GSE Investors’ Hidden Win

Judge Brown

The big news yesterday was that the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in the main for the federal government in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin, one of the major cases that investors brought against the federal government over the terms of the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships.

In a measured and carefully reasoned opinion, the court rejected most but not all of the investors’ claims.  The reasoning was consistent with my own reading of the broad conservatorship provisions of the Housing and Economic Recover Act of 2008 (HERA).

Judge Brown’s dissent, however, reveals that the investors have crafted an alternative narrative that at least one judge finds compelling. This means that there is going to be some serious drama when this case ultimately wends its way to the Supreme Court. And there is some reason to believe that a Justice Gorsuch might be sympathetic to this narrative of government overreach.

Judge Brown’s opinion indicts many aspects of federal housing finance policy, broadly condemning it in the opening paragraph:

One critic has called it “wrecking-ball benevolence,” James Bovard, Editorial, Nothing Down: The Bush Administration’s Wrecking-Ball Benevolence, BARRONS, Aug. 23, 2004, http://tinyurl.com/Barrons-Bovard; while another, dismissing the compassionate rhetoric, dubs it “crony capitalism,” Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr., Commentary, Fannie/Freddie Bailout Baloney, CATO INST., http://tinyurl.com/Cato-O-Driscoll (last visited Feb. 13, 2017). But whether the road was paved with good intentions or greased by greed and indifference, affordable housing turned out to be the path to perdition for the U.S. mortgage market. And, because of the dominance of two so-called Government Sponsored Entities (“GSE”s)—the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae” or “Fannie”) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac” or “Freddie,” collectively with Fannie Mae, the “Companies”)—the trouble that began in the subprime mortgage market metastasized until it began to affect most debt markets, both domestic and international. (dissent at 1)

While acknowledging that the Fannie/Freddie crisis might justify “extraordinary actions by Congress,” Judge Brown states that

even in a time of exigency, a nation governed by the rule of law cannot transfer broad and unreviewable power to a government entity to do whatsoever it wishes with the assets of these Companies. Moreover, to remain within constitutional parameters, even a less-sweeping delegation of authority would require an explicit and comprehensive framework. See Whitman v. Am. Trucking Ass’ns, Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001) (“Congress . . . does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions—it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes.”) Here, Congress did not endow FHFA with unlimited authority to pursue its own ends; rather, it seized upon the statutory text that had governed the FDIC for decades and adapted it ever so slightly to confront the new challenge posed by Fannie and Freddie.

*     *     *

[Congress] chose a well-understood and clearly-defined statutory framework—one that drew upon the common law to clearly delineate the outer boundaries of the Agency’s conservator or, alternatively, receiver powers. FHFA pole vaulted over those boundaries, disregarding the plain text of its authorizing statute and engaging in ultra vires conduct. Even now, FHFA continues to insist its authority is entirely without limit and argues for a complete ouster of federal courts’ power to grant injunctive relief to redress any action it takes while purporting to serve in the conservator role. See FHFA Br. 21  (2-3)

What amazes me about this dissent is how it adopts the decidedly non-mainstream history of the financial crisis that has been promoted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Peter Wallison.  It also takes its legislative history from an unpublished Cato Institute paper by Vice-President Pence’s newly selected chief economist, Mark Calabria and a co-author.  There is nothing wrong with a judge giving some context to an opinion, but it is of note when it seems as one-sided as this. The bottom line though is that this narrative clearly has some legs so we should not think that this case has played itself out, just because of this decision.

Seismic Shift in Lending?

Researchers at the American Enterprise Institute’s International Center on Housing Risk have posted a study that shows a “seismic shift in lending away from large banks to nonbanks.” (1) The key takeaways are

  • The dramatic decline in agency market share for large banks continued unabated in February, offset by an equally dramatic increase in the nonbank share.
  • Since November 2012, the large bank share has dropped from 61% to 33%, a move of 28 points, including a 1.2 point drop in February, a dramatic decline that has been met point-for-point by a 27 point increase in the nonbank share from 24% to 51%. Large nonbanks and other nonbanks have participated equally in the increase, accounting for 14 points and 13 points respectively.
  • Large banks have reduced the riskiness of their agency mortgage originations over the past few years. Nonbanks, in contrast, have shifted toward riskier loans as they have increased their market share.
  • Loans originated through the retail channel are less risky than loans originated through the broker and correspondent channels. This is true both for large banks and for nonbanks. But retail channel loans from nonbanks are substantially riskier than such loans from large banks.
  • The bottom line is that large banks attempting to regain market share would have to move well out the risk curve. (1)

While these findings are presented as negative developments, it is unclear to me that they are. Market share among big players in the mortgage market does vary dramatically over time. Given the new regulatory environment imposed by Dodd Frank, it is not surprising that the industry would readjust in some ways and that specialized nonbanks might increase market share once the financial crisis subsided. It is also unclear that moving out the risk curve is bad in today’s environment. Today’s lenders are quite conservative compared to the pre-crisis ones and there is good reason to think that lenders could safely loosen their underwriting somewhat. This is not to say, of course, that they should return to the bad old days. Just that there are more creditworthy borrowers out there.

American Dream/American Nightmare

I will be presenting “How Low Is Too Low? The Federal Housing Administration and the Low Down Payment Mortgage” at the 2013 Meeting of the Canadian Law and Economics Association next week in Toronto. I just came back from an interesting conference at the Cleveland Fed where I was on a panel devoted to the FHA. The other two panelists presented some disturbing findings about default rates for FHA mortgages.

The two panelists were

Edward J. Pinto, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute, How the FHA Hurts Working-Class Families

Joseph Tracy, Executive Vice President and Senior Advisor to the President, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Interpreting the Recent Developments in Housing Markets

Pinto’s summary is as follows:

The Federal Housing Administration’s mission is to be a targeted provider of mortgage credit for low- and moderate-income Americans and first-time home buyers, leading to homeownership success and neighborhood stability. But is the FHA achieving this mission? This paper reports on a comprehensive study that shows the FHA is engaging in practices resulting in a high proportion of low- and moderate-income families losing their homes. Based on an analysis of the FHA’s FY 2009 and 2010 books of business, the FHA’s lending practices are inconsistent with its mission. The findings indicate: An estimated 40 percent of the FHA’s business consists of loans with either one or two subprime attributes—a FICO score below 660 or a debt ratio greater than or equal to 50 percent (based on loans insured during FY 2012). The FHA’s underwriting policies encourage low- and moderate-income families with low credit scores or high debt burdens to make risky financing decisions—combining a low credit score and/or a high debt ratio with a 30-year loan term and a low down payment. A substantial portion of these loans has an expected failure rate exceeding 10 percent. Across the country, 9,000 zip codes with a median family income below the metro area median have projected foreclosure rates equal to or greater than 10 percent. These zips have an average projected foreclosure rate of 15 percent and account for 44 percent of all FHA loans in the low- and moderate-income zips.

Tracy reported that rates of defaults by households rather than by mortgages gave a truer picture of the FHA’s success because many FHA borrowers would refinance into another FHA loan. Thus, to study defaults by mortgages covers up the real rate of default.

I believe that their studies were preliminary and have not gone through peer review, but both of them reported extraordinary default rates for certain types of FHA mortgages.

Pinto and his empirical work are very controversial so I cannot endorse his findings. But I can say that if he got it only somewhat right about predictable and ridiculously high default rates for some categories of borrowers, the FHA must immediately defend the underwriting of such loans or change its practices. It would be criminal to have predictable default rates in excess of 20% for any population. Such a rate transforms the American Dream of homeownership into an American Nightmare of foreclosure far, far too often.