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.

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.