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.

Foreclosures & Credit Card Debt

Credit Cards

Paul S. Calem, Julapa Jagtiani and William W. Lang have posted Foreclosure Delay and Consumer Credit Performance to SSRN. Effectively, it argues that long foreclosure delays may have reduced the credit card default rate because homeowners in default were able to pay down their credit card debt while living for free in their homes. The abstract reads,

The deep housing market recession from 2008 through 2010 was characterized by a steep rise in the number of foreclosures and lengthening foreclosure timelines. The average length of time from the onset of delinquency through the end of the foreclosure process also expanded significantly, averaging up to three years in some states. Most individuals undergoing foreclosure were experiencing serious financial stress. However, the extended foreclosure timelines enabled mortgage defaulters to live in their homes without making mortgage payments until the end of the foreclosure process, thus providing temporary income and liquidity benefits from lower housing costs. This paper investigates the impact of extended foreclosure timelines on borrower performance with credit card debt. Our results indicate that a longer period of nonpayment of mortgage expenses results in higher cure rates on delinquent credit cards and reduced credit card balances. Foreclosure process delays may have mitigated the impact of the economic downturn on credit card default.

The authors conclude,

our findings indicate that households do not consume all the benefits from temporary relief from housing expenses; instead, they use that temporary relief to cure delinquent credit card debt and reduce their credit card balances. Interestingly, we find that payment relief from loan modifications has a similar impact to payment relief from longer foreclosure timelines; both are associated with curing card delinquency and reducing card balances.

These households, however, are likely to become delinquent on their credit cards again within six quarters following the end of the foreclosure process. Thus, the results suggest that there may be added risk for nonmortgage lenders when foreclosures are completed and households must incur the transaction costs of moving and incur significant housing expenses once again. This implies an additional dimension of risk to credit card lenders that has not been observed previously. (23)

I am not sure what to make of these findings for borrowers, regulators, credit card lenders or mortgage lenders. Would a utility-maximizing borrower run up their credit card debt while in foreclosure? Should states seek to change foreclosure timelines to change consumer or lender behavior? Should profit-maximizing credit card lenders seek to further limit borrowing upon a mortgage default?  What should profit-maximizing mortgage lenders do? I have lots of questions but no good answers yet.

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

Premature End to Foreclosure Review

Congressman Cummings (D), the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has sent a letter to Congressman Issa, the Chairman of the Committee, regarding the Independent Foreclosure Review. It opens,

I am writing to request that the Committee hold a hearing on widespread foreclosure abuses and illegal activities engaged in by mortgage servicing companies.  I request that the hearing also examine why the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) appear to have prematurely ended the Independent Foreclosure Review (IFR) and entered into a major settlement agreement with most of the servicers just as the full extent of their harm was beginning to be revealed. (1)

It goes on to assert that “some mortgage servicing companies engaged in widespread and systemic foreclosure abuses, including charging improper and excessive fees, failing to process loan modifications in accordance with federal guidelines, and violating automatic stays after borrowers filed for bankruptcy.” (2) It concludes that it “remains unclear why the regulators terminated the IFR prematurely, how regulators determined the compensation amounts servicers were required to pay under the settlement, and how regulators could  claim that borrowers who were harmed by these servicers would benefit more from the settlement . . . than by allowing the IFR to be completed.” (2)

The letter raises a number of important concerns, but I will focus on just one — “how did the regulators arrive at the compensation amounts in the settlement?” (9) This particular settlement was for billions of dollars from BoA, PNC, JPMorgan and Citibank. This is an extraordinarily large sum, but the public is left with no sense of whether this sum is proportional to the harm done. I have raised this concern with other billion dollar settlements. As the federal government moves forward with these large settlements, it should carefully consider their expressive function — does the penalty fit the wrongdoing?  And if so, how was that calculated? People want to know.

