De Facto Housing Finance Reform

photo by The Tire Zoo

David Finkelstein, Andreas Strzodka and James Vickery of the NY Fed have posted Credit Risk Transfer and De Facto GSE Reform. It opens,

Nearly a decade into the conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, no legislation has yet been passed to reform the housing finance system and resolve the long-term future of these two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs). The GSEs have, however, implemented significant changes to their operations and practices over this period, even in the absence of legislation. The goal of this paper is to summarize and evaluate one of the most important of these initiatives – the use of credit risk transfer (CRT) instruments to shift mortgage credit risk from the GSEs to the private sector.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have significant mortgage credit risk exposure, largely because they provide a credit guarantee to investors on the agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) they issue. Since the CRT programs began in 2013, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have transferred to the private sector a portion of the credit risk on approximately $1.8 trillion in single-family mortgages (as of December 2017; source: Fannie Mae, 2017, Freddie Mac, 2017). The GSEs have experimented with a range of different risk transfer instruments, including reinsurance, senior-subordinate securitizations, and transactions involving explicit lender risk sharing. The bulk of CRT, however, has occurred via the issuance of structured debt securities whose principal payments are tied to the credit performance of a reference pool of securitized mortgages. A period of elevated mortgage defaults and losses will  trigger automatic principal write-downs on these CRT bonds, partially offsetting credit losses experienced by the GSEs.

Our thesis is that the CRT initiative has improved the stability of the  housing finance system and advanced a number of important objectives of GSE reform. In particular the CRT programs have meaningfully reduced the exposure of the Federal government to mortgage credit risk without disrupting the liquidity or stability of secondary mortgage markets. In the process, the CRT programs have created a new financial market for pricing and trading mortgage credit risk, which has grown in size and liquidity over time. Given diminished private-label securitization activity in recent years, these CRT securities are one of the primary ways for private-sector capital market investors to gain exposure to residential mortgage credit risk.

An important reason for this success is that the credit risk transfer programs do not disrupt the operation of the agency MBS market or affect the risks facing agency MBS investors. Because agency MBS carry a GSE credit guarantee, agency MBS investors assume that they are exposed to interest rate risk and prepayment risk, but not credit risk. This reduces the set of parameters on which pass-through MBS pools differ from one another, improving the standardization of the securities underlying the liquid to-be-announced (TBA) market where agency MBS mainly trade. Even though the GSEs now use CRT structures to transfer credit risk to a variety of private sector investors, these arrangements do not affect agency MBS investors, since the agency MBS credit guarantee is still being provided only by the GSE. In other words, the GSE stands in between the agency MBS investors and private-sector CRT investors, acting in a role akin to a central counterparty.

Ensuring that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s credit risk sharing efforts occur independently of the agency MBS market is important for both market functioning and financial stability. The agency MBS market, which remains one of the most liquid fixed income markets in the world, proved to be quite resilient during the 2007-2009 financial crisis, helping to support the supply of mortgage credit during that period. The agency market financed $2.89 trillion of mortgage originations during 2008 and 2009, experiencing little drop in secondary market trading volume during that period. In contrast, the non-agency MBS market, where MBS investors are exposed directly to credit risk, proved to be much less stable; Issuance in this market essentially froze in the second half of 2007, and has remained at low levels since that time.4 (1-2, citations and footnotes omitted)

One open question, of course, is whether the risk transfer has been properly priced. We won’t be able to fully answer that question until the next crisis tests these CRT securities. But in the meantime, we can contemplate the authors’ conclusion:

the CRT program represents a valuable step forward towards GSE
reform, as well as a basis for future reform. Many proposals have been put forward for long-term reform of mortgage market since the GSE conservatorships began in 2008. Although the details of these proposals vary, they generally share in common the goals of

(1) ensuring that mortgage credit risk is borne by the private sector (probably with some form of government backstop and/or tail insurance to insure catastrophic risk and stabilize the market during periods of stress), while

(2) maintaining the current securitization infrastructure as well as the standardization and liquidity of agency MBS markets.

