Fight Over The Community Reinvestment Act

Bloomberg BNA quoted me in Community Investment Revamp for Banks Likely To Spark Fight (behind a paywall). It opens,

Community groups and banks agree that the Community Reinvestment Act needs an update, but with regulators beginning an ambitious overhaul of the 1977 law there is little agreement on how that update should look.

The Trump administration has been targeting the CRA — which measures how well banks lend to low- to middle-income areas — for a rewrite since last June. Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting said March 28 that the first draft would be coming in early April.

Otting set out some broad ideas that his agency, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the other regulators that oversee the CRA will present to the public. The Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation also have responsibility for measuring banks’ compliance with the law, and the OCC says that it hopes the two agencies will sign on to the coming advanced notice of proposed rulemaking.

Banking industry experts and community groups all said that the broad strokes of the regulators’ plan sound promising, but few expect that comity to continue when the details come more into view.

“I think you can assume that everybody is not going to be happy,” Laurence Platt, a partner at Mayer Brown LLP, told Bloomberg Law.

The CRA’s Present

The Trump administration first put the CRA in its sights in a June 2017 Treasury Department report outlining its broader views on altering the rules banks operate under.

The law calls for the OCC, the Fed and the FDIC to periodically measure how much lending the banks they oversee do inside geographical assessment areas based on their branch and ATM locations. If banks are found not to do enough of such lending, regulators can stop some business activities or hold up branch expansions and mergers. But it hasn’t been updated for nearly two decades.

The Treasury Department followed up the June 2017 statement on the CRA with an April 3 report outlining its thinking on ways to modernize the law. The report largely aligns with the path laid out by Otting.

“Our recommendations will improve the effectiveness of CRA by enhancing the assessment and examination process, enhancing the ability of banks to deliver services in the communities they serve while considering technological advances in the financial industry,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement accompanying the report.

Changes to the Community Reinvestment Act have already begun, with the OCC under former acting Comptroller of the Currency Keith Noreika in October declaring that the OCC examiners would no longer include enforcement actions that are not linked to a bank’s CRA compliance in their rating.

That change was minor, and affected only one of the three regulators responsible for the CRA. Otting on March 28 laid out a host of other changes likely coming in a new proposal.

The CRA’s Future?

The broad outline Otting provided on March 28 largely highlights the areas in the CRA that community activists and banks have said need to be addressed.

Among the changes Otting said will be put out for comment include expanding the types of lending that would be included in calculations of banks’ CRA compliance to encompass small business, student lending and other money going into a community.

“I think there’s a sense that community-based activities, beyond individual lending, should be given more credit, such as small business loans and infrastructure loans,” Mayer Brown’s Platt said.

Other areas that are going to be addressed in the proposal will touch on the way CRA information is calculated and reported to the public. Currently, banks are examined for compliance every three to five years, and the banks’ reviews take an additional year.

Overall, Otting said the changes would be significant.

“This is monumental change for America,” Otting said in an appearance March 28 at the Operation Hope Global Forum in Atlanta.

The changes Otting discussed all sound promising, but they are vague. So fights are likely to emerge when the details come out.

“The comments that were made were vague enough to give you both concern and possible joy,” Taylor said.

One other aspect of the CRA that is ripe for reform is the geographic assessment areas regulators use to evaluate banks’ lending efforts. Otting and other regulators have yet to specifically outline their ideas for making changes to that, but both the comptroller and Fed Vice Chair for Supervision Randal Quarles have discussed including mobile banking, online lending, and other financial technology tools into their reviews.

How they elect to make that change is likely to be contentious as well.

“If the assessment area is poorly defined, then the CRA will lose its teeth and that’s going to drive CRA policy for a long time to come,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

The Duty to Serve Underserved Markets

Riverview Homes Inc

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Request for Comments regarding Enterprise Duty to Serve Underserved Markets.  The “Enterprises” are Fannie and Freddie and this duty to serve is a highly contested one, with some on the right blaming it for pretty much the whole financial crisis and some on the left arguing that it is the key rationale for keeping the government involved in the mortgage market.

This debate is complicated by the fact that Fannie and Freddie are in conservatorship for the foreseeable future. Whatever one believes the duty to serve should be for the two companies if they were operating independently, one might have a different view of it while they are operating as government instrumentalities.

The Notice provides the following summary:

The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA) amended the Federal Housing Enterprises Financial Safety and Soundness Act of 1992 (Safety and Soundness Act) to establish a duty for the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) (collectively, the Enterprises) to serve three specified underserved markets—manufactured housing, affordable housing preservation, and rural markets—to increase the liquidity of mortgage investments and improve the distribution of investment capital available for mortgage financing for very low-, low-, and moderate-income families in those markets. The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) is issuing and seeking comments on a proposed rule that would provide Duty to Serve credit for eligible Enterprise activities that facilitate a secondary market for mortgages related to: Manufactured homes titled as real property; blanket loans for certain categories of manufactured housing communities; preserving the affordability of housing for renters and homebuyers; and housing in rural markets. The proposed rule would establish a method for evaluating and rating the Enterprises’ compliance with the Duty to Serve each underserved market.

Written comments must be received on or before March 17, 2016, so get crackin’.

Access to Sustainable Credit

Reid & Quercia have posted Risk, Access and the QRM Reproposal. This document is intended to influence the most recent proposed rulemaking for the Qualified Residential Mortgages (QRMs). The rulemaking process for the QRM has been controversial and the stakes could not be higher for the health of the residential mortgage market. The first  proposed rulemaking in 2011 would have required QRMs to have substantial down payments. A broad coalition of lenders and consumer groups believed that this requirement would excessively restrict credit and so the regulators responsible for the QRM rule issued an new proposed rulemaking in 2013 that removed the requirement for down payments from the QRM definition.

Reid & Quercia argue that the more restrictive 2011 proposed QRM rule only provided marginal benefits over the 2013 proposed QRM rule, while significantly restricting credit particularly for households of color. They note that the “objective of weighing the marginal benefit of stricter QRM requirements against the costs of cutting off access to the mainstream mortgage market is an important one.” (7) They have created simple metrics “for evaluating the tradeoffs of reducing the number of defaults against the number of successful borrowers who would not be able to obtain a QRM loan as a result of stricter down payment and credit score requirements” (7)

While Reid & Quercia do not say so explicitly, I believe that their metrics, such as the benefit ratio, should be explicitly worked into the final QRM rule so that regulators are constantly considering the two sides of credit: availability and sustainability. There is a lot of pressure to increase access to residential mortgage credit by a range of players — consumer advocates, lenders and politicians to name just a few. But credit that cannot be sustained by homeowners leads to mortgage default and foreclosure. We will be doing new homeowners no favors by letting them take out mortgages with payments that they cannot consistently make, year in and year out.