Hope for the Securitization Market

The Structured Finance Industry Group has issued a white paper, Regulatory Reform: Securitization Industry Proposals to Support Growth in the Real Economy. While the paper is a useful summary of the industry’s needs, it would benefit from looking at the issue more broadly. The paper states that

One of the core policy responses to the financial crisis was the adoption of a wide variety of new regulations applicable to the securitization industry, largely in the form of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”). While many post-crisis analysts believe that the crisis laid bare the need for meaningful regulatory reform, SFIG members believe that any such regulation must: ƒ

  • Reduce risk in a manner such that benefits outweigh costs, including operational costs and inefficiencies; ƒ
  • Be coherent and consistent across the various sectors and across similar risk profiles; ƒ
  • Be operationally feasible from both a transactional and a loan origination basis so as not to compromise provision of credit to the real economy; ƒ
  • Be valued by key market participants; and ƒ
  • Be implemented in a targeted way (i.e. without unintended consequences).

In this paper, we will distinguish between the types of regulation we believe to be necessary and productive versus those that are, at the very least, not helpful and, in some cases, harmful. To support this approach, we believe it is helpful to evaluate financial market regulations, specifically those related to securitization, under three distinct categories, those that are:

1. Transactional in nature; i.e., directly impact the securitization market via a focus on underlying deal structures;

2. Banking rules that include securitization reform within their mandate; and

3. Banking rules that simply do not contemplate securitization and, therefore, may result in unintended consequences. (3)

The paper concludes,

The securitization industry serves as a mechanism for allowing institutional investors to deliver funding to the real economy, both to individual consumers of credit and to businesses of all sizes. This segment of credit reduces the real economy’s reliance on the banking system to deliver such funding, thereby reducing systemic risk.

It is important that both issuers of securitization bonds and investors in those bonds align at an appropriate balance in their goals to allow those issuers to maintain a business model that is not unduly penalized for using securitization as a funding tool, while at the same time, ensuring investors have confidence in the market via “skin in the game” and sufficiency of disclosure. (19)

I think the paper is totally right that we should design a regulatory environment that allows for responsible securitization. The paper is, however, silent on the interest of consumers, whose loans make up the collateral of many of the mortgage-backed and asset-backed securities that are at issue in the bond market. The system can’t be designed just to work for issuers and investors, consumers must have a voice too.

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.

Muddled Future for Fannie & Freddie

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The United States Government Accountability Office released a report, Objectives Needed for the Future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac After Conservatorships.  The GAO’s findings read a bit like a “dog bites man” story — stating, as it does, the obvious:  “Congress should consider legislation that would establish clear objectives and a transition plan to a reformed housing finance system that enables the enterprises to exit conservatorship. FHFA agreed with our overall findings.” (GAO Highlights page) I think everyone agrees with that, except unfortunately, Congress.  Congress has let the two companies languish in the limbo of conservatorship for over eight years now.

Richard Shelby, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, asked the GAO to prepare this report in order to

examine FHFA’s actions as conservator. This report addresses (1) the extent to which FHFA’s goals for the conservatorships have changed and (2) the implications of FHFA’s actions for the future of the enterprises and the broader secondary mortgage market. GAO analyzed and reviewed FHFA’s actions as conservator and supporting documents; legislative proposals for housing finance reform; the enterprises’ senior preferred stock agreements with Treasury; and GAO, Congressional Budget Office, and FHFA inspector general reports. GAO also interviewed FHFA and Treasury officials and industry stakeholders (Id.)

The GAO’s findings are pretty technical, but still very important for housing analysts:

In the absence of congressional direction, FHFA’s shift in priorities has altered market participants’ perceptions and expectations about the enterprises’ ongoing role and added to uncertainty about the future structure of the housing finance system. In particular, FHFA halted several actions aimed at reducing the scope of enterprise activities and is seeking to maintain the enterprises in their current state. However, other actions (such as reducing their capital bases to $0 by January 2018) are written into agreements for capital support with the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and continue to be implemented.

In addition, the change in scope for the technology platform for securitization puts less emphasis on reducing barriers facing private entities than previously envisioned, and new initiatives to expand mortgage availability could crowd out market participants.

Furthermore, some actions, such as transferring credit risk to private investors, could decrease the likelihood of drawing on Treasury’s funding commitment, but others, such as reducing minimum down payments, could increase it.

GAO has identified setting clear objectives as a key principle for providing government assistance to private market participants. Because Congress has not established objectives for the future of the enterprises after conservatorships or the federal role in housing finance, FHFA’s ability to shift priorities may continue to contribute to market uncertainty. (Id.)

One finding seems particularly spot on to me. As I wrote yesterday, it appears as if the FHFA is not focusing sufficiently on building the infrastructure to serve secondary mortgage markets other than Fannie and Freddie.  It seems to me that a broader and deeper bench of secondary mortgage market players will benefit the housing market in the long run.

 

Fannie/Freddie Scorecard

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The Federal Housing Finance Agency released its 2017 Scorecard for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Common Securitization Solutions.  The scorecard highlights how the FHFA’s reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is proceeding apace, absent direction from Congress.  This reform path had been set by Acting Director DeMarco, appointed by President Bush, and has continued relatively unchanged under Director Watt, appointed by President Obama.

