Redefault Risk After the Mortgage Crisis

 

A tower filled with shredded U.S. currency in the lobby of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

Paul Calem et al. of the Phillie Fed posted Redefault Risk in the Aftermath of the Mortgage Crisis: Why Did Modifications Improve More Than Self-Cures? The abstract reads,

This paper examines the redefault rate of mortgages that were selected for modification during 2008–2011, compared with that of similarly situated self-cured mortgages during the same period. We find that while the performance of both modified and self-cured loans improved dramatically over this period, the decline in the redefault rate for modified loans was substantially larger, and we attribute this difference to a few key factors. First, the repayment terms provided by modifications became increasingly generous, including the more frequent offering of principal reduction, resulting in greater financial relief to borrowers. Second, the later modifications also benefited from improving economic conditions — modification became more effective as unemployment rates declined and home prices recovered. Third, we find that the difference in redefault rate improvement between modified loans and self-cured loans is not fully explained by observable risk and economic variables. We attribute this residual difference to the servicers’ learning process — so-called learning by doing. Early in the mortgage crisis, many servicers had limited experience selecting the best borrowers for modification. As modification activity increased, lenders became more adept at screening borrowers for modification eligibility and in selecting appropriate modification terms.

The big question, of course, is what does this all tell us about preparing for the next crisis? That crisis, no doubt, won’t be a repeat of the last one. But it will likely rhyme with it enough — falling home prices, increasing defaults — that we can draw some lessons. One is that we did not use principal reductions fast enough to make a big difference in how the crisis played out. There were a lot of reason for this, some legit and some not. But if it is good public policy overall, we should set up mechanisms to deploy principal reduction early in the next crisis so that we do not need to navigate all of the arguments about moral hazard while knee deep in it.

The Financial Meltdown and Consumer Protection

photo by HTO

Larry Kirsch and Gregory D. Squires have published Meltdown: The Financial Crisis, Consumer Protection, and the Road Forward. According to the promotional material,

Meltdown reveals how the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was able to curb important unsafe and unfair practices that led to the recent financial crisis. In interviews with key government, industry, and advocacy groups along with deep archival research, Kirsch and Squires show where the CFPB was able to overcome many abusive practices, where it was less able to do so, and why.

Open for business in 2011, the CFPB was Congress’s response to the financial catastrophe that shattered millions of middle-class and lower-income households and threatened the stability of the global economy. But only a few years later, with U.S. economic conditions on a path to recovery, there are already disturbing signs of the (re)emergence of the high-risk, high-reward credit practices that the CFPB was designed to curb. This book profiles how the Bureau has attempted to stop abusive and discriminatory lending practices in the mortgage and automobile lending sectors and documents the multilayered challenges faced by an untested new regulatory agency in its efforts to transform the broken—but lucrative—business practices of the financial services industry.

Authors Kirsch and Squires raise the question of whether the consumer protection approach to financial services reform will succeed over the long term in light of political and business efforts to scuttle it. Case studies of mortgage and automobile lending reforms highlight the key contextual and structural conditions that explain the CFPB’s ability to transform financial service industry business models and practices. Meltdown: The Financial Crisis, Consumer Protection, and the Road Forward is essential reading for a wide audience, including anyone involved in the provision of financial services, staff of financial services and consumer protection regulatory agencies, and fair lending and consumer protection advocates. Its accessible presentation of financial information will also serve students and general readers.

Features

  • Presents the first comprehensive examination of the CFPB that identifies its successes during its first five years of operation and addresses the challenges the bureau now faces
  • Exposes the alarming possibility that as the economy recovers, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s efforts to protect consumers could be derailed by political and industry pressure
  • Offers provisional assessment of the effectiveness of the CFPB and consumer protection regulation
  • Gives readers unique access to insightful perspectives via on-the-record interviews with a cross-section of stakeholders, ranging from Richard Cordray (director of the CFPB) to public policy leaders, congressional staffers, advocates, scholars, and members of the press
  • Documents the historical and analytic narrative with more than 40 pages of end notes that will assist scholars, students, and practitioners

I would not describe the book as objective, given that Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote the forward and the President Obama’s point man on Dodd-Frank, Michael Barr, wrote the afterward. Indeed, it reads more like a panegyric. Nonetheless, the book has a lot to offer to scholars of the CFPB who are interested in hearing from the people who helped to stand up the Bureau.

Increasing Price Competition for Title Insurers

The New York State Department of Financial Services issued proposed rules for title insurance last month and requested comments. I submitted the following:

I write and teach about real estate and am the Academic Director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.  I write in my individual capacity to comment on the rules recently proposed by the New York State Department of Financial Services (the Department) relating to title insurance.

