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.”

The Future of Securitization

SEC Commissioner Piwowar

SEC Commissioner Piwowar

SEC Commissioner Michael Piwowar’s Remarks at ABS Vegas 2016 are worth a look for all of those interested in the future of the mortgage-backed securities market. I have interspersed selections of his remarks with my comments:

As our country’s capital markets regulator, the SEC’s tripartite mission is to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation.  Securitization can transform illiquid assets like mortgages, auto loans, credit card receivables, and future sales of David Bowie albums into marketable securities.  By serving as an efficient means of allocating scarce capital, securitization supports economic growth, business development, and job creation.  Securitization further fosters resiliency by diversifying the funding base of our economy.

There are many other benefits associated with securitization, including the potential for reduced costs of, and expanded access to, credit for borrowers, the ability to match risk profiles for specific investor demands, and increased secondary market liquidity.  Because banks and other originators can move loans off of their balance sheets into asset-backed securities (ABS), securitization can increase the availability of credit for both businesses and individuals.  In many instances, securitization can allow a person to obtain more favorable terms than can be obtained from a bank or other financial institution.

Thus, the ABS market serves as a critical source of capital, providing funding for home and automobile loans, credit cards, and many other purposes.  Yet, as shown during the recent financial crisis, investors may abandon the ABS market if they do not believe they possess sufficient information to evaluate the risks associated with a particular asset-backed security and to price it accordingly.

While I generally agree with Piwowar’s assessment of securitization’s value, it is worth noting that he does not acknowledge how important robust consumer protection is to maintaining a healthy securitization market over the long run.

I found his discussion of the Dodd-Frank credit risk retention rules particularly interesting:

For the record, I voted against the credit risk retention rules.  These rules require a securitizer to retain a minimum 5% credit risk of any securitization transaction and generally prohibit the sponsor from hedging its retained interest.  I was particularly dismayed by the “one-size-fits-all” approach taken by the regulators to create a flat 5% risk retention requirement for all asset classes, except for securitizations involving so-called “qualified residential mortgages” (QRMs) for which the risk retention level is zero.  These were arbitrary choices.

Residential mortgages, commercial mortgages, credit card receivables, and automobile loans each have distinct and different attributes associated with their underlying borrowers.  Rather than carefully examining these attributes to determine an optimal credit risk retention rate for each asset class, prudential regulators in Washington, D.C., took the easy way out – they simply set it at the maximum statutory rate and ignored the authorization from Congress to create lower risk retention requirements or use alternative methods to align interests.

Perhaps the prudential bureaucrats had their own conflict of interests in setting these requirements.  After all, a prudential bureaucrat has a strong interest in self-preservation.  Will a prudential bureaucrat get credit if optimally tailored risk retention rates increase economic growth and provide additional opportunities to families and businesses across America?  No.  Will a prudential bureaucrat take the blame if the next financial crisis – and there will be one eventually – relates at all to securitizations?  Probably.  Hence, what better way to side step responsibility than to refrain from using reasoned judgment and rely solely on the most risk-averse interpretation of statute instead?

Bureaucratic self-preservation might also explain the decision to adopt as broad of an exemption for QRMs as possible, so as to minimize any political fallout from the real estate and housing industries.  Few will disagree that residential mortgage-backed securities played an important role in the 2008 financial crisis.  For those in the audience involved in RMBS offerings, you must be quite happy with the broad exemption from the risk retention rules.  For those of you in the audience who are involved in other types of securitizations that had little, if any, part in causing the financial crisis, you are probably wondering why you were unfairly targeted.  Unfortunately, unlike Las Vegas, what happens in Washington does not stay in Washington. (footnotes omitted)

Piwowar gives short shrift to the benefits of clear and simple rules, but it is still worth paying attention to his critique of the “one size fits all” risk retention rules. If researchers can demonstrate that these rules are not optimally tailored, perhaps that would provide a reason to reconsider them. This is, of course, a long shot, given that the rules have been finalized, but Piwowar is right to shine light on the issue nonetheless.

