Framing Bipartisan Housing Finance Reform

photo by Jan Tik

The Bipartisan Policy Center has issued A Framework for Improving Access and Affordability in a Reformed Housing Finance System. The brief was written by Michael Stegman who had served as the Obama Administration’s top advisor on housing policy. It opens,

With policymakers gearing up to reform the housing finance system, it is worth revisiting one of the issues that stymied negotiators in the reform effort of 2014: how to ensure adequate access to credit in the new system. The political landscape has changed substantially since 2014. For those who are focused on financing affordable housing and promoting access to mortgage credit, the status quo—the continued conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—may no longer be as appealing as it was during those negotiations. This brief draws upon the lessons learned from that experience to outline a framework for bipartisan consensus in this transformed political environment.

The “middle-way” approach described here is not dependent upon any one structure or future role for the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), though it does assume the continuation of a government guarantee of qualified mortgage-backed securities (MBS). It is this guarantee that forms the basis of the obligation to ensure that the benefits flowing from the government backstop are as broadly available as possible, consistent with safety and soundness and taxpayer protection.

In recent months, at least three such proposals have been developed that preserve a federal backstop (see Mortgage Bankers Association, Bright and DeMarco, and Parrott et al. proposals). Should the administration and Congress pursue a strict privatization approach to reform, lacking a guarantee, it’s unlikely that any affordable housing obligations would be imposed in the reformed system. (cover page, footnotes omitted)

Stegman goes on to describe “The Affordable Housing Triad:”

Over the years, Congress has made it clear that the GSEs’ public purpose includes supporting the financing of affordable housing and promoting access to mortgage credit “throughout the nation, including central cities, rural areas, and underserved areas,” even if doing so involves earning “a reasonable economic return that may be less than the return earned on other activities.” As part of this mandate, policymakers have created a triad of affordable housing and credit access requirements:

  1. Meeting annual affordable-mortgage purchase goals set by the regulator;
  2. Paying an assessment on each dollar of new business to help capitalize two different affordable housing funds; and
  3. Developing and executing targeted duty-to-serve strategies, the purpose of which is to increase liquidity in market segments underserved by primary lenders and the GSEs, defined by both geography and housing types. (1, footnote omitted)

The paper outlines three bipartisan options that would not

compromise the obligation to provide liquidity to all corners of the market at the least possible cost, consistent with taxpayer protection and safety and soundness. Each option attempts to ensure that the system as a whole provides access and affordability at least as much as the existing system; includes an explicit and transparent fee on the outstanding balance of guaranteed MBS; and includes a duty to serve the broadest possible market. (3)

The paper is intended to spark further conversation about housing finance reform while advocating for the needs of low- and moderate-income households. I hope it succeeds in pushing Congress to focus on the details of what could be a bipartisan exit strategy from the endless GSE conservatorships.


Insuring Mortgages Through the Business Cycle

Mark Zandi and Cristian deRitis of Moody’s, along with Jim Parrott of the Urban Institute, have posted Putting Mortgage Insurers on Solid Ground. They wrote this in response to the Private Mortgage Insurance Eligibility Requirements set forth by the FHFA. While generally approving of the requirements, they argue that

Several features of the rules as currently written, however, would likely
unnecessarily increase costs and cyclicality in the mortgage and housing markets.
With a few modest changes, these flaws can be remedied without sacrificing the
considerable benefits of the new standards. (1)

I would first start by reviewing their disclosure:  “Mark Zandi is a director of one mortgage insurance company, and Jim Parrott is an advisor to another. The authors do not believe that their analysis has been impacted by these relationships, however. Their work reflects the authors’ independent beliefs regarding the appropriate financial requirements for the industry.” While, I understand that the authors believe that their views are not impacted by their financial relationships with private mortgage insurers, readers will certainly want to take them into account when evaluating those views.

The authors argue that FHFA’s requirements are procyclical, that is they become more burdensome just as mortgage insurers are facing a distressed environment. This could contribute to a vicious cycle where mortgage credit tightens because of regulatory causes just when we might want credit to loosen up. This is certainly something we should look out for.

They also argue that the FHFA’s requirements will increase mortgage insurance premiums unnecessarily because they increase capital reserves too much. I find this argument less compelling. The Private Mortgage Insurance industry has typically done terribly in distressed environments from the Great Depression through the 2000s. Not only have there been failures but they have also reduced their underwriting of new insurance just when the market was most fragile.

But there are certain shaky assumptions built into this analysis. For instance, they argue that Private Mortgage Insurance companies will need to maintain their historical after-tax return on capital of 15%. But if the business model is shored up with higher capital reserves, investors should be satisfied with a lower return on capital because the companies are less likely to go bust. That is, instead of increasing premiums for homeowners, it is possible that higher capital requirements might just reduce profits.

The authors write that while “the increase in capital requirements is clearly warranted, there are certain features of the requirements as currently drafted that will increase mortgage insurance premiums unnecessarily, running counter to the aim of policymakers, including the FHFA, to encourage greater use of private capital in housing finance.” (2-4) Policymakers have lots of goals for private mortgage insurance, including having it not implode during down markets. An unthinking reliance on private capital is not what we should be after. Rather, we should seek to promote a thoughtful reliance on private capital, taking into account how we it can best help us maintain a healthy mortgage market throughout the business cycle.