The Housing Market Since the Great Recession

photo by Robert J Heath

CoreLogic has posted a special report on Evaluating the Housing Market Since the Great Recession. It opens,

From December 2007 to June 2009, the U.S. economy lost over 8.7 million jobs. In the months after the recession began, the unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent, reaching double digits for the first time since September 1982, and American households lost over $16 trillion in net worth.

After a number of economic stimulus measures, the economy began to grow in 2010. GDP grew 19 percent from 2010 to 2017; the economy added jobs for 88 consecutive months – the longest period on record – and as of December 2017, unemployment was down to 4 percent.

The economy has widely recovered and so, too, has the housing market. After falling 33 percent during the recession, housing prices have returned to peak levels, growing 51 percent since hitting the bottom of the market. The average house price is now 1 percent higher than it was at the peak in 2006, and the average annual equity gain was $14,888 in the third quarter of 2017.

However, in some states – including Illinois, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida – housing prices have failed to reach pre-recession levels, and today nearly 2.5 million residential properties with a mortgage are still in negative equity. (4, footnotes omitted)

By the end of 2017, ” the most populated metro areas in the U.S. remained at an almost even split between markets that are undervalued, overvalued and at value, indicating that while housing markets have recovered, many homes have surpassed the at-value [supported by local market fundamentals] price.” (10) This even split between undervalued and overvalued metro areas is hiding all sorts of ups and downs in what looks like a stable national average.  You can get a sense of this by comparing the current situation to what existing at the beginning of 2000, when 87% of metro areas were at-value.

And what does this all mean for housing finance reform? I think it means that we should not get complacent about the state of our housing markets just because the national average looks okay. Congress should continue working on a bipartisan fix for a broken system.


Fannie and Freddie Visit the Supreme Court

Justice Gorsuch

Fannie and Fredddie investors have filed their petition for a writ of certiorari in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin. The question presented is

Whether 12 U.S.C. § 4617(f), which prohibits courts from issuing injunctions that “restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of” the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) “as a conservator,” bars judicial review of an action by FHFA and the Department of Treasury to seize for Treasury the net worth of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in perpetuity. (i)

What I find interesting about the brief is that relies so heavily on the narrative contained in Judge Brown’s dissent in the Court of Appeals decision. As I had noted previously, I do not find that narrative compelling, but I believe that some members of the court would, particularly Justice Gorsuch. The petition’s statement reads in part,

In August 2012—nearly four years after the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac1 in conservatorship during the 2008 financial crisis—FHFA, acting as conservator to the Companies, agreed to surrender each Company’s net worth to the Treasury Department every quarter. This arrangement, referred to as the “Net Worth Sweep,” replaced a fixed-rate dividend to Treasury that was tied to Treasury’s purchase of senior preferred stock in the Companies during the financial crisis. FHFA and Treasury have provided justifications for the Net Worth Sweep that, as the Petition filed by Fairholme Funds, Inc. demonstrates, were pretextual. The Net Worth Sweep has enabled a massive confiscation by the government, allowing Treasury thus far to seize $130 billion more than it was entitled to receive under the pre-2012 financial arrangement—a fact that neither Treasury nor FHFA denies. As was intended, these massive capital outflows have brought the Companies to the edge of insolvency, and all but guaranteed that they will never exit FHFA’s conservatorship.

Petitioners here, investors that own preferred stock in the Companies, challenged the Net Worth Sweep as exceeding both FHFA’s and Treasury’s respective statutory powers. But the court of appeals held that the Net Worth Sweep was within FHFA’s statutory authority, and that keeping Treasury within the boundaries of its statutory mandate would impermissibly intrude on FHFA’s authority as conservator.

The decision of the court of appeals adopts an erroneous view of conservatorship unknown to our legal system. Conservators operate as fiduciaries to care for the interests of the entities or individuals under their supervision. Yet in the decision below, the D.C. Circuit held that FHFA acts within its conservatorship authority so long as it is not actually liquidating the Companies. In dissent, Judge Brown aptly described that holding as “dangerously far-reaching,” Pet.App. 88a, empowering a conservator even “to loot the Companies,” Pet.App. 104a.

The D.C. Circuit’s test for policing the bounds of FHFA’s statutory authority as conservator—if one can call it a test at all—breaks sharply from those of the Eleventh and Ninth Circuits, which have held that FHFA cannot evade judicial review merely by disguising its actions in the cloak of a conservator. And it likewise patently violates centuries of common-law understandings of the meaning of a conservatorship, including views held by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”), whose conservatorship authority under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (“FIRREA”), served as the template for FHFA’s own conservatorship authority. Judge Brown correctly noted that the decision below thus “establish[es] a dangerous precedent” for FDIC-regulated financial institutions with trillions of dollars in assets. Pet.App. 109a. If the decision below is correct, then the FDIC as conservator could seize depositor funds from one bank and give them away—to another institution as equity, or to Treasury, or even to itself—as long as it is not actually liquidating the bank. The notion that the law permits a regulator appointed as conservator to act in a way so manifestly contrary to the interests of its conservatee is deeply destabilizing to our financial regulatory system. (1-2)

We shall see if this narrative of government overreach finds a sympathetic ear at the Court.

Will Congress Recap and Release Fannie & Freddie?