Candid and thoughtful remarks from regulators are always refreshing. These make the grade.

Friday’s Government Reports Roundup

Optimizing Mortgage Availability

"Barack Obama speaks to press in Diplomatic Reception Room 2-25-09" by Pete Souza - http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/09/02/25/Overhaul/. Licensed via ttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barack_Obama_speaks_to_press_in_Diplomatic_Reception_Room_2-25-09.jpg#/media/File:Barack_Obama_speaks_to_press_in_Diplomatic_Reception_Room_2-25-09.jpg

The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report, Mortgage Reforms: Actions Needed to Help Assess Effects of New Regulations. The GAO did this study to predict the effects of the Qualified Mortgage (QM) and Qualified Residential Mortgage (QRM) regulations. The GAO found

Federal agency officials, market participants, and observers estimated that the qualified mortgage (QM) and qualified residential mortgage (QRM) regulations would have limited initial effects because most loans originated in recent years largely conformed with QM criteria.

  • The QM regulations, which address lenders’ responsibilities to determine a borrower’s ability to repay a loan, set forth standards that include prohibitions on risky loan features (such as interest-only or balloon payments) and limits on points and fees. Lenders that originate QM loans receive certain liability protections.
  • Securities collateralized exclusively by residential mortgages that are “qualified residential mortgages” are exempt from risk-retention requirements. The QRM regulations align the QRM definition with QM; thus, securities collateralized solely by QM loans are not subject to risk-retention requirements.

The analyses GAO reviewed estimated limited effects on the availability of mortgages for most borrowers and that any cost increases (for borrowers, lenders, and investors) would mostly stem from litigation and compliance issues. According to agency officials and observers, the QRM regulations were unlikely to have a significant initial effect on the availability or securitization of mortgages in the current market, largely because the majority of loans originated were expected to be QM loans. However, questions remain about the size and viability of the secondary market for non-QRM-backed securities.

This last bit — questions about the non-QRM-backed market — is very important.

Some consumer advocates believe that there should not be any non-QRM mortgages. I disagree. There should be some sort of market for mortgages that do not comply with the strict (and, in the main, beneficial) QRM limitations.

Some homeowners will not be eligible for a plain vanilla QM/QRM mortgage but could still handle a mortgage responsibly. The mortgage markets would not be healthy without some kind of non-QRM-backed securities market for those consumers.

So far, that non-QRM market has been very small, smaller than expected. Regulators should continue to study the effects of the new mortgage regulations to ensure that they incentivize making the socially optimal amount of non-QRM mortgage credit available to homeowners.

What’s Behind Rising Mortgage Bond Issuance?

GlobeSt.com quoted me in What Else Is Behind Rising Mortgage Bond Issuance, Demand?. It opens,

Investor demand for mortgage bonds, both that have agency backing and not, is quite high these days.

Last week Bloomberg reported that issuance of home-loan securities that don’t have government backing reached more than $32 billion this year, compared to $18 billion a year ago, citing data compiled by Bloomberg and Bank of America Corp. These securities include rental-home bonds, a relatively new asset class that developed after the recession.

Agency and GSE securities are also in high demand, as a recent report from the Mortgage Bankers Association indicates. The level of commercial/multifamily mortgage debt outstanding increased by $40.4 billion in the first quarter of 2015 — a 1.5% increase over the fourth quarter of 2014. Said Jamie Woodwell, MBA’s Vice President of Commercial Real Estate Research with the report’s release: “Multifamily mortgages continued to grow even more quickly than the market as a whole, with banks increasing their portfolios by $8 billion and agency and GSE portfolios and MBS increasing their holdings by $10 billion.”

There are a number of economic-based drivers behind the demand for mortgage bonds of course: the fundamentals in the real estate space and the low interest rates that have driven investors to consider all manner of securities to eek out yield.

However, there is another possibility to consider as well and that is that the changing financial regulations are driving both issuance and investment.

