Hope for GSE Shareholders

Judge Lamberth issued an opinion in Fairholme Funds, Inc. v. FHFA (Civ. No.13-1439) (Sept. 28, 2018) that gives some hope to the private shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These shareholders have been on the losing end of nearly every case brought against the government relating to its handling of the conservatorships of the two companies.  Readers of this blog know that I have long been a skeptic of the shareholders’ claims because of the broad powers granted the government by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, passed during the height of the financial crisis, as well as the highly regulated environment in which the two companies operate. This highly regulated environment means that GSE profits are driven by regulatory decisions much more than those of other financial institutions. As such, Fannie and Freddie live and die by the sword of government intervention in the mortgage market.

Judge Lamberth had dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims in their entirety, but was reversed in part on appeal. In this case, he revisits the issues arising from the reversal of his earlier dismissal. Once again, Judge Lamberth dismisses a number of the plaintiffs’ claims, but he finds that that their claim that the government breached the duty of good faith survives.

The opinion gives a road map that shareholders can follow to success. The judge identifies allegations that, if true, would be a sufficient factual basis for a holding that the government breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. It is plausible that the preponderance of proof may support these allegations. Some evidence has already come to light that indicates that at least some government actors had good reason to believe that Fannie and Freddie were on the cusp of sustained profitability when the government implemented the net worth sweep. The net worth sweep had redirected the net profits of the two companies to the U.S. Treasury.

Judge Lamberth highlights some of aspects of the plaintiffs’ argument that he found compelling at the motion to dismiss phase of this litigation. First, he notes that absence of “any increased funding commitment” is atypical when senior shareholders receive “enhanced disbursement rights,” as was the case when the government implemented the net worth sweep. (21) He also states that the plaintiffs would not have expected that the GSEs would have extinguished “the possibility of dividends arbitrarily or unreasonably.” (22)

While this opinion is good news for the plaintiffs, it is still unclear what their endgame would be if they were to get a final judgment that the net worth sweep was invalid. Depending on the outcome of regulatory and legislative debates about the future of the two companies, the win may be a pyrrhic one. Time will tell. In the interim, expect more discovery battles, motions for summary judgment and even a trial in this case. So, while this opinion gives shareholders some hope of ultimate success, and perhaps some leverage in political and regulatory debates, I do not see it as a game changer in itself.

In terms of the bigger picture, there are a lot of changes on the horizon regarding the future of the housing finance system. The midterm elections; Hensarling and Corker’s departure from Congress; and the Trump Administration’s priorities are all bigger drivers of the housing finance reform train, at least for now.

The “Bump” Clause

The Wall Street Journal quoted me in In Cooling Housing Markets, ‘Bump Clauses’ Help Seal Win-Win Deals. It opens,

What to do when a home-seller gets an offer but holds out hope for something better?

Enter the bump clause.

A bump clause lets sellers enter into a contract with a buyer while still continuing to market the property. If the sellers get a better deal, they can “bump” the original buyer.

It’s most commonly used when a buyer’s offer has some contingency, usually that they need to sell their current home first. It can help coax the sellers into contract by offering them the ability to seek alternate buyers who don’t have a home-sale contingency or who are offering higher prices.

The clause tends to become more popular in markets that are “transitional,” where once-hot home sales are cooling but sellers haven’t yet adjusted their expectations. The tactic can be “a savvy technique” to help the sellers feel they could still get a better offer, says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who specializes in real estate.

If the sellers do get another written offer they want to take, they must notify the original buyer. The buyer then typically has a few days to tell the seller they’ve sold their house, or that they’ve decided to waive the contingency. If not, the original contract terminates. The original buyer gets back the money they put down, and the sellers enter into contract with the new buyer.

The sellers can only keep marketing the property until the buyers satisfy or waive the contingency. So once the buyers notify the seller they’ve sold their existing home, the seller’s right to market the property ends.