The credit risk transfer program, now into its fifth year, represents an effective mechanism for achieving these twin goals. (21, footnote omitted)

Ghost of A Crisis Past

photo by Chandres

The Royal Bank of Scotland settled an investigation brought by New York Attorney General Schneiderman arising from mortgage-backed securities it issued in the run up to the financial crisis. RBS will pay a half a billion dollars. That’s a lot of money even in the context of the settlements that the federal government had wrangled from financial institutions in the aftermath to the financial crisis. The Settlement Agreement includes a Statement of Facts which RBS has acknowledged. Many settlement agreements do not include such a statement, leaving the dollar amount of the settlement to do all of the talking. We are lucky to see what facts exactly RBS is “acknowledging.”

The Statement of Facts found that assertions in the offering documents for the MBS were inaccurate and the securities have lost billions of dollars in collateral. These losses led to “shortfalls in principal and interest payments, as well as declines in the market value of their certificates.” (Appendix A at 2)

The Statement of Facts outlines just how RBS deviated from the statements it made in the offering documents:

RBS’s Representations to Investors

11. The Offering Documents for the Securitizations included, in varying forms, statements that the mortgage loans were “originated generally in accordance with” the originator’s underwriting guidelines, and that exceptions would be made on a “case-by-case basis…where compensating factors exist.” The Offering Documents further stated that such exceptions would be made “from time to time and in the ordinary course of business,” and disclosed that “[l]oans originated with exceptions may result in a higher number of delinquencies and loss severities than loans originated in strict compliance with the designated underwriting guidelines.”

12. The Offering Documents often contained statements, in varying forms, with respect to stated-income loans, that “the stated income is reasonable for the borrower’s employment and that the stated assets are consistent with the borrower’s income.”

13. The Offering Documents further contained statements, in varying forms, that each mortgage loan was originated “in compliance with applicable federal, state and local laws and regulations.”

14. The Offering Documents also included statements regarding the valuation of the mortgaged properties and the resulting loan-to-value (“LTV”) ratios, such as the weighted-average LTV and maximum LTV at origination of the securitized loans.

15. In addition, the Offering Documents typically stated that loans acquired by RBS for securitization were “subject to due diligence,” often described as including a “thorough credit and compliance review with loan level testing,” and stated that “the depositor will not include any loan in a trust fund if anything has come to the depositor’s attention that would cause it to believe that the representations and warranties of the related seller regarding that loan will not be accurate and complete in all material respects….”

The Actual Quality of the Mortgage Loans in the Securitizations

16. At times, RBS’s credit and compliance diligence vendors identified a number of loans as diligence exceptions because, in their view, they did not comply with underwriting guidelines and lacked adequate compensating factors or did not comply with applicable laws and regulations. Loans were also identified as diligence exceptions because of missing documents or other curable issues, or because of additional criteria specified by RBS for the review. In some instances, RBS disagreed with the vendor’s view. Certain of these loans were included in the Securitizations.

17. Additionally, some valuation diligence reports reflected variances between the appraised value of the mortgaged properties and the values obtained through other measures, such as automated valuation models (“AVMs”), broker-price opinions (“BPOs”), and drive-by reviews. In some instances, the LTVs calculated using AVM or BPO valuations exceeded the maximum LTV stated in the Offering Documents, which was calculated using the lower of the appraised value or the purchase price. Certain of these loans were included in the Securitizations.

18. RBS often purchased and securitized loans that were not part of the diligence sample without additional loan-file review. The Offering Documents did not include a description of the diligence reports prepared by RBS’s vendors, and did not state the size of the diligence sample or the number of loans with diligence exceptions or valuation variances identified during their reviews.

19. At times, RBS agreed with originators to limit the number of loan files it could review during its due diligence. Although RBS typically reserved the right to request additional loan-level diligence or not complete the loan purchase, in practice it rarely did so. These agreements with originators were not disclosed in the Offering Documents.