Title insurance is unique among insurance products because it provides coverage for unknown past acts.  Other insurance products provide coverage for future events.  Title insurance also requires just a single premium payment whereas other insurance products generally have premiums that are paid at regular intervals to keep the insurance in effect.

Premiums for title insurance in New York State are jointly filed with the Department by the Title Insurance Rate Service Association (TIRSA) on behalf of the dominant title insurers.  This joint filing ensures that title insurers do not compete on price. In states where such a procedure is not followed, title insurance rates are generally much lower.

Instead of competing on price, insurers compete on service.  “Service” has been interpreted widely to include all sorts of gifts — fancy meals, hard-to-get tickets, even vacations. The real customers of title companies are the industry’s repeat players — often real estate lawyers and lenders who recommend the title company — and they get these goodies.  The people paying for title insurance — owners and borrowers — ultimately pay for these “marketing” costs without getting the benefit of them.  These expenses are a component of the filings that TIRSA submits to the Department to justify the premiums charged by TIRSA’s members.  As a result of this rate-setting method, New York State policyholders pay among the highest premiums in the country.

The Department has proposed two new regulations for the title insurance industry.  The first proposed regulation (various amendments to Title 11 of the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules, and Regulations of the State of New York) is intended to get rid of these marketing costs (or kickbacks, if you prefer). This proposed regulation makes explicit that those costs cannot be passed on to the party ultimately paying for the title insurance.  The second proposed regulation (a new Part 228 of Title 11 of the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules, and Regulations of the State of New York (Insurance Regulation 208)) is intended to ensure that title insurance affiliates function independently from each other.

While these proposed regulations are a step in the right direction, they amount to half measures because the dominant title insurance companies are not competing on price and therefore will continue to seek to compete by other means, as described above or in ever increasingly creative ways.  Proposed Part 228, for instance, will do very little to keep title insurance premiums low as it does not matter whether affiliated companies act independently, so long as all the insurers are allowed to file their joint rate schedule.  No insurer will vary from that schedule whether or not they operate independently from their affiliates.

Instead of adopting these half-measures and calling it a day, the Department should undertake a more thorough review of title insurance regulation with the goal of increasing price competition.  Other jurisdictions have been able to balance price competition with competing public policy concerns.  New York State can do so as well.

Title insurance premiums are way higher than the amounts that title insurers pay out to satisfy claims.  In recent years, total premiums have been in the range of ten billion dollars a year while payouts have been measured in the single percentage points of those total premiums.  If the Department were able to find the balance between safety and soundness concerns and price competition, consumers of title insurance could see savings measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The Department should explore the following alternative approach:

  • Prohibiting insurers from filing a joint rate schedule;
  • Requiring each insurer to file its own rate schedule;
  • Requiring that each insurer’s rate schedule be posted online;
  • Allowing insurers to discount from their filed rate schedule so that they could better compete on price;
  • Promulgating conservative safety and soundness standards to protect against insurers discounting themselves into bankruptcy to the detriment of their policyholders; and
  • Prohibiting insurers from providing any benefits or gifts to real estate lawyers or other parties who can steer policyholders toward particular insurers.

If these proposals were adopted, policyholders would see massive reductions in their premiums.

Some have argued that New York State’s title insurance regulatory regime promotes the safety and soundness of the title insurers to the benefit of title insurance policyholders.  That may be true, but the cost in unnecessarily high premiums is not worth the trade-off.

Increased competition is not always in the public interest but it certainly is in the case of New York State’s highly concentrated title insurance industry.  The Department should seek to create a regulatory regime that best balances increased price competition with adequate safety and soundness regulation.  New Yorkers will greatly benefit from such reform.

How Tight Is The Credit Box?

Laurie Goodman of the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has posted a working paper, Quantifying the Tightness of Mortgage Credit and Assessing Policy Actions. The paper opens,

Mortgage credit has become very tight in the aftermath of the financial crisis. While experts generally agree that it is poor public policy to make loans to borrowers who cannot make their payments, failing to make mortgages to those who can make their payments has an opportunity cost, because historically homeownership has been the best way to build wealth. And, default is not binary: very few borrowers will default under all circumstances, and very few borrowers will never default. The decision where to draw the line—which mortgages to make—comes down to what probability of default we as a society are prepared to tolerate.