Rebekah Carver, a real-estate broker with Douglas Elliman Real Estate in Brooklyn, N.Y., says Brooklyn has been a hot market for a long time, and bump clauses haven’t been common. But now she’s representing buyers on a deal where the seller had resisted signing a contract with a home-sale contingency, even though the property had been on the market for about six months. Ms. Carver offered the bump clause to try to put the seller’s mind at ease.

In general, the bump clause can “give the seller some sense of security and comfort,” says Ms. Carver. The bump clause can be proposed by either the buyer’s or seller’s side, but is often offered by the buyer’s agent as a way to get the seller to accept a contingency.

Robin Sheridan, a real-estate broker with Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty in Seattle, says that when she is representing a seller facing a home-sale contingency, Ms. Sheridan often does her own due diligence. “I want to be certain the other property is one that will sell quickly,” she says. “I vet the buyers via their lender and ensure all their ducks are in a row to navigate the two nearly consecutive transactions. Knowing the bump clause is a possibility is comforting to a seller, but most of my clients remain firmly committed to the contract in hand.”

Here are some things to consider with bump clauses.

For sellers:

• Use it as leverage. Since the house is already under contract, a seller can use the clause as a negotiating tactic with any other buyers that show interest. The seller can try to get the other buyers to outbid the current price or negotiate a contract without contingencies.

• Don’t get greedy. If the seller receives a second offer, he may be tempted to “bump” the first buyer and sell to the second. But sellers should make sure the second offer is at least as strong as the first, which means looking deeper than price and contingencies. The new buyers may have poor credit, for example, and be less likely to obtain a mortgage. “It’s a bird in the hand,” says Mr. Reiss. “If they walk away and are stuck negotiating with a second offer that’s weak, they could end up with nothing.”

Preparing for the Next Housing Tsunami

Greg Kaplan et al. posted The Housing Boom and Bust: Model Meets Evidence to SSRN. The abstract reads,

We build a model of the U.S. economy with multiple aggregate shocks (income, housing finance conditions, and beliefs about future housing demand) that generate fluctuations in equilibrium house prices. Through a series of counterfactual experiments, we study the housing boom and bust around the Great Recession and obtain three main results. First, we find that the main driver of movements in house prices and rents was a shift in beliefs. Shifts in credit conditions do not move house prices but are important for the dynamics of home ownership, leverage, and foreclosures. The role of housing rental markets and long-term mortgages in alleviating credit constraints is central to these findings. Second, our model suggests that the boom-bust in house prices explains half of the corresponding swings in non-durable expenditures and that the transmission mechanism is a wealth effect through household balance sheets. Third, we find that a large-scale debt forgiveness program would have done little to temper the collapse of house prices and expenditures, but would have dramatically reduced foreclosures and induced a small, but persistent, increase in consumption during the recovery.

I think the last sentence is worth pondering a bit:  “a large-scale debt forgiveness program would have done little to temper the collapse of house prices and expenditures, but would have dramatically reduced foreclosures and induced a small, but persistent, increase in consumption during the recovery.” During the Great Depression, the federal government took steps that relieved the debt burden of over a million households by extending the terms of their mortgages and lowering the interest rates on them.

While this was no panacea, it did let millions stay in their homes during a period of great financial stress. The steps taken to help struggling homeowners during the recent Great Recession were much more timid than those taken during the Great Depression. This paper adds to a body of literature that suggests we should not be so timid the next time we are hit by an economic tsunami.

Housing Booms and Busts

photo by Alex Brogan

Patricia McCoy and Susan Wachter have posted Why Cyclicality Matter to Access to Mortgage Credit to SSRN. The paper is now particularly relevant because of President Trump’s plan to roll back Dodd-Frank’s regulation of the financial markets, including the mortgage market. While McCoy and Wachter do not claim that Dodd-Frank solves the problem of cyclicality in the mortgage market, they do highlight how it reduces some of the worst excesses in that market. They make a persuasive case that more work needs to be done to reduce mortgage market cyclicality.

