Fannie + Freddie = Frannie

The Federal Housing Finance Agency released its 2016 Scorecard Progress Report. It contains some interesting information about the FHFA’s ongoing efforts to reshape Fannie and Freddie notwithstanding the inaction of Congress. These efforts are not broadcast very clearly, but they are documented nonetheless:

Maintaining a high degree of uniformity in the prepayment speeds of the Enterprises’ mortgage-backed securities is important to the success of the Single Security Initiative. Accordingly, the 2016 Scorecard called for the Enterprises to assess new or revised Enterprise programs, policies, and practices for their effect on the cash flows of mortgage-backed securities eligible for financing through TBA market.

In July 2016, FHFA published An Update on Implementation of the Single Security and the Common Securitization Platform (July 2016 Update), which included a description of specific steps FHFA would take and steps FHFA would require the Enterprises to take to ensure the continued convergence of prepayment speeds across the Enterprises’ mortgage-backed securities. The July 2016 Update indicated that each Enterprise would be required to submit for FHFA review any proposed changes the Enterprise believed could have a measureable effect on the prepayment rates and performance of TBA-eligible securities, including its analysis of any effects on prepayment speeds and/or removals of delinquent mortgage loans from securities under a range of scenarios. In addition, FHFA monitors Enterprise programs, policies, and practices that are initially determined to have no significant effect on prepayment rates or security performance and works with the Enterprises to address any unexpected effects as they arise. (25)

While this is all very technical stuff, it boils down to the effort of the FHFA to make Fannie and Freddie’s securities indistinguishable from each other so they can be treated as a Single Security. Once this process is completed, we will enter a new phase for the GSEs. The two companies wont really be competitors, they will be like identical twins.

Senators Corker and Warner are trying to resuscitate a housing finance reform bill, but this administrative reform is proceeding apace through ten years of Congressional inaction. The FHFA’s actions will likely limit the choices that Congress will have in very real ways, assuming Congress can ever get itself to act.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, it is just good to name it for what it is: housing finance reform implemented by an independent agency, not by a democratically elected Congress.

Prepaying Your Mortgage

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Newsday quoted me in Paying off Your Mortgage Early Might not Make Sense (behind paywall). It opens,

There are few greater feelings than making that last mortgage payment. Some people feel better still if they pay it off early. But sometimes it doesn’t make sense to pay off your mortgage early.

First things first: Be sure you have adequate emergency savings before you put extra money into paying off the mortgage early. Then consider what’s the best use of any extra money you have.

While taking a shorter-term mortgage or prepaying principal saves you tons in interest, remember that mortgage interest is typically tax deductible.

Warren Goldberg, founder of Mortgage Wealth Advisors in Melville, offers an example. If you had a 5 percent interest rate on your 30-year fixed mortgage, depending on your tax bracket, your equivalent, after-tax interest rate might only be 3.3 percent. Even in today’s tumultuous market, it’s not difficult to earn a return greater than 3.3 percent after taxes.

“By paying the minimum on your mortgage and investing the balance, your money can be working for you. Your investments can be earning more than the interest you are paying,” says Goldberg.

David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School specializing in real estate, agrees: “If you have not maxed out your retirement savings, it might make sense to direct your extra funds to tax-advantaged retirement accounts. You could end up being better off overall as those accounts grow tax-free over time.”

Investing in Mortgage-Backed Securities

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

US News & World Report quoted me in Why Investors Own Private Mortgage-Backed Securities. It opens,

Private-label, or non-agency backed mortgage securities, got a black eye a few years ago when they were blamed for bringing on the financial crisis. But they still exist and can be found in many fixed-income mutual funds and real estate investment trusts.

So who should own them – and who should stay away?

Many experts say they’re safer now and are worthy of a small part of the ordinary investor’s portfolio. Some funds holding non-agency securities yield upward of 10 percent.

“The current landscape is favorable for non-agency securities,” says Jason Callan, head of structured products at Columbia Threadneedle Investments in Minneapolis, pointing to factors that have reduced risks.

“The amount of delinquent borrowers is now at a post-crisis low, U.S. consumers continue to perform quite well from a credit perspective, and risk premiums are very attractive relative to the fundamental outlook for housing and the economy,” he says. “Home prices have appreciated nationwide by 5 to 6 percent over the last three years.”

Mortgage-backed securities are like bonds that give their owners rights to share in interest and principal received from homeowners’ mortgage payments.

The most common are agency-backed securities like Ginnie Maes guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration, or securities from government-authorized companies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The agency securities carry an implicit or explicit guarantee that the promised principal and interest income will be paid even if homeowners default on their loans. Ginnie Mae obligations, for instance, can be made up with federal tax revenues if necessary. Agency securities are considered safe holdings with better yields than alternatives like U.S. Treasurys.

The non-agency securities are issued by financial firms and carry no such guarantee. Trillions of dollars worth were issued in the build up to the financial crisis. Many contained mortgages granted to high-risk homeowners who had no income, poor credit or no home equity. Because risky borrowers are charged higher mortgage rates, private-label mortgage securities appealed to investors seeking higher yields than they could get from other holdings. When housing prices collapsed, a tidal wave of borrower defaults torpedoed the private-label securities, triggering the financial crisis.