This paper first quantifies the tightness of mortgage credit in historical perspective. It then discusses one consequence of tight credit: fewer mortgage loans are being made. Then the paper evaluates the policy actions to loosen the credit box taken by the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) and their regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), as well as the policy actions taken by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), arguing that the GSEs have been much more successful than the FHA. The paper concludes with the argument that if we don’t solve mortgage credit availability issues, we will have a much lower percentage of homeowners because a larger share of potential new homebuyers will likely be Hispanic or nonwhite—groups that have had lower incomes, less wealth, and lower credit scores than whites. Because homeownership has traditionally been the best way for households to build wealth, the inability of these new potential homeowners to buy could increase economic inequality between whites and nonwhites. (1)

Goodman has been making the case for some time that the credit box is too tight. I would have liked to see a broader discussion in the paper of policies that could further loosen credit. What, for instance, could the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau do to encourage more lending? Should it be offering more of a safe harbor for lenders who are willing to make non-Qualified Mortgage loans? The private-label mortgage-backed securities sector has remained close to dead since the financial crisis.  Are there ways to bring some life — responsible life — back to that sector? Why aren’t portfolio lenders stepping into that space? What would they need to do so?

When the Qualified Mortgage rule was being hashed out, there was a debate as to whether there should be any non-Qualified Mortgages available to borrowers.  Some argued that every borrower should get a Qualified Mortgage, which has so many consumer protection provisions built into it. I was of the opinion that there should be a market for non-QM although the CFPB would need to monitor that sector closely. I stand by that position. The credit box is too tight and non-QM could help to loosen it up.

Who’s a Predatory Lender?

photo by Taber Andrew Bain

US News & World Report quoted me in 5 Clues That You’re Dealing with a Predatory Lender.  It opens,

Consumers are often told to stay away from predatory lenders, but the problem with that advice is a predatory lender doesn’t advertise itself as such.

Fortunately, if you’re on guard, you should be able to spot the signs that will let you know a loan is bad news. If you’re afraid you’re about to sign your life away on a dotted line, watch for these clues first.

You’re being offered credit, even though your credit score and history are terrible. This is probably the biggest red flag there is, according to John Breyault, the vice president for public policy, telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League, a private nonprofit advocacy group in the District of Columbia.

“A lender is in business because they think they’re going to get paid back,” Breyault says. “So if they aren’t checking to see if you have the ability to pay them back, by doing a credit check, then they’re planning on getting their bank through a different way, like offering a high fee for the loan and setting it up in a way that locks you into a cycle of debt that is very difficult to get out of.”

But, of course, as big of a clue as this is to stay away, it can be hard to listen to your inner voice of reason. After all, if nowhere else will give you a loan, you may decide to work with the predatory lender anyway. That’s why many industry experts feel that even if a bad loan is transparent about how bad it is, it probably shouldn’t exist. After all, only consumers who are desperate for cash are likely to take a gamble that they can pay back a loan with 200 percent interest – and get through it unscathed.

Your loan has an insanely high interest rate. Most states have usury laws preventing interest rates from going into that 200 APR territory, but the laws are generally weak, industry experts say, and lenders get around them all the time. So you can’t assume an interest rate that seems really high is considered normal or even within the parameters of the law. After all, attorney generals successfully sue payday loan services and other lending companies fairly frequently. For instance, in January of this year, it was announced that after the District of Columbia attorney general sued the lending company CashCall, they settled for millions of dollars. According to media reports, CashCall was accused of offering loans with interest rates around 300 percent annually.

The lender is making promises that seem too good to be true. If you’re asking questions and getting answers that are making you sigh with relief, that could be a problem.

Nobody’s suggesting you be a cynic and assume everybody’s out to get you, but you should scrutinize your paperwork, says David Reiss, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School in New York.

“Often predators will make all sorts of oral promises, but when it comes time to sign on the dotted line, their documents don’t match the promises,” Reiss says.

And if they aren’t in sync, assume the documentation is correct. Do not go with what the lender told you.

“Courts will, in all likelihood, hold you to the promises you made in the signed documents, and your testimony about oral promises probably won’t hold that much water,” Reiss says. ” Read what you are signing and make sure it matches up with your understanding of the transaction.”

Did Dodd-Frank Make Getting a Mortgage Harder?

Christopher Dodd

Christopher Dodd

Barney Frank

 

 

____________________________________________________________

The short answer is — No. The longer answer is — No, but . . .