On one hand, mortgages and private-label mortgage backed securities are much more regulated per Dodd-Frank and its Qualified Mortgage and Qualified Residential Mortgage rules, according to David Reiss, professor of Law and research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship (CUBE) at Brooklyn Law School. On the other, post-crisis rules put in place for mortgage bonds have made these securities far more attractive for banks to hold as various news reports suggest.

For example, new rules have made ratings on mortgage bonds less crucial, allowing US lenders to use an alternative approach to calculating capital requirements, according to another recent article in Bloomberg. In essence, these rules allow lenders to reduce the amount needed for junk-rated mortgage bonds that are trading at discounts.

In addition, banks are finding that “treasury debt and MBS pass-throughs meet regulators’ standards much more easily than other assets”, according to a report by Deutsche Bank analysts Steven Abrahams and Christopher Helwig, per a third recent article in Bloomberg.

Two Opinions

With these facts in mind we turned to two experts to see how much of an impact new regulations are having. As it turned out, they are driving some of the change – but what is actually moving the needle in terms of demand is yet another trend. Read on.

For starters, there are some caveats. It can be misleading to throw the new rental home bonds in the mix in such a comparison, Reiss tells GlobeSt.com. “They are a post-crisis product when Wall Street firms saw that single-family housing prices were so low that they could make money from buying them up in bulk and then renting them out,” he says.

“They are not regulated in the same way as private-label MBS.”

Meanwhile issuers are still navigating Dodd-Frank’s Qualified Mortgage and Qualified Residential Mortgage rules, he says. They “are still trying to figure out how to operate within these rules — and outside of them, with the origination of non-QM mortgages. The market is still in transition with these products.”

As he sees it, the surge in issuance is a reflection of market players trying to understand how to operate in a new regulatory environment. They “are increasing their issuances as they get a better sense of how to do so.”

Reiss on The Future of the Private Label Securities Market

I have posted The Future of the Private Label Securities Market to SSRN (as well as to BePress). I wrote this in response to the Department of Treasury’s request for input on this topic. The abstract reads,

The PLS market, like all markets, cycles from greed to fear, from boom to bust. The mortgage market is still in the fear part of the cycle and recent government interventions in it have, undoubtedly, added to that fear. In recent days, there has been a lot of industry pushback against the government’s approach, including threats to pull out of various sectors. But the government should not chart its course based on today’s news reports. Rather, it should identify fundamentals and stick to them. In particular, its regulatory approach should reflect an attempt to align incentives of market actors with government policies regarding appropriate underwriting and sustainable access to credit. The market will adapt to these constraints. These constraints should then help the market remain healthy throughout the entire business cycle.

Qualified Residential Mortgage Comments

The agencies responsible for the Qualified Residential Mortgage rules that address the issue of credit risk retention for mortgage-backed securities requested that comments on the proposed rulemaking be submitted by yesterday.  And comments there were.  Here is a sampling:

The Urban Institute argues that

In formulating their QRM recommendations, the Agencies have done an admirable job balancing these considerations: on one hand, they wanted QRM loans to have a low default rate; on the other hand, if QRM is too tight, it will impede efforts to bring private capital back into the market and will further restrict credit availability. The right balance would thus appear to be precisely where they have landed with their main proposal: that QRM equal QM. (2)

The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association effectively agrees with this and argues that

QM should be adopted as the standard for QRM, rather than QM-plus. QM is a meaningful standard for high quality loans. The characteristics of QM-plus, particularly the 70 percent LTV ratio, would exclude most borrowers from these loans. We believe the adoption of QM-plus would reduce the competitiveness of private mortgage originators and delay the transition of the housing finance system away from the GSEs. (vi)

The American Enterprise Institute, on the other hand, argues that

The preferred response, in our opinion, is to implement the Dodd-Frank Act by creating a combination of the QM and a standard for a traditional prime mortgage that Congress intended for the QRM. For this reason, we have filed this comment with the agencies, detailing how it is possible to comply with the clear language and intent of the act and still provide a flexible set of standards for prime mortgages — which have low credit risk even under stress. (4)

My thoughts on the proposed QRM rule can be found here, here, here and here.