Not many private-label securities have been issued in the years since, and they accounted for just 4 percent of mortgage securities issued in 2015, according to Freddie Mac. But those that are created are considered safer than the old ones because today’s borrowers must meet stiffer standards. Also, many of the non-agency securities created a decade or more ago continue to be traded and are viewed as safer because market conditions like home prices have improved.

Investors can buy these securities through bond brokers, but the most common way to participate in this market is with mutual funds or with REITs that own mortgages rather than actual real estate.

Though safer than before, non-agency securities are still risky because, unlike agency-backed securities, they can incur losses if homeowners stop making their payments. This credit risk comes atop the “prepayment” and “interest rate” risks found in agency-backed mortgage securities. Prepayment risk is when interest earnings stop because homeowners have refinanced. Interest rate risk means a security loses value because newer ones offer higher yields, making the older, stingier ones less attractive to investors.

“With non-agencies, you own the credit risk of the underlying mortgages,” Callan says, “whereas with agencies the (payments) are government guaranteed.”

Another risk of non-agency securities: different ones created from the same pool of loans are not necessarily equal. Typically, the pool is sliced into “tranches” like a loaf of bread, with each slice carrying different features. The safest have first dibs on interest and principal earnings, or are the last in the pool to default if payments dry up. In exchange for safety, these pay the least. At the other extreme are tranches that pay the most but are the first to lose out when income stops flowing.

Still, despite the risks, many experts say non-agency securities are safer than they used to be.

“Since the financial crisis, issuers have been much more careful in choosing the collateral that goes into a non-agency MBS, sticking to plain vanilla mortgage products and borrowers with good credit profiles,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who studies the mortgage market.

“It seems like the Wild West days of the mortgage market in the early 2000s won’t be returning for quite some time because issuers and investors are gun shy after the Subprime Crisis,” Reiss says. “The regulations implemented by Dodd-Frank, such as the qualified residential mortgage rule, also tamp down on excesses in the mortgage markets.”

Preserving Affordable Housing

photo by Rgkleit

Alexander von Hoffman of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies has posted an interesting working paper, To Preserve Affordable Housing in the United States. It opens,

Most Americans who have any idea about low-income housing policy in the United States think of it as composed of programs that either build and manage residences – such as public housing – or help pay the rent – such as rental vouchers. Few people realize that much, perhaps most, of the government’s effort to house poor families and individuals is now devoted to supporting privately owned buildings that, courtesy of government subsidies, already provide low-income housing. Similarly, few know of the national movement to prevent these rental homes from being converted to market-rate housing or demolished and to keep them affordable and available to low-income households.

The problem of “preservation of affordable housing” generally refers to privately owned but government-subsidized dwellings developed under a particular set of federal subsidy programs. Although the first of these programs was enacted in 1959, their heyday – when they produced the bulk of government-subsidized low-income housing – lasted from the late 1960s until the mid-1980s. Before these programs were adopted, the government’s chief low-income housing program had been public housing, in which government agencies funded, developed, owned, leased, and managed apartments for people of limited incomes on a permanent basis.

Starting about 1960, however, the government shifted to a new policy in which it provided subsidies limited to a specific length of time to private developers of low-income rental housing. These private developers could be nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies operating through entities that earned limited dividends. In the low-income rental programs of the 1960s the government subsidized the rents of poor tenants by providing low-interest mortgage loans (through mortgage insurance and/or direct payments) to the projects’ developers. In 1974, Congress added another program, Section 8, in which the government signed a contract to pay a portion of the tenants’ rents for up to twenty years, which was as long as the mortgage subsidies had been.

After the low-income rental projects were completed, a number of circumstances threatened to displace the projects’ low-income occupants from their homes. In the early years especially, some owners faced financial difficulties, including foreclosures. Starting in the boom years of the 1980s, others desired to pay back their subsidized mortgages early (or “prepay”) to rent or sell the apartments at lucrative market rates. And eventually all owners reached the end of the time limit of their original subsidies. To keep low-income tenants in the subsidized apartments, housing advocates fought to keep the subsidized projects livable and within the means of poor people. The cause they rallied to was the “preservation of affordable housing.”

*    *    *

Since the late 1980s a wide array of interests – including for-profit owners and investors, non-profit developers and managers, and tenants – have organized their interest-group associations and entered into coalitions with one another to shape government policies. They have worked with sympathetic members of Congress and their aides to preserve the subsidized housing stock for low-income Americans. The road has been rough at times. The Reagan administration was indifferent at best to the issue. Legislation in 1987 and 1990 for all practical purposes banned prepayments, angering the owners’ representatives who opposed these laws. After prepayments were again allowed, advocates and owners joined together again to push for affordable housing preservation programs and procedures. The government programs that they attained in the 1990s became a major component of low-income housing policy in the United States.

Until relatively recently, the interest groups focused on shaping federal policy. They worked to pass – or repeal – national legislation and to influence program rules set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Although the federal government continues to be essential to housing policy, the growing political opposition to large federal spending programs has led advocates of affordable housing preservation to press state governments for financial support. (3-5)

This working paper clearly identifies the problems with “[p]oorly thought out programs” that “encouraged bad underwriting and long-term management” and how they played out in affordable housing projects that were not intended to provide for permanent affordability. (73) It also provides a good foundation for a discussion of where affordable housing policy should be heading now.