20. Finally, RBS performed post-securitization reviews of certain loans that defaulted shortly after securitization. These reviews identified a number of loans that appeared to breach the representations and warranties contained in the Offering Documents. Based on these reviews, RBS in some instances requested that the loan seller or loan originator repurchase certain loans. (Appendix A at 4-5)

Some of these inaccuracies are just straight-out misrepresentations, so they would not have been caught at the time by regulators, even if regulators had been looking. And that’s why, ten years later, we are still seeing financial crisis lawsuits being resolved.

It is not clear that these types of problems can be kept from infiltrating the capital market once greed overcomes fear over the course of the business cycle. That’s why it is important for individual actors to suffer consequences when they allow greed to take the driver’s seat. We still have not figured out how to effectively address tho individual actions that result in systemic harm.

Taking Down Barriers to Homeownership

Laurie Goodman and her colleagues at the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center have released a report, Barriers to Accessing Homeownership Down Payment, Credit, and Affordability. The Executive Summary states that

Saving for a down payment is a considerable barrier to homeownership. With rising home prices, rising interest rates, and tight lending standards, the path to homeownership has become more challenging, especially for low-to-median-income borrowers and first-time homebuyers. Yet most potential homebuyers are largely unaware that there are low–down payment and no–down payment assistance programs available at the local, state, and federal levels to help eligible borrowers secure an appropriate down payment. This report provides charts and commentary to articulate the challenges families face saving for down payments as well as the options available to help them. This report is accompanied by an interactive map.

Barrier 1. Down Payments

• Consumers often think they need to put more down than lenders actually require. Survey results show that 53 percent of renters cite saving for a down payment as an obstacle to homeownership. Eighty percent of consumers either are unaware of how much lenders require for a down payment or believe all lenders require a down payment above 5 percent. Fifteen percent believe lenders require a 20 percent down payment, and 30 percent believe lenders expect a 20 percent down payment.

• Contrary to consumer perceptions, borrowers are not actually putting down 20 percent. The national median loan-to-value (LTV) ratio is 93 percent. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) typically offer lower down payment options than the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), from 0 to 3.5 percent. As the share of FHA and VA lending has increased considerably in the post-crisis period (since 2008), the median LTV ratio has increased as well.

*    *    *

Barrier 2. The Credit Box

• Access to homeownership is not limited by down payments alone. Credit access is tight by historical standards. Accordingly, the median credit score of new purchase mortgage originations has increased considerably in the post-crisis period. The median credit score for purchase mortgages is 779, compared with the pre-crisis median of 692. Credit scores of FHA borrowers have historically been lower; the current median credit score is 671.

*    *    *

Barrier 3. Affordability

• Because of home price appreciation in the past five years, national home price affordability has declined. Low interest rates have aided affordability. If interest rates reach 4.75 percent, national affordability will return to historical average affordability.

*    *    *

Access to Down Payment Assistance

• Low–down payment mortgages and other down payment assistance programs provide grants or loans to potential homeowners all over the country. There are 2,144 active programs across the country, and 1,295 agencies and housing finance agencies offering them at the local, state, and national levels. One of the major challenges of the offerings in each state is that they are not standard, eligibility requirements vary, and not all lenders offer the programs. Pricing for the programs also vary, so counseling and consumer education about the programs is necessary to ensure consumers understand how the program works and any additional costs that may be incurred.

*    *    *

• Eligibility for down payment assistance programs is determined by such factors as loan amount, homebuyer status, borrower income, and family size. Assistance is available for many loan types including conventional, FHA, VA, and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) loans. The share of people eligible for assistance in select MSAs ranges from 30 to 52 percent, and the eligible borrowers could qualify for 3 to 12 programs with down payment assistance ranging from $2,000 to more than $30,000.

Because of the tight credit environment, many borrowers have been shut out of the market and have not been able to take advantage of low interest rates and affordable home prices. As the credit box opens, educating consumers about low–down payment mortgages and down payment assistance is critical to ensuring homeownership is available to more families. (V-VI, emphasis removed)

Kafka and the CFPB

photo by Ferran Cornellà

Statue of Franz Kafka by Jaroslav Rona

The Hill published my latest column, The CFPB Is a Champion for Americans Across The Country. It opens,

Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have been arguing that consumers should be freed from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s “regulatory blockades and financial activism.” House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) accuses the CFPB of engaging in “financial shakedowns” of lenders. These accusations are weighty.

