Mortgage Insurers and The Next Housing Crisis

photo by Jeff Turner

The Inspector General of the Federal Housing Finance Agency has released a white paper on Enterprise Counterparties: Mortgage Insurers. The Executive Summary reads,

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises) operate under congressional charters to provide liquidity, stability, and affordability to the mortgage market. Those charters, which have been amended from time to time, authorize the Enterprises to purchase residential mortgages and codify an affirmative obligation to facilitate the financing of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families. Pursuant to their charters, the Enterprises may purchase single-family residential mortgages with loan-to-value (LTV) ratios above 80%, provided that these mortgages are supported by one of several credit enhancements identified in their charters. A credit enhancement is a method or tool to reduce the risk of extending credit to a borrower; mortgage insurance is one such method. Since 1957, private mortgage insurers have assumed an ever-increasing role in providing credit enhancements and they now insure “the vast majority of loans over 80% LTV purchased by the” Enterprises. In congressional testimony in 2015, Director Watt emphasized that mortgage insurance is critical to the Enterprises’ efforts to provide increased housing access for lower-wealth borrowers through 97% LTV loans.

During the financial crisis, some mortgage insurers faced severe financial difficulties due to the precipitous drop in housing prices and increased defaults that required the insurers to pay more claims. State regulators placed three mortgage insurers into “run-off,” prohibiting them from writing new insurance, but allowing them to continue collecting renewal premiums and processing claims on existing business. Some mortgage insurers rescinded coverage on more loans, canceling the policies and returning the premiums.  Currently, the mortgage insurance industry consists of six private mortgage insurers.

In our 2017 Audit and Evaluation Plan, we identified the four areas that we believe pose the most significant risks to FHFA and the entities it supervises. One of those four areas is counterparty risk – the risk created by persons or entities that provide services to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. According to FHFA, mortgage insurers represent the largest counterparty exposure for the Enterprises. The Enterprises acknowledge that, although the financial condition of their mortgage insurer counterparties approved to write new business has improved in recent years, the risk remains that some of them may fail to fully meet their obligations. While recent financial and operational requirements may enhance the resiliency of mortgage insurers, other industry features and emerging trends point to continuing risk.

We undertook this white paper to understand and explain the current and emerging risks associated with private mortgage insurers that insure loan payments on single-family mortgages with LTVs greater than 80% purchased by the Enterprises. (2)

It is a truism that the next crisis won’t look like the last one. It is worth heeding the Inspector General’s warning about the

risks from private mortgage insurance as a credit enhancement, including increasing volume, high concentrations, an inability by the Enterprises to manage concentration risk, mortgage insurers with credit ratings below the Enterprises’ historic requirements and investment grade, the challenges inherent in a monoline business and the cyclic housing market, and remaining unpaid mortgage insurer deferred obligations. (13)

One could easily imagine a taxpayer bailout of Fannie and Freddie driven by the insolvency of the some or all of the six private mortgage insurers that do business with them. Let’s hope that the FHFA addresses that risk now, while the mortgage market is still healthy.

Ensuring Sustainable Homeownership


My short article, Ensuring That Homeownership Is Sustainable, was just published in the Westlaw Journal, Bank & Lender Liability. It opens,

The Federal Housing Administration has suffered as a result of many of the same unrealistic underwriting assumptions that led to problems for many lenders during the 2000s. It, too, was harmed by a housing market as bad as any since the Great Depression.

As a result, the federal government announced in 2013 that the FHA would require the first bailout in the agency’s history. While facing financial challenges, the FHA has also come under attack for the poor execution of policies designed to expand homeownership opportunities.

Leading commentators have called for the federal government to stop having the FHA do anything but provide liquidity to the low end of the mortgage market.

These critics rely on a few examples of agency programs that were clearly failures, but they do not address the FHA’s long history of undertaking comparable initiatives.

 In fact, the FHA has a history of successfully undertaking new homeownership programs. However, it also has operational flaws that should be addressed before it undertakes similar future homeownership initiatives.


Mortgage insurance is a product that is paid for by the homeowner but protects the lender if the homeowner defaults on the mortgage. The insurer pays the lender for losses it suffers from the homeowner’s default. Mortgage insurance is typically required for borrowers who have limited funds for down payments.

The FHA provides mortgage insurance for loans on single family and multifamily homes, and it is the world’s largest government mortgage insurer. Other significant providers are the Department of Veterans Affairs and private companies known as private mortgage insurers.

Mortgage insurance makes homeownership possible for many households that would otherwise not be able to meet lenders’ underwriting requirements.

Just like much of the federal housing infrastructure, the FHA has its roots in the Great Depression. The private mortgage insurance industry, like many others, was decimated in the early 1930s. Companies in the industry began to fail as almost half of all mortgages went into default. The government created the FHA to replace the PMI industry, which remained dormant for decades.

In the Great Depression, the housing markets faced problems that were similar to those faced by the same markets in the late 2000s. These problems included rapidly falling housing prices, widespread unemployment and underemployment, the rapid tightening of credit and — as a result of all of those trends — much higher default and foreclosure rates.

The FHA noted in its second annual report, issued in 1936, that the “shortcomings of the old system need no recital. It financed extensive overselling of houses at inflated values, to borrowers unable to pay for them.” Needless to say, the same could be said of our most recent housing bust.

Over its lifetime, the FHA has insured more than 40 million mortgages, helping to make homeownership available to a broad swath of American households. Indeed, the FHA mortgage has been essential to America’s transformation from a nation of renters to one of homeowners.

