Rethinking FHA Insurance

The Congressional Budget Office issued a report on Options to Manage FHA’s Exposure to Risk from Guaranteeing Single-Family Mortgages. FHA insurance stands out from other forms of mortgage insurance because it guarantees all of a lender’s loss, rather than just a portion of it. It is certainly a useful exercise to determine whether the FHA could reduce its exposure to those potential credit losses while also making home loans available to people who would otherwise have difficulty accessing them. This report evaluates the options available to the FHA:

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insures the mortgages of people who might otherwise have trouble getting a loan, particularly first-time homebuyers and low-income borrowers seeking to purchase or refinance a home. During and just after the 2007–2009 recession, the share of mortgages insured by FHA grew rapidly as private lenders became more reluctant to provide home loans without an FHA guarantee of repayment. FHA’s expanded role in the mortgage insurance market ensured that borrowers could continue to have access to credit. However, like most other mortgage insurers, FHA experienced a spike in delinquencies and defaults by borrowers.

Recently, mortgage borrowers with good credit scores, large down payments, or low ratios of debt to income have started to see more options in the private market. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the share of FHA-insured mortgages going to such borrowers is likely to keep shrinking as credit standards in the private market continue to ease. That change would leave FHA with a riskier pool of borrowers, creating risk-management challenges similar to the ones that contributed to the agency’s high levels of insurance claims and losses during the recession.

This report analyzes policy options to reduce FHA’s exposure to risk from its program to guarantee single-family mortgages, including creating a larger role for private lenders and restricting the availability of FHA’s guarantees. The options are designed to let FHA continue to fulfill its primary mission of ensuring access to credit for first-time homebuyers and low-income borrowers.

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What Policy Options Did CBO Analyze?

Many changes have been proposed to reduce the cost of risk to the federal government from FHA’s single-family mortgage guarantees. CBO analyzed illustrative versions of seven policy options, which generally represent the range of approaches that policymakers and others have proposed:

■ Guaranteeing some rather than all of the lender’s losses on a defaulted mortgage;

■ Increasing FHA’s use of risk-based pricing to tailor up-front fees to the riskiness of specific borrowers;

■ Adding a residual-income test to the requirements for an FHA-insured mortgage to better measure borrowers’ ability to repay the loan (as the Department of Veterans Affairs does in its mortgage guarantee program);

■ Reducing the limit on the size of a mortgage that FHA can guarantee;

■ Restricting eligibility for FHA-insured mortgages only to first-time homebuyers and low- to moderate-income borrowers;

■ Requiring some borrowers to receive mortgage counseling to help them better understand their financial obligations; and

■ Providing a grant to help borrowers with their down payment, in exchange for which FHA would receive part of the increase in their home’s value when it was sold.

Although some of those approaches would require action by lawmakers, several of the options could be implemented by FHA without legislation. In addition, certain options could be combined to change the nature of FHA’s risk exposure or the composition of its guarantees. CBO did not examine the results of combining options.

What Effects Would the Policy Options Have?

Making one or more of those policy changes would affect FHA’s financial position, its role in the broader mortgage market, and the federal budget. All of the options would improve the agency’s financial position by reducing its exposure to the risk of losses on the mortgages it insures (see Table 1). The main reason for that reduction would be a decrease in the amount of mortgages guaranteed by FHA. CBO projects that under current law, FHA would insure $220 billion in new single-family mortgages in 2018. The options would lower that amount by anywhere from $15 billion to $77 billion (see Figure 1). Some options would also reduce FHA’s risk exposure by decreasing insurance losses as a percentage of the value of the guaranteed mortgages. (1-2)

Tuesday’s Regulatory & Legislative Round-Up

  • The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently released a final rule on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing.  HUD’s rule clarifies and simplifies existing fair housing obligations for HUD grantees to analyze their fair housing landscape and set locally-determined fair housing priorities and goals through an Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH).

Conservative Underwriting or Regulatory Uncertainty?

Jordan Rappaport (Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City) and Paul Willen (Federal Reserve Bank of Boston) have posted a Current Policy Perspectives,Tight Credit Conditions Continue to Constrain The Housing Recovery. They write,

Rather than cutting off access to mortgage credit for a subset of households, ongoing credit tightness more likely takes the form of strict underwriting procedures applied to all households. Lenders require conservative appraisals, meticulous documentation, and the curing of even the slightest questions of title. To the extent that these standards constitute sound lending practices, adhering to them is a positive development. But the level of vigilance suggests that regulatory uncertainty may also be playing a role.

Since the housing crisis, the FHA, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and other government and private organizations have been continually developing a new regulatory framework. Lenders fear that departures from the evolving standards will result in considerable costs, including the forced buyback of loans sold to Fannie and Freddie and the rescinding of FHA mortgage guarantees. The associated uncertainty has caused lenders to act as if strict interpretations of possible restrictive future standards will apply. (2-3)

The authors raise an important question: has the federal government distorted the mortgage market in its pursuit of past wrongdoing and its regulation of behavior going forward? Anecdotal reports such as those about Chase’s withdrawal from the FHA market seem to suggest that the answer is yes. But it appears to me that Rappaport and Willen may be jumping the gun based on the limited data that they analyze in their paper.

Markets cycle from greed to fear, from boom to bust. The mortgage market is still in the fear part of the cycle and government interventions are undoubtedly fierce (just ask BoA). But the government should not chart its course based on short-term market conditions. Rather, it should identify fundamentals and stick to them. Its enforcement approach should reflect clear expectations about compliance with the law. And its regulatory approach should reflect an attempt to align incentives of market actors with government policies regarding appropriate underwriting and sustainable access to credit. The market will adapt to these constraints. These constraints should then help the market remain vibrant throughout the entire business cycle.