What $4 Billion Does for Homeowners

Enterprise released a Policy Focus on What the JPMorgan Chase Settlement Means for Consumers: An Analysis of the $4 Billion in Consumer Relief Obligations. It opens,

On November 19, 2013, JPMorgan Chase reached a record-setting settlement deal with the federal government’s Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) Working Group for $13 billion, which included $4 billion in consumer relief for struggling homeowners and hard-hit communities.

This brief examines how the $4 billion obligation will likely flow to consumers over the next four years. According to the settlement terms, eligible activities for which JPMorgan Chase will receive credit broadly include: loan modifications; rate reduction and refinancing; low- to moderate-income/disaster area lending; and anti-blight work. (1)

Enterprise projects that JPMorgan’s $4 Billion obligation will

translate into $4.65 billion in relief for existing homeowners, with an additional $15 million going to homebuyers, and as much as $380 million in cash and REO properties allocated to reducing foreclosure-related blight. Our analysis projects that over 26,500 borrowers will receive a total of $2.6 billion in principal forgiveness, which translates into $1.5 billion in credit toward the bank’s obligation. Forbearance will be extended on 17,000 loans, and slightly more than 7,000 second liens will be fully or partially forgiven. In addition to forgiveness or forbearance, we anticipate the interest rates on approximately 26,500 loans will be reduced, resulting in a real borrower savings of $1.4 billion. (1)

We’re talking about some pretty big numbers here, so it might be useful to break them down on a per borrower basis.

  • 26,500 loans will receive interest rate reductions resulting in $1.4 billion in consumer benefit, or $52,830 per loan.
  • 26,500 borrowers will receive $2.6 billion in principal forgiveness, or $98,113 per homeowner.

The report, unfortunately, does not parse these big numbers out so well. For instance, do they reflect savings over the expected life of the loans or over the remaining term? We also do not know whether these changes, large as they are, will leave sustainable loans in their place. So, this is a report provides a useful starting point, but some very big questions about the settlement still remain to be answered.

CFPB Highlights: Leviathan Heeled

The CFPB issued its Winter 2013 Supervisory Highlights.  Here are some mortgage highlights from the Highlights:

  • CFPB examiners found that two servicers had engaged in unfair practices in connection with servicing transfers. Specifically, these servicers failed to honor existing permanent or trial loan modifications after a servicing transfer. . . . These servicers also engaged in deception in connection with this practice by communicating to borrowers that they should have made the payments required by the original note, instead of acknowledging that the borrowers were to make reduced payments set by their trial modification agreements with the prior servicer. (5-6)
  • The Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) is intended to provide the public with loan data that can be used: (i) to help determine whether financial institutions are serving the housing needs of their communities, (ii) to assist public officials in distributing public-sector investment to help attract private investment to areas where it is needed, and (iii) to assist in identifying possible discriminatory lending patterns and enforcing antidiscrimination statutes, such as the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). The CFPB considers accurate HMDA data and effective HMDA compliance management systems to be of great importance.  . . . However, several HMDA reviews at financial institutions found error rates over the resubmission thresholds and Supervision directed the financial institutions to resubmit their HMDA data and improve their HMDA compliance systems.In October, the CFPB entered into Consent Orders with two lenders to address violations of HMDA. One entity, Mortgage Master, Inc., is a nonbank headquartered in Walpole, Massachusetts. The other entity, Washington Federal, is a bank headquartered in Seattle, Washington. (10-11, footnote omitted)

I’d have to say that the CFPB enforcement actions described in the Highlights are relatively small potatoes. One can read that in a couple of ways:

  • The industry is taking consumer financial protection far more seriously than it had before the CFPB was created; or
  • the CFPB is looking in the wrong place for regulatory noncompliance in the industry.

I think that the evidence bears out the former explanation. But I think that these highlights also demonstrate that the CFPB is not behaving like some out of control Leviathan, destroying all of the financial institutions in its grasp. Rather, it is taking very discrete actions based on documented misbehavior. Seems like a reasonable approach.