The abstract reads,

Virtually no attention has been paid to the problem of cyclicality in debates over access to mortgage credit, despite its importance as a driver of tight credit. Housing markets are prone to booms accompanied by bubbles in mortgage credit in which lenders cut underwriting standards, leading to elevated loan defaults. During downturns, these cycles artificially impede access to mortgage credit for underserved communities. During upswings, these cycles make homeownership unnecessarily precarious for many who attain it. This volatility exacerbates wealth and income disparities by ethnicity and race.

The boom-bust cycle must be addressed in order to assure healthy and sustainable access to credit for creditworthy borrowers. While the inherent cyclicality of the housing finance market cannot be fully eliminated, it can be mitigated to some extent. Mitigation is possible because housing market cycles are financed by and fueled by debt. Policymakers have begun to develop a suite of countercyclical tools to help iron out the peaks and troughs of the residential mortgage market. In this article, we discuss why access to credit is intrinsically linked to cyclicality and canvass possible techniques to modulate the extremes in those cycles.

McCoy and Wachter’s conclusions are worth heeding:

If homeownership is to attain solid footing, mitigating the cyclicality in the housing finance system will be imperative. That will require rooting out procyclical practices and requirements that fuel booms and busts. In their place, countercyclical measures must be instituted to modulate the highs and lows in the lending cycle. In the process, the goal is not to maximize homeownership per se; rather, it is to ensure that residential mortgages are made on safe and affordable terms.

*     *     *

Taming procyclicality in industry practices in housing finance is much farther behind and will require significantly more work. There is no easy fix for the procyclical effect of mortgage appraisals because appraisals are based on neighboring comparables. Similarly, procyclicality will require serious attention if the private-label securitization market returns. While the Dodd-Frank Act made modest reforms designed at curbing inflation of credit ratings, the issuer-pays system that drives grade inflation remains in place. Similarly, underpricing the risk of MBS and CDS will continue to be a problem in the absence of an effective short-selling mechanism and the effective identification of market-wide leverage. (34-35)

McCoy and Wachter offer a thoughtful overview of the risks that mortgage market cyclicality poses, but I am not optimistic that it will get a hearing in today’s Washington.  Maybe it will after the next bust.

Building HOME

housing construction

The HOME Coalition, a coalition of affordable housing organizations, has posted Building HOME: The HOME Investment Partnerships Program’s Impact on America’s Families and Communities, its 2015 report. I don’t think HOME is a household word, at least when it is in ALLCAPS, so here are the basics, taken from the report:

For over 20 years, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program (HOME) has proven to be one of the most effective, locally driven tools to help states and communities provide access to safe, decent, and affordable housing for low-income residents. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports that since HOME’s authorization in 1990, $26.3 billion in HOME funds have leveraged an additional $117 billion in public and private resources to help build and preserve nearly 1.2 million affordable homes and to provide direct rental assistance to more than 270,000 families. The HOME Coalition estimates that this investment has supported nearly 1.5 million jobs and has generated $94.2 billion in local income.

*     *      *

With HOME, Congress created a program that provides states and communities with unmatched flexibility and local control to meet the housing needs that they identify as most pressing. HOME is the only federal housing program exclusively focused on addressing such a wide range of housing activities. States and local communities use HOME to fund new production where affordable housing is scarce, rehabilitation where housing quality is a challenge, rental assistance when affordable homes are available, and provide homeownership opportunities when those are most needed. Moreover, this flexibility means that states and communities can quickly react to changes in their local housing markets. (7, emphasis removed)

The report calls attention to the fact that Congress has been making big cuts to HOME funding since 2010. These cuts show the complexities inherent in federal housing policy, coming as they do right on the heels of the creation of the National Housing Trust Fund in 2008.

Congress appears to giveth and taketh away from housing programs in equal measure. As an added bonus for Congress, it taketh away on-budget items (HOME) and giveth off-budget items (NHTF, funded by Fannie and Freddie surcharges), making it an even more politically expedient trade-off. HOME dollars are a lot more flexible than NHTF dollars, so even a dollar for dollar trade has significant downsides for state housing programs. There is a lot not to like about this development in federal housing policy.

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup