Nonbanks and The Next Crisis

 

 

Researchers at the Fed and UC Berkeley have posted Liquidity Crises in the Mortgage Markets. The authors conclusions are particularly troubling:

The nonbank mortgage sector has boomed in recent years. The combination of low interest rates, well-functioning GSE and Ginnie Mae securitization markets, and streamlined FHA and VA programs have created ample opportunities for nonbanks to generate revenue by refinancing mortgages. Commercial banks have been happy to supply warehouse lines of credit to nonbanks at favorable rates. Delinquency rates have been low, and so nonbanks have not needed to finance servicing advances.

In this paper, we ask “What happens next?” What happens if interest rates rise and nonbank revenue drops? What happens if commercial banks or other financial institutions lose their taste for extending credit to nonbanks? What happens if delinquency rates rise and servicers have to advance payments to investors—advances that, in the case of Ginnie Mae pools, the servicer cannot finance, and on which they might take a sizable capital loss?

We cannot provide reassuring answers to any of these questions. The typical nonbank has few resources with which to weather these shocks. Nonbanks with servicing portfolios concentrated in Ginnie Mae pools are exposed to a higher risk of borrower default and higher potential losses in the event of such a default, and yet, as far as we can tell from our limited data, have even less liquidity on hand than other nonbanks. Failure of these nonbanks in particular would have a disproportionate effect on lower-income and minority borrowers.

In the event of the failure of a nonbank, the government (through Ginnie Mae and the GSEs) will probably bear the majority of the increased credit and operational losses that will follow. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the government shared some mortgage credit losses with the banking system through putbacks and False Claims Act prosecutions. Now, however, the banks have largely retreated from lending to borrowers with lower credit scores and instead lend to nonbanks through warehouse lines of credit, which provide banks with numerous protections in the event of nonbank failure.

Although the monitoring of nonbanks on the part of the GSEs, Ginnie Mae, and the state regulators has increased substantially over the past few years, the prudential regulatory minimums, available data, and staff resources still seem somewhat lacking relative to the risks. Meanwhile, researchers and analysts without access to regulatory data have almost no way to assess the risks. In addition, although various regulators are engaged in micro-prudential supervision of individual nonbanks, less thought is being given, in the housing finance reform discussions and elsewhere, to the question of whether it is wise to concentrate so much risk in a sector with such little capacity to bear it, and a history, at least during the financial crisis, of going out of business. We write this paper with the hope of elevating this question in the national mortgage debate. (52-53)

As with last week’s paper on Mortgage Insurers and The Next Housing Crisis, this paper is a wake-up call to mortgage-market policymakers to pay attention to where the seeds of the next mortgage crisis may be hibernating, awaiting just the right conditions to sprout up.

Carson’s Call of Duty

photo by Gage Skidmore

Dr. Ben Carson

The Hill published my most recent column, Ben Carson’s Call of Duty as America’s Housing Chief:

Ben Carson, the nominee for secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has made almost no public pronouncements about housing policy. The one exception is a Washington Times opinion piece from 2015 in which he addresses an Obama administration rule on fair housing.

While Carson appears to agree with the Obama administration’s diagnosis of the problem of segregation, he attacks its solution. If he refuses to vigorously enforce the rule at HUD, it is still incumbent on him to address the underlying problem it was meant to address.

Carson acknowledges the history of structural racism in American housing markets. He notes that segregation was caused in part by the federal government’s reliance on “redlining,” which refers to the Federal Housing Administration’s mid-20th century practice of drawing a red line around minority communities on underwriting maps and then refusing to insure mortgages within those borders.

He also acknowledges that racially restrictive covenants played a significant role in maintaining segregation. Racially restrictive covenants were legally enforceable agreements among property owners to keep homes from being sold to members of various minority groups. African Americans were the group most often targeted by them.

These covenants were very common in the mid-20th century, until the Supreme Court ruled that they were not legally enforceable. Shockingly, the Federal Housing Administration continued to encourage their use, even after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Carson also acknowledged that “the Fair Housing Act and other laws have greatly reduced explicit discrimination in housing” but that “significant disparities in housing availability and quality persist.”

All in all, Carson’s take on the history of American housing policy is consistent with the consensus view across the left and the right: the federal government promoted segregationist housing policies for a large part of the 20th century.

Where he veers sharply from the Obama administration is in crafting a solution. The Obama administration promulgated a rule pursuant to the Fair Housing Act that would require localities to affirmatively promote fair housing if they chose to take funds from HUD.

While Carson states that the Obama rule is based on a “tortured reading of Fair Housing law,” the statutory authority for it is pretty clear. The Fair Housing Act states that HUD is to administer housing programs “in a manner affirmatively to further the policies” of the law.

Carson has characterized the Obama administration rule as a “socialist experiment.” I think his characterization is just plain wrong, particularly because the federal government often ties the provision of federal funds to various policy goals.

Think, for instance, of how federal highway dollars were tied to lowering state speed limits to 55 miles an hour. Such linkages are hardly socialist experiments. They merely demonstrate the power of the purse, a long-time tool of the federal government. Even if Carson cannot be convinced of this, the debate over how to address this legacy of discrimination does not end there.

After all, Carson’s opinion identified a serious problem: segregation resulting from longstanding policies of the federal government. He then stated that he does not agree with the Obama administration’s approach to solving the problem. He concluded by stating, “There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens.”  But he failed to identify a single policy to address the problems caused by those longstanding and discriminatory federal policies.

If confirmed, Carson must outline how the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development can address the legacy of structural racism in American housing markets. The text of the Fair Housing Act makes it clear that HUD must administer its housing programs in a manner that would affirmatively further the policies of the law.

The problem Carson faces is clear. The duty imposed upon him by the law is clear.  What remains unclear is how he will fulfill that duty. He has both a legal and moral obligation to set forth his vision, if he is bent on rejecting that of President Obama.

Ensuring Sustainable Homeownership

tornado-destruction-618718_1280

My short article, Ensuring That Homeownership Is Sustainable, was just published in the Westlaw Journal, Bank & Lender Liability. It opens,

The Federal Housing Administration has suffered as a result of many of the same unrealistic underwriting assumptions that led to problems for many lenders during the 2000s. It, too, was harmed by a housing market as bad as any since the Great Depression.

As a result, the federal government announced in 2013 that the FHA would require the first bailout in the agency’s history. While facing financial challenges, the FHA has also come under attack for the poor execution of policies designed to expand homeownership opportunities.

Leading commentators have called for the federal government to stop having the FHA do anything but provide liquidity to the low end of the mortgage market.

These critics rely on a few examples of agency programs that were clearly failures, but they do not address the FHA’s long history of undertaking comparable initiatives.

 In fact, the FHA has a history of successfully undertaking new homeownership programs. However, it also has operational flaws that should be addressed before it undertakes similar future homeownership initiatives.

INTRODUCTION TO THE FHA

Mortgage insurance is a product that is paid for by the homeowner but protects the lender if the homeowner defaults on the mortgage. The insurer pays the lender for losses it suffers from the homeowner’s default. Mortgage insurance is typically required for borrowers who have limited funds for down payments.

The FHA provides mortgage insurance for loans on single family and multifamily homes, and it is the world’s largest government mortgage insurer. Other significant providers are the Department of Veterans Affairs and private companies known as private mortgage insurers.

Mortgage insurance makes homeownership possible for many households that would otherwise not be able to meet lenders’ underwriting requirements.

Just like much of the federal housing infrastructure, the FHA has its roots in the Great Depression. The private mortgage insurance industry, like many others, was decimated in the early 1930s. Companies in the industry began to fail as almost half of all mortgages went into default. The government created the FHA to replace the PMI industry, which remained dormant for decades.

In the Great Depression, the housing markets faced problems that were similar to those faced by the same markets in the late 2000s. These problems included rapidly falling housing prices, widespread unemployment and underemployment, the rapid tightening of credit and — as a result of all of those trends — much higher default and foreclosure rates.

The FHA noted in its second annual report, issued in 1936, that the “shortcomings of the old system need no recital. It financed extensive overselling of houses at inflated values, to borrowers unable to pay for them.” Needless to say, the same could be said of our most recent housing bust.

Over its lifetime, the FHA has insured more than 40 million mortgages, helping to make homeownership available to a broad swath of American households. Indeed, the FHA mortgage has been essential to America’s transformation from a nation of renters to one of homeowners.

The early FHA created the modern American housing finance system, as well as the look and feel of post-war suburban communities through the construction standards the agency set for the new houses it insured.

The FHA has also had many other missions over the course of its existence — and a varied legacy to match.

Beginning in the 1950s, the FHA’s role changed from serving the entire mortgage market to focusing on certain segments. This changed mission had a major impact on everything the FHA did, including how it underwrote mortgage insurance and for whom it did so.

In recent years, the FHA has come under attack for poorly executing some of its attempts to expand homeownership opportunities, and leading commentators have called for the federal government to stop assigning such mandates to the agency. They argue that the FHA should focus only on providing liquidity for the portion of the mortgage market that serves low- and moderate-income households.

These critics rely on a couple of examples of failed programs, such as the Section 235 program enacted as part of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 and the American Dream Downpayment Assistance Act of 2003.

Those programs required borrowers to make only tiny and sometimes even nominal down payments. The government enacted the Section 235 program in response to the riots that burned through American cities in the 1960s. It was intended to expand homeownership opportunities for low-income households, particularly black ones.

The American Dream program was also geared to increasing homeownership among lower-income and minority households. The crux of the critique of these programs is that they failed to ensure that borrowers had the capacity to repay their mortgages, leading to bad results for the FHA and borrowers alike.

Notwithstanding these failed initiatives, the FHA has a parallel history of successfully undertaking new homeownership programs. These successes include programs for veterans returning home from World War II, a mission that was later handed off to the VA.

At the same time, historically the FHA has clearly suffered from operational failures that should be addressed in the design of any future initiatives.

Unfortunately, the agency has not really grappled with its past failures as it moves beyond the financial crisis. To properly address operational failures, the FHA must first identify its goals. (6-7, footnote omitted)

Housing Policy and Economic Mobility

Pamela Blumenthal

Pamela Blumenthal

John McGinty

John McGinty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pamela Blumenthal and John McGinty of the Urban Institute have written an interesting research report, Housing Policy Levers to Promote Economic Mobility. I generally believe that housing policy should be designed to assist low- and moderate-income households live in safe, decent and affordable housing, but I rarely consider how housing policy can actually help low- and moderate-income households become upwardly mobile. This report does just that and concludes,

At a time of growing income and wealth inequality, economic mobility provides a frame through which to consider the potential of housing policy to change the trajectories of individuals and communities. Economic mobility is about the opportunities individuals have to improve their economic well-being and requires education and other skill acquisition, available jobs, transportation networks, and other resources. Stable housing with access to those components gives low-income and minority individuals and families a chance to climb out of poverty. The current structures too often constrain individual choice because families cannot find affordable housing near a good school or in a safe neighborhood.

National policies that enforce fair housing, more fairly distribute tax benefits, and invest in people and places that have long suffered from disinvestment can begin to change the trajectory. State policies that fund affordable housing production and preservation in location-efficient areas and create requirements or incentives for local jurisdictions to integrate affordable housing throughout the community can also help.

To truly move the needle in promoting upward mobility, however, housing policy may need to adopt a lens through which programs are adopted, implemented, and evaluated based on their ability to promote upward mobility. Just as initial concerns about housing quality in the 1930s gave way to a focus on affordability in federal housing policy, another transition may be occurring. This goes beyond recognizing that a stable, safe, affordable home is critical to healthy development and well-being, to addressing the important role that neighborhood context plays—particularly for children. The importance of enabling all families to live in neighborhoods where they have access to jobs, good schools, parks, and other community resources and are free from violence, toxins, noise, and other harmful environments may become future federal housing policy. (41)

I don’t think that there is anything earth-shattering in this report, but it does focus attention on housing policy in a fruitful way.

Foreclosure Body Count

respres

Case Western’s Matt Rossman has posted Counting Casualties in Communities Hit Hardest by the Foreclosure Crisis (forthcoming in the Utah Law Review) to SSRN. The abstract reads,

Recent statistics suggest that the U.S. housing market has largely recovered from the Foreclosure Crisis. A closer look reveals that the country is composed not of one market, but of thousands of smaller, local housing markets that have experienced dramatically uneven levels of recovery. Repeated waves of home mortgage foreclosures inundated certain communities (the “Hardest Hit Communities”), causing their housing markets to break rather than bend and resulting in what amounts to a permanent transition to a lower value plateau. Homeowners in these predominantly low and middle income and/or minority communities who endured the Foreclosure Crisis lost significant equity in what is typically their principal asset. Public sector responses have largely ignored this collateral damage.

As the ten-year mark since the onset of the Foreclosure Crisis approaches, this Article argues that homeowners in the Hardest Hit Communities should be able to deduct the damage to their home values caused by the Crisis from their federal taxable income. This means overcoming the tax code’s usual normative assumption that a decline in a home’s value represents consumed wealth and, thus, is fully taxable. To do so, this Article likens the rapid, unusual and enduring plunge in home values experienced by homeowners in the Hardest Hit Communities to casualty losses – i.e. damages to personal property caused by a sudden force like a storm or a hurricane – which are deductible. The IRS and most courts have insisted this deduction is limited to physical damage. This Article carefully dissects the law and principles underlying the deduction to reveal that the physical damage requirement is overbroad and inequitable. When viewed in the larger context of other recent tax code interventions that allow those who have experienced personal financial harm due to a crisis to reduce their income tax base accordingly, home value damage in the Hardest Hit Communities actually fits comfortably within the concept of a casualty loss.

Notwithstanding its normative and equitable fit, the casualty loss deduction poses several administrative challenges in its application to the Foreclosure Crisis. This Article addresses each challenge in turn, explaining the extent to which the Treasury Department and the IRS, through administrative action and/or a careful application of case law precedent, can resolve it. The Article also identifies and grapples with the distributional reality that the casualty loss deduction, in its current form, provides a small or no return on lost home equity for a sizable number of low and middle income homeowners, which would make it a problematic method of recovery for homeowners in the Hardest Hit Communities. To make the deduction a better and more equitable fit under the circumstances, this Article identifies two, larger-scale modifications the federal government could adopt: (i) changing the method by which a casualty loss is valued for damage caused by the Foreclosure Crisis and/or (ii) lifting the floors and limits Congress has over time imposed on the deduction, as it has done for those taxpayers most heavily impacted by several recent hurricanes and droughts.

The article offers a creative response to ameliorate an aspect of the foreclosure crisis. Rossman concludes, “Once these homeowners are considered equally worthy of claiming a casualty loss, the question then shifts to how the IRS, the Treasury Department and/or Congress can best adapt and address the administrative and distributional challenges attendant to utilizing the casualty loss deduction in this context. These challenges are not insurmountable barriers, but rather issues to be carefully considered and strategically addressed.” (67)

I can certainly imagine some of those challenges, such as how to reliably identify a “permanent transition to a lower value plateau,” but articles of this type are just what we need as we try to figure out how to address housing crises of this magnitude.  While there was a big gap between the housing crises of the Great Depression and the Great Depression we can be sure that there will be another such event at some point in the 21st century.

Moving To Opportunity

Mount Laurel

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has posted Realizing the Housing Voucher Program’s Potential to Enable Families to Move to Better Neighborhoods. It opens,

Housing Choice Vouchers help families afford decent, stable housing, avoid homelessness, and make ends meet. They also enable children to grow up in better neighborhoods and thereby enhance their chances of long-term health and success. When African American and Hispanic families use housing vouchers, for example, their children are nearly twice as likely as other poor minority children to grow up in low-poverty neighborhoods and somewhat less likely to grow up in extremely poor areas. Still, 280,000 children in families using vouchers lived in extremely poor neighborhoods in 2014. Vouchers could do much more to help these and other children grow up in safer, low-poverty neighborhoods with good schools.

Public housing agencies have flexibility under current Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program rules to implement strategies to improve location outcomes, and state and local governments could facilitate these efforts. But without changes in federal policy to encourage state and local agencies to take such steps and to modify counter-productive policies — and reliable funding to maintain the number of families receiving HCV assistance and to administer the program effectively — there is little reason to expect better results.

Federal, state, and local agencies can make four sets of interrelated policy changes to help families in the HCV program live in better locations:

  • Create strong incentives for state and local housing agencies to achieve better location outcomes;
  • Modify policies that discourage families from living in lower-poverty communities;
  • Minimize jurisdictional barriers to families’ ability to live in high-opportunity communities; and
  • Assist families in using vouchers to rent in high-opportunity areas. (1)

This paper poses a number of concrete policy proposals for HUD to increase choices for voucher recipients. They include giving weight to location outcomes for recipients in measuring local housing agency performance; aligning these goals with the new fair housing rules; and providing incentive payments to local agencies that help voucher recipients move to higher-opportunity areas. (8) There are more concrete proposals in the paper that I leave to the reader to review.