Senator Shelby

Senator Shelby

Richard Shelby, the Chair of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs asked the Congressional Budget Office to prepare a report on The Effects of Increasing Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s Capital. The report acknowledges that the legislative reform of the two companies is going nowhere, but it analyzed one potential reform option that shares characteristics with some of the GSE reform bills that have been introduced over the years. The option studied by the CBO contemplates recapitalizing the two companies along the following lines:

each GSE would be allowed to retain an average of $5 billion of its profits annually and would thus increase its capital by up to $50 billion over 10 years. The government’s commitment to purchase more senior preferred stock from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac if necessary to ensure that they maintain a positive net worth would remain in place. In addition, the GSEs would invest the profits that they retained under the option in Treasury securities, and returns on those securities would raise the GSEs’ income. Through its holdings of senior preferred stock, the government would continue to have a claim to the GSEs’ net worth ahead of other stockholders. (2, footnote omitted)

The CBO’s mandate is “to provide objective, impartial analysis,” but this report seems like it is laying the groundwork for a proposal to recapitalize Fannie and Freddie so that they can be released from conservatorship. Most policy analysts (as opposed to investors in the two companies) think that allowing the two companies to return to their prior lives as public/private hybrids is a terrible idea. It is too difficult for them to simultaneously answer to the federal regulators who set their public mission as well as to the private shareholders who would ultimately own them. And, if we were to take this path, the taxpayer would be left holding the bag once again if they were to ever need another bailout.

I think that Senator Shelby has done GSE reform a disservice by looking at this recapitalization option out of context. What we need is an analysis of a compromise plan that Congress can pass once the election is settled. Otherwise we are just leaving the two companies to limp along in conservatorship, slouching toward their next, yet unknown, crisis. Or worse, we are preparing to release them from conservatorship to go back to business as usual. Both of those options are very bad. Congress owes it to the American people to create a workable housing finance system for the 21st century that does not repeat our past mistakes.

Better to Be a Banker or a Non-Banker?


The Community Home Lenders Association (CHLA) has prepared an interesting chart, Comparison of Consumer and Financial Regulation of Non-bank Mortgage Lenders vs. Banks.  The CHLA is a trade association that represents non-bank lenders, so the chart has to be read in that context. The side-by side-chart compares the regulation of non-banks to banks under a variety of statutes and regulations.  By way of example, the chart leads off with the following (click on the chart to see it better):

CLHA Chart

The chart emphasizes all the ways that non-banks are regulated where banks are exempt as well as all of the ways that they are regulated in the identical manner. Given that this is an advocacy document, it only mentions in passing the ways that banks are governed by various little things like “generic bank capital standards” and safety and soundness regulators. That being said, it is still good to look through the chart to see how non-bank regulation has been increasing since the passage of Dodd-Frank.

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

The Secret to Financial Well-Being?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has issued a report, Financial Well-Being:  The Goal of Financial Education. I have been somewhat critical of the CFPB’s approach to financial literacy education, but I think that this report sets forth a pretty reasonable baseline for future research. It states,

A growing consensus is emerging that the ultimate measure of success for financial literacy efforts should be improvement in individual financial well-being. But financial well-being has never been explicitly defined, nor is there a standard way to measure it. Overall, the literature paints a picture of nuanced, complex interactions between financial knowledge, understanding, and actions taken. However, rigorously identified links between these factors and financial outcomes have yet to be established.

Our project provides a conceptual framework for defining and measuring success in financial education by delivering a proposed definition of financial well-being, and insight into the factors that contribute to it. This framework is grounded in the existing literature, expert opinion, and the experiences and voice of the consumer garnered through in-depth, one-on-one interviews with working-age and older consumers. (4-5)

The CFPB proposes a definition of financial well-being “as a state of being” where people

  • Have control over day-to-day, month-to-month finances;
  • Have the capacity to absorb a financial shock;
  • Are on track to meet your financial goals; and
  • Have the financial freedom to make the choices that allow you to enjoy life.

Because individuals value different things, traditional measures such as income or net worth, while important, do not necessarily or fully capture this last aspect of financial well-being. (5)

 This all seems reasonable to me in the abstract, although I am not sure how you would measure success across a large group of people given the very different ways that people would respond to the prongs of that definition. I would also note that events beyond the control of a financially literate person (illness, structural unemployment etc.) could devastate that person’s financial well-being, much as upright Job was devastated by the tests he had to endure.  Notwithstanding these concerns, I am looking forward to see how the CFPB uses its definition to develop its research agenda and to design its policies.

GSE Litigation Through Corporate Law Lens

Adam Badawi and Anthony Casey have posted The Fannie and Freddie Bailouts Through the Corporate Lens to SSRN. The paper takes a look at the bailouts as if they were simple insolvent private firms. This is a helpful thought experiment even though the two federally chartered and heavily regulated firms are anything but simple, private firms. They write that while it is politically controversial to wipe out the shareholder equity in the two firms, doing so

is consistent with what often happens to stockholders of distressed companies. Indeed that is the more likely outcome when a corporation is sold or reorganized under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. There remains little doubt that the Entities [Fannie and Freddie] were highly distressed at the time of the PSPAs [Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements] and Amendments [to the PSPAs]. Thus, while procedurally suspect, these actions did not substantively violate the norms of corporate law and finance that would apply to private companies in the same position. To the contrary, in the private context there may have been no action available that would have legally allocated any future interest in the Entities to the (junior) preferred and common shareholders. (1, footnotes omitted)

They add, that in “the private context, there would have been pressure to file for bankruptcy to liquidate the assets and eliminate the risk to creditors. And once in bankruptcy, the directors would have been entirely barred from taking actions to benefit equity at the expense of creditors.” (3) And they conclude that “the substance of Treasury’s and the Entities’ actions – in September 2008 and August 2012 – were generally in line with acceptable actions of creditors and debtors involved in restructuring distressed corporations in Chapter 11 bankruptcy or in out-of-court reorganizations.” (3-4)

I could excerpt selection after selection, but instead, I recommend that you read this interesting paper for yourself!