But let’s take a look at the types of behaviors consumers are facing from those put-upon lenders. A recent decision in federal bankruptcy court, Sundquist v. Bank of America, shows how consumers can be treated by them. You can tell from the first two sentences of the judge’s opinion that it goes poorly for the consumers: “Franz Kafka lives. This automatic stay violation case reveals that he works at Bank of America.”

The judge continues, “The mirage of promised mortgage modification lured the plaintiff debtors into a Kafka-esque nightmare of stay-violating foreclosure and unlawful detainer, tardy foreclosure rescission kept secret for months, home looted while the debtors were dispossessed, emotional distress, lost income, apparent heart attack, suicide attempt, and post-traumatic stress disorder, for all of which Bank of America disclaims responsibility.”

Homeowners who reads this opinion will feel a pit in their stomachs, knowing that if they were in the Sundquists’ shoes they would also tremble with rage and fear from the way Bank of America treated them: 20 or so loan modification requests or supplements were “lost;” declared insufficient, incomplete or stale; or denied with no clear explanation.

Over the years, I have documented similar cases on In U.S. Bank, N.A. v. David Sawyer et al., the Maine Supreme Judicial Court documented how loan servicers demanded various documents which were provided numerous times over the course of four court-ordered mediations and how the servicers made numerous promises about modifications that they did not keep. In Federal National Mortgage Assoc. v. Singer, the court documents the multiple delays and misrepresentations that the lender’s agents made to the homeowners.

The good news is that in those three cases, judges punished the servicers and lenders for their pattern of Kafka-esque abuse of the homeowners. Indeed, the Sundquist judge fined Bank of America a whopping $45 million to send it a message about its horrible treatment of borrowers.

But a fairy tale ending for a handful of borrowers who are lucky enough to have a good lawyer with the resources to fully litigate one of these crazy cases is not a solution for the thousands upon thousands of borrowers who had to give up because they did not have the resources, patience, or mental fortitude to take on big lenders who were happy to drag these matters on for years and years through court proceeding after court proceeding.

What homeowners need is a champion that will stand up for all of them, one that will create fair procedures that govern the origination and servicing of mortgages, one that will enforce those procedures, and one that will study and monitor the mortgage market to ensure that new forms of predatory behavior do not have the opportunity to take root. This is just what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has done. It has promulgated the qualified mortgage and ability-to-repay rules and has worked to ensure that lenders comply with them.

Kafka himself said that it was “the blend of absurd, surreal and mundane which gave rise to the adjective ‘kafkaesque.’” Most certainly that is the experience of borrowers like the Sundquists as they jump through hoop after hoop only to be told to jump once again, higher this time.

When we read a book like Kafka’s The Trial, we are left with a sense of dislocation. What if the world was the way Kafka described it to be? But if we go through an experience like the Sundquists’, it is so much worse. It turns out that an actor in the real world is insidiously working to destroy us, bit by bit.

The occasional win in court won’t save the vast majority of homeowners from abusive lending practices. A regulator like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can. And in fact it does.

Can Downpayment Assistance Work?

The HUD Inspector General issued a report on FHA-Insured Loan with Borrower-Financed Downpayment Assistance. Downpayment assistance has a long history of failure, a history that has led to big losses for the FHA and foreclosures for borrowers. The IG audited HUD’s oversight of FHA-insured loans that were originated with downpayment assistance. The Inspector General had already determined that “lenders allowed FHA borrowers to finance their own downpayments through an increase in their mortgage interest rate as part of programs administered through housing finance agencies.” (1)