What I like about these proposals is that many of them can be implemented administratively by HUD, just like the fair housing rules were. I hope HUD is giving this paper its full attention — there is a lot of good stuff in it that can help people move to opportunities that they cannot currently access.

CFPB Mortgage Market Rules

woodleywonderworks

Law360 quoted me in Questions Remain Over CFPB Mortgage Rules’ Market Effects (behind a paywall). The story highlights the fact that the jury is still out on exactly what a mature, post-Dodd-Frank mortgage market will look like. As I blogged yesterday, it seems like the new regulatory regime is working, but we need more time to determine whether it is providing the optimal amount of sustainable credit to households of all income-levels. The story opens,

Despite fears that a set of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau mortgage rules that went into effect last year would cut off many black, Hispanic and other borrowers from the mortgage market, a recent government report showed that has not been the case.

Indeed, the numbers from the Federal Financial Institutions Examinations Council’s annual Home Mortgage Disclosure Act annual report showed that the percentage of black and Hispanic borrowers within the overall mortgage market actually ticked up in 2014, even as the percentage of loans those two communities got from government sources went down.

However, it may be too early to say how the CFPB’s ability-to-repay and qualified-mortgage rules are influencing decisions by lenders and potential borrowers as the housing market continues to recover from the 2008 financial crisis, experts say. 

“Clearly, there’s a story here, and clearly there’s a story from this 2014 data,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School. “But I don’t know that it’s that QM and [ability to repay] work.”

The CFPB was tasked with writing rules to reshape the mortgage market and stop the subprime mortgage lending — including no-doc loans and other shoddy underwriting practices — that marked the period running up to the financial crisis.

Those rules included new ability-to-repay standards, governing the types of information lenders would have to collect to have a reasonable certainty that a borrower could repay, and the qualified mortgage standard, a class of mortgages with strict underwriting standards that would be considered the highest quality.

The rules took effect in 2014, after the CFPB made changes aimed at easing lenders’ worries over potential litigation by borrowers should their QMs falter.

Even with those changes, there were worries that black, Hispanic and low-income borrowers could be shut out of the market, as lenders focused only on making loans that met the QM standard or large loans, known as jumbo mortgages, issued primarily to the most affluent borrowers.

According to the HMDA report, that did not happen in the first year the rules were in effect.

Both black and Hispanic borrowers saw a small uptick in the percentage of overall mortgages issued in 2014.

Black borrowers made up 5.2 percent of the overall market in 2014 compared with 4.8 percent in 2013, when lenders were preparing to comply with the rule, and 5.1 percent in 2012, the report said. Latino borrowers made up 7.9 percent of the overall market in 2014 compared with 7.3 percent in 2013 and 7.7 percent in 2012, the federal statistics show.

And the percentage of the loans those borrowers got from government-backed sources like the Federal Housing Administration, a program run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development targeting first-time and low- to middle-income borrowers, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies fell.

Overall, 68 percent of the loans issued to black borrowers came with that direct government support in 2014, down from 70.6 percent in 2013 and 77.2 percent in 2012, the HMDA report found. For Hispanic borrowers, 59.5 percent of the mortgages issued in 2014 had direct government support, down from 62.8 percent in 2013 and 70.7 percent in 2012.

For backers of the CFPB’s mortgage rules, those numbers came as a relief.

“We were definitely waiting with bated breath for this,” said Yana Miles, a policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending.

To supporters of the rules, the mortgage origination numbers reported by the federal government showed that black and Hispanic borrowers were not being shut out of the mortgage market.

“Not only did we not see lending from those groups go to zero, we’re seeing a very, very small baby step in the right direction,” Miles said. “We’re seeing opposite evidence as to what was predicted.”

And in some ways, the CFPB has written rules that met the goal of promoting safe lending following the poor practices of the housing bubble era while still giving space to lenders to get credit in the market.

“We have a functioning mortgage market,” Reiss said.