Treasury’s Overreach on Securitization Reform

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Being Sworn in by Vice President Pence

The Department of the Treasury released its report, A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities Capital Markets. I will leave it to others to dissect the broader implications of this important document and will just highlight what it has to say about the future of securitization:

Problems related to certain types of securitized products, primarily those backed by subprime mortgage loans, contributed to the financial crisis that precipitated the Great Recession. As a result, the securitization market has acquired a popular reputation as an inherently high-risk asset class and has been regulated as such through numerous post-crisis statutory and rulemaking changes. Such treatment of this market is counterproductive, as securitization, when undertaken in an appropriate manner, can be a vital financial tool to facilitate growth in our domestic economy. Securitization has the potential to help financial intermediaries better manage risk, enhance access to credit, and lower funding costs for both American businesses and consumers. Rather than restrict securitization through regulations, policymakers and regulators should view this component of our capital markets as a byproduct of, and safeguard to, America’s global financial leadership. (91-92, citations omitted)

This analysis of securitization veers toward the incoherent. It acknowledges that relatively unregulated subprime MBS contributed to the Great Recession but it argues that stripping away the regulations that were implemented in response to the financial crisis will safeguard our global financial leadership. How’s that? A full deregulatory push would return us to the pre-crisis environment where mortgage market players will act in their short-term interests, while exposing counter-parties and consumers to greater risks.

Notwithstanding that overreach, the report has some specific recommendations that could make securitization more attractive. These include aligning U.S. regulations with the Basel recommendations that govern the global securitization market; fine-tuning risk retention requirements; and rationalizing the multi-agency rulemaking process.

But it is disturbing when a government report contains a passage like the following, without evaluating whether it is true or not:  “issuers have stated that the increased cost and compliance burdens, lack of standardized definitions, and sometimes ambiguous regulatory guidance has had a negative impact on the issuance of new public securitizations.” (104) The report segues from these complaints right to a set of recommendations to reduce the disclosure requirements for securitizers. It is incumbent on Treasury to evaluate whether those complaints are valid are not, before making recommendations based upon them.

Securitization is here to stay and can meaningfully lower borrowing costs. But the financial crisis has demonstrated that it must be regulated to protect the financial system and the public. There is certainly room to revise the regulations that govern the securitization sector, but a wholesale push to deregulate would be foolish given the events of the 2000s.

The Money Problem

Professor Ricks

I recently read The Money Problem: Rethinking Financial Regulation by Morgan Ricks (University of Chicago Press 2016).  While it is not a book for the financially faint of heart, it does provide a great introduction to what money is and what banks and other financial intermediaries do. The back matter reads,

Years have passed since the world experienced one of the worst financial crises in history, and while countless experts have analyzed it, many central questions remain unanswered. Should money creation be considered a ‘public’ or ‘private’ activity—or both? What do we mean by, and want from, financial stability? What role should regulation play? How would we design our monetary institutions if we could start from scratch?

In The Money Problem, Morgan Ricks addresses all of these questions and more, offering a practical yet elegant blueprint for a modernized system of money and banking—one that, crucially, can be accomplished through incremental changes to the United States’ current system. He brings a critical, missing dimension to the ongoing debates over financial stability policy, arguing that the issue is primarily one of monetary system design. The Money Problem offers a way to mitigate the risk of catastrophic panic in the future, and it will expand the financial reform conversation in the United States and abroad.

I particularly recommend Part I to those trying to get their hands around money (the concept, not hard currency itself) and how it is created. Ricks reviews the “standard textbook description” of bank money creation and others’ account of it before providing his own “modified story.” (58-59)

Parts II and III provides a far-reaching blueprint for reforming the monetary system.  This reform agenda is not without its critics, but I think Ricks gives a fair reading to competing views so you can make up your own mind as to who is right.

Final Accounting for National Mortgage Settlement

Attributed to Jacopo de' Barbari

Luca Pacioli, A Founding Father of Accounting

Joseph Smith, the Monitor of the National Mortgage Settlement, has issued his Final Compliance Update. He writes,

I have filed a set of five compliance reports with the United States District Court for the District of Columbia as Monitor of the National Mortgage Settlement (NMS or Settlement). The following report summarizes these reports, which detail my review of each servicer’s performance on the Settlement’s servicing reforms. This report includes:

• An overview of the process through which my team and I have reviewed the servicers’ work.

• Summaries of each servicer’s performance for the third quarter 2015.

Pursuant to the Settlement, the requirement to comply with the servicing standards ended for Bank of America, Chase, Citi, Ditech and Wells Fargo as of the end of the third quarter 2015. Accordingly, this is my last report under the NMS for these servicers. Like all mortgage servicers, they are still required to follow servicing-related rules issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). (2)

Smith concludes,

The Settlement has improved the way these servicers treat distressed borrowers, and, under its consumer relief requirements, the banks provided more than 640,000 borrowers with $51 billion in debt forgiveness, loan modifications, short sale assistance and refinancing at a time when families and the market were subject to distress and uncertainty.

I believe the Settlement has contributed towards the rebuilding of public trust and confidence in the mortgage market and hope that it will inform future regulation of financial institutions and markets. I look forward to further discussions on these topics among policymakers, consumer advocates and mortgage servicers. (13)

I have blogged about the Monitor’s earlier reports and have been somewhat unhappy with them. Of course, his primary audience is the District Court to which he is submitting these reports. But I do not believe that the the reports have “contributed towards the rebuilding of public trust and confidence in the mortgage market” all that much. The final accounting should be accurate, but it should also be understandable to more than a select few.

The reports have been opaque and have not give the public (even the pretty well-informed members of the public, like me) much information with which to contextualize their findings. I hope that future settlements like this take into account the need to explain the findings of decision makers and court-appointed monitors so that the public can have a better sense of whether justice was truly done.