The IG found that HUD

failed to adequately oversee more than $16.1 billion in FHA loans that may have been originated with borrower-financed downpayment assistance to ensure compliance with HUD requirements, putting the FHA Mortgage Insurance Fund at unnecessary risk. Between October 1, 2015 and September 30, 2016, HUD guaranteed nearly $12.9 billion in FHA loans that may contain questioned assistance. While governmental entities are not prohibited sources of downpayment assistance, the assistance provided through these programs did not comply with HUD requirements. FHA borrowers were required to obtain a premium interest rate and, therefore, repaid the assistance through higher mortgage payments and fees. Despite the prohibition against similar seller-funded programs, HUD’s requirements appeared to have enabled the growth of these questioned programs. In addition, HUD did not adequately track these loans and review the funding structure of these programs. Despite concerns raised by OIG, HUD failed to protect FHA borrowers against the higher mortgage payments and higher fees imposed on them, which increased the risks to the FHA Insurance Fund in the event of default. (1)

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has criticized the IG’s report on methodological grounds. I will defer to the Urban Institute’s critique because they have done a lot of work in this area.

But I do think that the IG is right to pay careful attention to downpayment assistance programs. Historically, they have proven too good to be true. One of the FHA’s biggest failures resulted from the downpayment assistance program that was set forth in the American Dream Downpayment Assistance Act of 2003.

The IG recommends that HUD

(1) reconsider its position on questioned borrower-financed downpayment assistance programs,

(2) develop and implement policies and procedures to review loans with downpayment assistance,

(3) develop requirements for lenders to review downpayment assistance programs,

(4) require lenders to obtain a borrower certification that details borrower participation,

(5) ensure that lenders enter all downpayment assistance data into FHA Connection, and

(6) implement data fields where lenders would be required to enter specific downpayment assistance information. (1)

The IG’s procedural recommendations all seem reasonable enough, whether you agree or disagree with the folks at the Urban Institute.


Minority Homeownership During the Great Recession

photo by Daniel X. O'Neil

Print by Andy Kane

Carlos Garriga et al. have posted The Homeownership Experience of Minorities During the Great Recession to SSRN. The paper concludes,

The Great Recession wiped out much of the homeownership gains attained during the housing boom. However, the homeownership experience was very different across racial and ethnic groups. Black and Hispanic borrowers experienced substantial repayment difficulties that ultimately led to a greater share of homes in foreclosure.

Given that home equity often represents a substantial share of household wealth, these foreclosure events severely damaged the balance sheets of minority families. The dynamics of delinquency and foreclosure functioned differently across the income distribution within racial and ethnic groups.

For the majority, higher income was associated with lower delinquency rates and fewer foreclosures as a group. However, for Hispanic families this relationship was surprisingly reversed. Hispanics with the highest incomes fared worse than those with the lowest incomes. This counterintuitive finding suggests how college-educated Hispanic families may have had worse wealth outcomes than their non-college-educated peers: Hispanic families with high income (potentially the result of high educational attainment) had a greater share of home equity lost in foreclosure than lower-income Hispanic families.

Logit regressions suggest that underwriting standards and loan structure explain a significant amount of the greater likelihood of foreclosure among Black and Hispanic borrowers. However, underwriting standards explained more of the gap for Black borrowers, while loan structure was a stronger factor among Hispanic borrowers. Regional concentration and variation in housing markets explained more of the Hispanic-White foreclosure gap than any other group. This is understandable given that Hispanic borrowers in our sample were heavily concentrated in housing markets that experienced some of the largest volatility. Despite accounting for these important factors, sizable gaps remain in foreclosures among Blacks and Hispanics relative to Whites. Incorporating measures of labor market outcomes into the analysis may offer further insights.

In sum, the homeownership experience during the Great Recession proved to be inimical for many families, but far more so for Black and Hispanic families. For these families, financially destructive foreclosure events delayed and potentially derailed the dream of homeownership. (164-65)

I am not sure what this all means for housing finance policy other than the obvious: consumer protection in the mortgage market is a good thing as it ensures that underwriting standards evaluate ability-to-repay and loan structures exclude abusive terms like teaser rates (thanks to the ATR and QM rules and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). There are probably other policies that we should consider to reduce the depths of our busts, but they do not seem likely to gain traction in the current political environment.