The scorecard’s assessment criteria for the two companies are,

  • The extent to which each Enterprise conducts initiatives in a safe and sound manner consistent with FHFA’s expectations for all activities;
  • The extent to which the outcomes of their activities support a competitive and resilient secondary mortgage market to support homeowners and renters;
  • The extent to which each Enterprise conducts initiatives with consideration for diversity and inclusion consistent with FHFA’s expectations for all activities;
  • Cooperation and collaboration with FHFA, each other, the industry, and other stakeholders; and
  • The quality, thoroughness, creativity, effectiveness, and timeliness of their work products. (2)

The scorecard states that Fannie and Freddie should increase credit risk transfers to investors.  Currently, the focus is on transferring risk from pretty safe and standard mortgages, but the FHFA is pushing Fannie and Freddie to increase risk transfers on a broader array of mortgage types.

The scorecard also states that the effort to integrate Fannie and Freddie through the Common Securitization Platform and the Single Security should continue so that the Single Security is operational in 2018.  The scorecard emphasizes that the Platform should allow “for the integration of additional market participants in the future.” (6)  While this has been a design requirement from the get-go, I have heard through the grapevine that this element of the Platform has not been pursued so vigorously.  To my mind, it seems like a key component if we want to build the infrastructure for a healthy secondary mortgage market for the rest of the 21st century.

 

Uses & Abuses of Online Marketplace Lending

photo by Kim Traynor

 

The Department of the Treasury has issued a report, Opportunities and Challenges in Online Marketplace Lending. Online marketplace lending is still in its early stages, so it is great that regulators are paying attention to it before it has fully matured. This lending channel may greatly increase options for borrowers, but it can also present opportunities to fleece them. Treasury is looking at this issue from both sides. Some highlights of the report include,

 

 

  • There is Opportunity to Expand Access to Credit: RFI [Request for Information] responses suggested that online marketplace lending is expanding access to credit in some segments by providing loans to certain borrowers who might not otherwise have received capital. Although the majority of consumer loans are being originated for debt consolidation purposes, small business loans are being originated to business owners for general working capital and expansion needs. Distribution partnerships between online marketplace lenders and traditional lenders may present an opportunity to leverage technology to expand access to credit further into underserved markets.
  • New Credit Models and Operations Remain Untested: New business models and underwriting tools have been developed in a period of very low interest rates, declining unemployment, and strong overall credit conditions. However, this industry remains untested through a complete credit cycle. Higher charge off and delinquency rates for recent vintage consumer loans may augur increased concern if and when credit conditions deteriorate.
  • Small Business Borrowers Will Likely Require Enhanced Safeguards: RFI commenters drew attention to uneven protections and regulations currently in place for small business borrowers. RFI commenters across the stakeholder spectrum argued small business borrowers should receive enhanced protections.
  • Greater Transparency Can Benefit Borrowers and Investors: RFI responses strongly supported and agreed on the need for greater transparency for all market participants. Suggested areas for greater transparency include pricing terms for borrowers and standardized loan-level data for investors.

*     *     *

  • Regulatory Clarity Can Benefit the Market: RFI commenters had diverse views of the role government could play in the market. However, a large number argued that regulators could provide additional clarity around the roles and requirements for the various participants. (1-2)

As we move deeper and deeper into the gig economy, the distinction between a consumer and a small business owner gets murkier and murkier. Thus, this call for greater protections for small business borrowers makes a lot of sense.

Online marketplace lending is such a new lending channel, so it is appropriate that the report ends with a lot of questions:

  • Will new credit scoring models prove robust as the credit cycle turns?
  • Will higher overall interest rates change the competitiveness of online marketplace lenders or dampen appetite from their investors?
  • Will this maturing industry successfully navigate cyber security challenges, and adapt to appropriately heightened regulatory expectations? (34)

We will have to live through a few credit cycles before we have a good sense of the answers to these questions.

Treasury Gives RMBS a Workout

The Treasury has undertaken a Credit Rating Agency Exercise. According to Michael Stegman, Treasury

recognized that the PLS market has been dormant since the financial crisis partly because of a “chicken-and-egg” phenomenon between rating agencies and originator-aggregators. Rating agencies will not rate mortgage pools without loan-level data, yet originator-aggregators will not originate pools of mortgage bonds without an idea of what it would take for the bond to receive a AAA rating.

Using our convening authority, Treasury invited six credit rating agencies to participate in an exercise over the last several months intended to provide market participants with greater transparency into their credit rating methodologies for residential mortgage loans.

By increasing clarity around loss expectations and required subordination levels for more diverse pools of collateral, the credit rating agencies can stimulate a constructive market dialogue around post-crisis underwriting and securitization practices and foster greater confidence in the credit rating process for private label mortgage-backed securities (MBS). The information obtained through this exercise may also give mortgage originators and aggregators greater insight into the potential economics of financing mortgage loans in the private label channel and the consequent implications for borrowing costs.

While this exercise is very technical, it contains some interesting nuggets for a broad range of readers. For instance,

The housing market, regulatory environment, and loan performance have evolved significantly from pre-crisis to present day. Credit rating agency models appear to account for these changes in varying ways. All credit rating agency models incorporate the performance of loans originated prior to, during, and after the crisis to the degree they believe best informs the nature of credit and prepayment risk reflected in the market. Credit rating agency model stress scenarios may be influenced by loans originated at the peak of the housing market, given the macroeconomic stress and home price declines they experienced. The credit rating agencies differ, however, in how their models adjust for the post-crisis regime of improved underwriting practices and operational controls. Some credit rating agencies capture these changes directly in their models, while other credit rating agencies rely on qualitative adjustments outside of their models. (10)

It is important for non-specialists to realize how much subjectivity can be built into rating agency models. Every model will make inferences based on past performance. The exercise highlights how different rating agencies address post-crisis loan performance in significantly different ways. Time will tell which ones got it right.