The early FHA created the modern American housing finance system, as well as the look and feel of post-war suburban communities through the construction standards the agency set for the new houses it insured.

The FHA has also had many other missions over the course of its existence — and a varied legacy to match.

Beginning in the 1950s, the FHA’s role changed from serving the entire mortgage market to focusing on certain segments. This changed mission had a major impact on everything the FHA did, including how it underwrote mortgage insurance and for whom it did so.

In recent years, the FHA has come under attack for poorly executing some of its attempts to expand homeownership opportunities, and leading commentators have called for the federal government to stop assigning such mandates to the agency. They argue that the FHA should focus only on providing liquidity for the portion of the mortgage market that serves low- and moderate-income households.

These critics rely on a couple of examples of failed programs, such as the Section 235 program enacted as part of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 and the American Dream Downpayment Assistance Act of 2003.

Those programs required borrowers to make only tiny and sometimes even nominal down payments. The government enacted the Section 235 program in response to the riots that burned through American cities in the 1960s. It was intended to expand homeownership opportunities for low-income households, particularly black ones.

The American Dream program was also geared to increasing homeownership among lower-income and minority households. The crux of the critique of these programs is that they failed to ensure that borrowers had the capacity to repay their mortgages, leading to bad results for the FHA and borrowers alike.

Notwithstanding these failed initiatives, the FHA has a parallel history of successfully undertaking new homeownership programs. These successes include programs for veterans returning home from World War II, a mission that was later handed off to the VA.

At the same time, historically the FHA has clearly suffered from operational failures that should be addressed in the design of any future initiatives.

Unfortunately, the agency has not really grappled with its past failures as it moves beyond the financial crisis. To properly address operational failures, the FHA must first identify its goals. (6-7, footnote omitted)

Reiss on Mortgage Insurance Proposal

Law360 quoted me in FHFA Capital Rules Will Squeeze Older Mortgage Insurers (behind a paywall). It opens,

The Federal Housing Finance Agency on Thursday released proposals that would impose higher capital requirements on private mortgage insurers doing business with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but experts say insurers with bubble-era mortgages in their portfolios may find it tough to meet the new mandates.

The new standards will force mortgage insurers to determine the amount of cash and other liquid assets they retain to cover potential payouts using more of a risk-based formula than they have up to this point, meaning that the riskier the mortgage, the more capital will be required.

Because of that, mortgage insurers that were in business during the housing bubble era and have older loans on their books will be hit harder than insurers that have only post-financial crisis loans on their books, said Paul Hastings LLP partner Kevin Petrasic.

“The older vintage mortgages have more challenging issues than the newer mortgages,” he said.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are barred from backing mortgages where the borrower has contributed less than a 20 percent down payment without getting private mortgage insurance to make up the difference. The insurance on those mortgages absorbs any losses before Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac do in the case of default, in essence putting private money before taxpayer money.

During the financial crisis, private mortgage insurers paid out billions of dollars on bad mortgages even as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac took on over $180 billion in federal bailout money in the fall of 2008, when they were put under the FHFA’s conservatorship.

However, the financial crisis also saw many of the larger mortgage insurers fail under the weight of the huge number of claims they had to cover, contributing to Fannie and Freddie’s collapses.

“The history of the mortgage insurance industry is a history of good profits during good times and catastrophic losses in bad times,” said Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss. “It seems like what the FHFA is doing is saying we don’t want the taxpayer on the hook during the next period of catastrophic losses.”

That is exactly what the FHFA says it intends with its new regulations, part of a so-called strategic plan to strengthen Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and to bring more private money into the mortgage market.

Risky Business Model for Homeowners?

The Mortgage Bankers Association issued a report, Up-Front Risk Sharing: Ensuring Private Capital Delivers for Consumers, intended to increase the role of the private sector in the portion of the mortgage market currently dominated by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  The MBA argues that to “entice private capital into the mortgage market, FHFA should require the GSEs to offer risk sharing options to lenders at the “point of sale.” (1) The report notes that about “60 percent of new mortgage originations today are sold to the GSEs. This dynamic means that the GSEs’ credit pricing has effectively determined the cost of and access to credit for a wide majority of all new loans.” (5) The GSEs’ credit pricing is thus not set by the market.  The report continues, the GSEs

are now charging more than twice as much in guarantee fees as they did a few years ago, at the same time their acquisition profile shows they are taking on very little credit risk, even compared to pre-bubble credit standards. For example, average credit scores for GSE mortgage purchases prior to the crisis were about 720; today they are 760. Similarly, the weighted average LTV of loans outside of the HARP program are in the high 60% range, several percentage points lower than in the early 2000s. With this combination of high fees and ultra conservative underwriting, it is not surprising that the GSEs are seeing large, indeed record, profits — their revenues are up and their costs are down, not through their execution, but through government fiat and a privileged market position. (2)

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Without quibbling with some of these characterizations, I would note that I have long taken the position that the private sector should bear more of the risk of credit loss in the residential mortgage market. As a result, I welcome proposals for them to do so.  This particular proposal also reduces the role of the GSEs which, while just a partial reduction, is another welcome development.  So, this proposal appears to be good for the mortgage industry (particularly private mortgage insurers).  It is also good for taxpayers because the private sector would be taking on credit risk from the federal government.

The question that remains is whether this is the right solution for homeowners.  The MBA says that this proposal will increase access to credit.  It would be helpful if the industry could model this claim.  The lending industry has its own cycle of credit loosening and tightening, so it would make sense to understand how such a cycle would impact homeowners if we moved toward such a system and moved away from the Fannie/Freddie duopoly.