Calculating APR

photo by Scott Maxwell

OppLoans quoted me in How (and Why) to Calculate the APR for a Payday Loan. It reads, in part,

Sure, you may know that taking out a payday loan is generally a bad idea. You’ve heard a horror story or two about something called “rollover”, but if you’re in a jam, you might find yourself considering swinging by the local brick-and-mortar payday loan store or looking for an online payday loan. It’s just a one-time thing, you tell yourself.

It only gets worse from there… Once you start looking at the paperwork or speaking with the sales staff, you see that your payday loan will cost only $15 for every $100 that you borrow. That doesn’t sound that bad. But what’s this other number? This “APR” of 400%? The payday lender tells you not to worry about it. He says, “APR doesn’t matter.”

Well, let’s just interrupt this hypothetical to tell you this… When you’re borrowing money, the APR doesn’t just “matter”, it’s the single most important number you need to know.

APR stands for “annual percentage rate,” and it’s a way to measure how much a loan, credit card, or line of credit is going to cost you. APR is measured on a yearly basis and it is expressed as a percentage of the amount loaned. “By law, APR must include all fees charged by the lender to originate the loan,” says Casey Fleming (@TheLoanGuide), author of The Loan Guide: How to Get the Best Possible Mortgage.

But just because a loan or credit card includes a certain fee or charge, you shouldn’t assume that it’s always going to be included in the APR. Fleming points out that some fees, like title fees on a mortgage, are not considered part of the loan origination process and thus not included in APR calculations.

“Are DMV fees connected with a title loan? Some would say yes, but the law doesn’t specify that they must be included,” says Fleming.

According to David Reiss (@REFinBlog), a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, “the APR adds in those additional costs and then spreads them out over the term of the loan. As a result, the APR is almost always higher than the interest rate—if it is not, that is a yellow flag that something is amiss with the APR.”

This is why it’s always a good idea to read your loan agreement and ask lots of questions when applying for a loan—any loan.

*     *     *

Why is the APR for payday loans so high?

According to David Reiss, “The APR takes into account the payment schedule for each loan, so it will account for differences in amortization and the length of the repayment term among different loan products.”

Keep in mind, that the average term length for a payday loan is only 14 days. So when you’re using APR to measure the cost of a payday loan, you are essentially taking the cost of the loan for that two-week period, and you’re assuming that that cost would be applied again every two weeks.

There are a little over 26 two-week periods in a year, so the APR for a 14-day payday loan is basically the finance charges times 26. That’s why payday loans have such a high APR!

But if the average payday loan is only 14 days long, then why would someone want to use APR to measure it’s cost? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to use the stated interest rate? After all, no one who takes out a payday loan plans to have it outstanding over a full year…

Short-term loans with long-term consequences

But here’s the thing about payday loans: many people who use them end up trapped in a long-term cycle of debt. When it comes time for the loan to be repaid, the borrower discovers that they cannot afford to pay it off without negatively affecting the rest of their finances.

Given the choice to pay their loan off on time or fall beyond on their other expenses (for instance: rent, utilities, car payments, groceries), many people choose to roll their loan over or immediately take out a new loan to cover paying off the old one. When people do this, they are effectively increasing their cost of borrowing.

Remember when we said that payday loans don’t amortize? Well, that actually makes the loans costlier. Every time the loan is rolled over or reborrowed, interest is charged at the exact same rate as before. A new payment term means a new finance charge, which means more money spent to borrow the same amount of money.

“As the principal is paid down the cost of the interest declines,” says Casey Fleming. “If you are not making principal payments then your lifetime interest costs will be higher.”

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a whopping 80% of payday loans are the result of rollover or re-borrowing and the average payday loan customer takes out 10 payday loans a year.

Reiss says that “the best way to use APR is make an apples-to-apples comparison between two or more loans. If different loans have different fee structures, such as variations in upfront fees and interest rates, the APRs allow the borrower to compare the total cost of credit for each product.

So the next time you’re considering a payday loan, make sure you calculate its APR. When it comes to predatory payday lending, it’s important to crunch the numbers—before they crunch you!