Mark Willis & Andrew Neidhardt’s article, Reforming the National Housing Finance System: What’s at Risk for the Multifamily Rental Market if Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Go Away?, was recently published in a special issue of the NYU Journal of Law & Business. Most of the ink spilled about the reform of Fannie and Freddie addresses their single-family lines of business. The single-family business is much bigger, but the multifamily business is also an important part of what they do.
The author’s conclude that
Reform of the nation’s housing finance system needs to be careful not to disrupt unnecessarily the existing multifamily housing market. The near collapse of Fannie and Freddie’s single-family business over five years ago resulted in conservatorship and has spawned calls for their termination. While a general consensus has since emerged that Fannie and Freddie should be phased out over time, no consensus exists as to which, if any, of their functions need to be replaced in order to preserve the affordability and availability of housing in general, and multifamily rentals in particular.
On the multifamily side, Fannie and Freddie have built specialized units using financing models that involve private sector risk-sharing (i.e., DUS lender capital at risk or investors holding subordinate tranches of K-series securities) and that have resulted in low default rates and limited credit losses. These units have benefited from an implicit government guarantee of their corporate debt, which has expanded their access to capital and lowered its cost. As a result of the implicit guarantee, Fannie and Freddie have been able to: 1) offer longer term mortgages than generally available from banks, 2) provide countercyclical support to the rental market by funding new mortgages throughout the recent housing and economic downturn, and 3) ensure that the vast majority of the mortgages they fund offer rents affordable to households earning less than even 80% of area median income.
The potential for moral hazard can be reduced without disrupting the multifamily housing market simply by separating out and nationalizing the government guarantee It would then be possible to: 1) spin off the multifamily businesses of Fannie and Freddie into self-contained entities and 2) create an explicit government guarantee, offered by a government entity, and paid for through premiums on the insured MBS. The first step could happen now with FHFA authorization. These new subsidiaries could also begin to pay their respective holding companies for providing the guarantee on their MBS. The second step requires Congressional legislation. Once the public guarantor is up and running, the guarantee would be purchased from it and these subsidiaries could then be sold to private investors. As for other reforms that would explicitly restrict market access to the government guarantee, the best approach would be to first test the private sector’s appetite for risk on higher-end deals. (539-40)
This article has a lot to offer in terms of analyzing how Fannie and Freddie’s multifamily business is distinct from their single-family business. But I do not think that it fully makes the case that the multifamily sector suffers from some sort of market failure that requires so much government intervention as it advocates. I suspect that private capital could be put into a first loss position for much more of the lending in this sector. The government could continue to support the low- and moderate-income rental market without being on the hook for the rest of the multifamily market.