Bing Bai, Laurie Goodman and Ellen Seidman of the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center have posted Has the QM Rule Made it Harder to Get a Mortgage? The QM rule was originally authorized by Dodd-Frank and was implemented in January of 2014, more than two years ago. The paper opens,

the qualified mortgage (QM) rule was designed to prevent borrowers from acquiring loans they cannot afford and to protect lenders from potential borrower litigation. Many worry that the rule has contributed to the well-documented reduction in mortgage credit availability, which has hit low-income and minority borrowers the hardest. To explore this concern, we recently updated our August 2014 analysis of the impact of the QM rule. Our analysis of the rule at the two-year mark again finds it has had little impact on the availability of mortgage credit. Though the share of mortgages under $100,000 has decreased, this change can be largely attributed to the sharp rise in home prices. (1, footnotes omitted)

The paper looks at “four potential indicators of the QM rule’s impact:”

  1.  Fewer interest-only and prepayment penalty loans: The QM rule disqualifies loans that are interest-only (IO) or have a prepayment penalty (PP), so a reduction in these loans might show QM impact.
  2. Fewer loans with debt-to-income ratios above 43 percent: The QM rule disqualifies loans with a debt-to-income (DTI) ratio above 43 percent, so a reduction in loans with DTIs above 43 percent might show QM impact.
  3. Reduced adjustable-rate mortgage share: The QM rule requires that an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) be underwritten to the maximum interest rate that could be charged during the loan’s first five years. Generally, this restriction should deter lenders, so a reduction in the ARM share might show QM impact.
  4. Fewer small loans: The QM rule’s 3 percent limit on points and fees could discourage lenders from making smaller loans, so a reduction in smaller loans might show QM impact. (1-2)

The authors find no impact on on interest only loans or prepayment penalty loans; loans with debt-to-income ratios greater than 43 percent; or adjustable rate mortgages.

While these findings seem to make sense, it is important to note that the report uses 2013 as its baseline for mortgage market conditions. The report does acknowledge that credit availability was tight in 2013, but it implies that 2013 is the appropriate baseline from which to evaluate the QM rule. I am not so sure that this right — I would love to see some modeling that shows the impact of the QM rule under various credit availability scenarios, not just the particularly tight credit box of 2013.

To be clear, I agree with the paper’s policy takeaway — the QM rule can help prevent “risky lending practices that could cause another downturn.” (8) But we should be making these policy decisions with the best possible information.

Property Tax Exemptions in Wonderland

 

Cea

NYU’s Furman Center has released a policy brief, The Latest Legislative Reform of the 421-a Tax Exemption: A Look at Possible Outcomes. This brief is part of a series on affordable housing strategies for a high-cost city. It opens,

Since the early 1970s, New York City has provided a state-authorized, partial property tax exemption for the construction of new residential buildings. In the 1980s, the New York City Council amended the program to require that participating residential buildings in certain portions of Manhattan also provide affordable housing. Most recently, New York State extended the existing program through the end of 2015 and created a new 421-a framework for 2016 onward. However, for the program to continue beyond December, the legislation requires that representatives of residential real estate developers and construction labor unions reach a memorandum of understanding regarding wages of construction workers building 421-a program developments that contain more than 15 units.

This brief explores the possible impacts of the new 421-a legislation on residential development across a range of different neighborhoods in New York City, including neighborhoods where rents and sale prices are far lower than in the Manhattan Core and where the tax exemption or other subsidy may be necessary to spur new residential construction under current market conditions. We assess what could happen to new market rate and affordable housing production if the 421-a program were allowed to expire or if it were to continue past 2015 in the form contemplated by recently passed legislation. Our analysis shows that changes to the 421-a program could significantly affect the development of both market rate and affordable housing in the city (1, footnote omitted)

The 421-a program operates against the backdrop of a crazy quilt real property tax regime where similar buildings are taxed at wildly different rates because of various historical oddities and thinly-sliced legal distinctions. Like the Queen of Hearts, the rationale given by the Department of Finance for this unequal treatment amounts to no more than — And the reason is…because I say so, that’s why!

The brief concludes,

Our financial analysis of the possible outcomes from the 421-a legislation offers some insights into its potential impact on new construction. First, if the 421-a benefit expires in 2016, residential developers would lower the amount they would be willing to pay for land in many parts of the city. The result could be a pause in new residential developments in areas outside of the Manhattan Core as both buyers and sellers of land adjust to the new market.

*     *     *

Second, if the newly revised 421-a program with its higher affordability requirements and longer exemption period goes into effect in 2016 without any increase in construction costs, the city is likely to have more affordable rental units developed in many parts of the city compared to what the existing 421-a program would have created. Condominium development without the 421-a program may still continue to dominate in certain portions of Manhattan, though the program appears to make rentals more attractive. (12)

The first outcome — lower land prices if 421-a expires — is not that bad for anyone, except current landowners. And it is hard to feel bad for them, given that they should not have expected that 421-a would remain in effect forever (and not to mention the rapid increases in NYC land prices). The second outcome — the new 421-a framework — sounds like better public policy than the existing program.

But one wonders — what would it take for NYC to develop a rational real property tax regime to replace our notoriously inequitable one, one that treats like properties so differently from each other. Can we escape from Wonderland?