own answer to that question yet, but it is certainly worth considering.

On the one hand, we should acknowledge that it is a humongous number, a number so big that that no one would have considered it a likely one at the beginning of the financial crisis. This crisis made nine and ten digit settlement numbers a routine event.

On the other hand, wrongdoing (along with good old-fashioned boom mentality) during the financial crisis almost sent the global economy into a depression.  It also wreaked havoc on so many individuals, directly and indirectly.

I look forward to seeing metrics that can make sense of this (ratio of settlement amounts to annual profits of Wall Street firms; ratio to bonus pools; ratio to home equity lost), but I will say that I am struck by the lack of individual accountability that has come out of all of this litigation.

Individuals who made six, seven and eight figure paychecks from this wrongdoing were able to move on relatively unscathed.  We should think about how to avoid that result the next time around. Otherwise the arc of justice will bend in the wrong direction.

 

FHFA’s $500MM Win

Bloomberg quoted me in Nomura, RBS Defective-Bond Suit Loss Seen Spurring Deals. It reads, in part,

Nomura Holdings Inc. and Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc may face $500 million in damages for what a judge called an “enormous” deception in the sale of defective mortgage-backed securities, a ruling that may spur other banks to settle similar claims tied to the 2008 financial crisis.

Nomura and RBS were excoriated in a 361-page opinion by U.S. District Judge Denise Cote in Manhattan, whose ruling followed the first trial of claims that banks sold flawed securities to government-owned mortgage companies. After a three-week trial, Cote said they misled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and set a damages formula that may result in the government winning about half its original claim of $1 billion.

“The offering documents did not correctly describe the mortgage loans,” Cote, who heard the case without a jury, wrote Monday. “The magnitude of falsity, conservatively measured, is enormous.”

Before the trial, FHFA had reached $17.9 billion in settlements with other banks, including Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. The ruling against Nomura and RBS may encourage other banks to settle mortgage-related suits brought by regulators and private investors rather than face the bad publicity and cost of an adverse judgment, said Robert C. Hockett, a professor at Cornell Law School.

“They look pretty bad,” Hockett said in an interview. “They look like the strategy has blown up in their faces.”

Cote ordered the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which filed the case, to propose how much the banks should pay as a result of her ruling.

*     *     *

Cote rejected the banks’ claim that the housing crash, and not defects in the loans, was responsible for the collapse of the mortgage-backed securities.

David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, called Cote’s ruling “incredibly thorough.” The judge included detailed factual rulings that may make it difficult for Nomura and RBS to win on appeal, he said.