Housing Finance Reform Endgame?

The Hill published my column, There is Hope of Housing Finance Reform That Works for Americans.  It opens,

The Trump administration released its long awaited housing finance reform report and it is a game changer. The report makes clear that it is game over for the status quo of leaving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in their conservatorship limbo. Instead, it sets forth concrete steps to recapitalize and release the two entities. This has been a move that investors, particularly vulture investors who bought in after the two companies entered into their conservatorships, have clamored for.

It is not, however, one that is in the best interests of homeowners and taxpayers. The report recognizes that there are better alternatives. Indeed, it explicitly states that the “preference and recommendation is that Congress enact comprehensive housing finance reform legislation.” But the report also states that the conservatorships, which are more than a decade old, have gone on for too long. So the report throws down a gauntlet to Congress that if it does not take action, the administration will begin the formal process of implementing the next best solution.

Are The Stars Aligning For Fannie And Freddie Reform?

Law360 published my op ed, Are The Stars Aligning For Fannie And Freddie Reform? It reads,

There has been a lot of talk of the closed-door discussions in the Senate about a reform plan for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mammoth housing finance government-sponsored enterprises. There has long been a bipartisan push to get the two entities out of their conservatorships with some kind of permanent reform plan in place, but the stars never aligned properly. There was resistance on the right because of a concern about the increasing nationalization of the mortgage market and there was resistance on the left because of a concern that housing affordability would be unsupported in a new system. It looks like the leader of that right wing, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, has indicated that he is willing to compromise in order to create a “sustainable housing finance system.” The question now is whether those on the left are also willing to compromise in order to put that system on a firm footing for the 21st century.

In a speech at the National Association of Realtors, Hensarling set forth a set of principles that he would be guided by:

  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac must be wound down and their charters repealed;
  • Securitizers need strong bank-like capital and community financial institutions must be able to compete on a level playing field;
  • Any new government affordable housing program needs to at least be on budget, be results-based and target actual homebuyers for the purpose of buying a home they can actually afford to keep;
  • The Federal Housing Administration must return to its traditional role of serving the first-time homebuyer and low- and moderate-income individuals.

I am not yet sure that all of the stars are now aligned for Congress to pass a GSE reform bill. But Hensarling’s change of heart is a welcome development for those of us who worry about some kind of slow-moving train wreck in our housing finance system. That system has been in limbo for nearly a decade since Fannie and Freddie were placed in conservatorship, with no end in sight for so long. Ten years is an awfully long time for employees, regulators and other stakeholders to play it by ear in a mortgage market measured in the trillions of dollars.

Even with a broad consensus on the need for (or even just the practical reality of) a federal role in housing finance, there are a lot of details that still need to be worked out. Should Fannie and Freddie be replaced with many mortgage-backed securities issuers whose securities are guaranteed by some arm of the federal government? Or should Fannie and Freddie become lender-owned mutual insurance entities with a government guarantee of the two companies? These are just two of the many options that have been proposed over the last 10 years.

Two housing finance reform leaders, Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., appear to favor some version of the former while Hensarling seems to favor the latter. And Hensarling stated his unequivocal opposition to some form of a “recap and release” plan, whereas Corker and Warner appear to be considering a plan that recapitalizes Fannie and Freddie and releases them back into private ownership, to the benefit of at least some of the companies’ shareholders. The bottom line is that there are still major differences among all of these important players, not to mention the competing concerns of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and other progressives. Warren and her allies will seek to ensure that the federal housing system continues to support meaningful affordable housing initiatives for both homeowners and renters.

Hensarling made it clear that he does not favor a return to the status quo — he said that the hybrid GSE model “cannot be saved, it cannot be salvaged, it must not be resurrected, and needs to be scrapped.” But Hensarling also made it clear that he will negotiate and compromise. This represents a true opening for a bipartisan bill. For everyone on the left and the right who are hoping to create a sustainable housing finance system for the 21st century, let’s hope that his willingness to compromise is widely shared in 2018.

I am now cautiously optimistic that Congress can find some common ground. With Hensarling on board, there is now broad support for a government role in the housing sector. There is also broad support for a housing finance infrastructure that does not favor large financial institutions over small ones. Spreading the risk of default to private investors — as Fannie and Freddie have been doing for some time now under the direction of their regulator — is also a positive development, one with many supporters. Risk sharing reduces the likelihood of a taxpayer bailout in all but the most extreme scenarios.

There are still some big sticking points. What should happen with the private investors in Fannie and Freddie? Will they own part of the new housing finance infrastructure? While the investors have allies in Congress, there does not seem to be a groundswell of support for them on the right or the left.

How much of a commitment should there be to affordable housing? Hensarling acknowledges that the Federal Housing Administration should serve first-time homebuyers and low- and moderate-income individuals, but he is silent as to how big a commitment that should be. Democrats are invested in generating significant resources for affordable housing construction and preservation through the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Hensarling appears to accept this in principle, while cautioning that any “new government affordable housing program needs to at least be on budget, results based, and target actual homebuyers for the purpose of buying a home they can actually afford to keep.” Democrats can work with Hensarling’s principles, although the extent of the ultimate federal funding commitment will certainly be hotly contested between the parties.

My cautious optimism feels a whole lot better than the fatalism I have felt for many years about the fate of our housing finance system. Let’s hope that soon departing Congressman Hensarling and Sen. Corker can help focus their colleagues on creating a housing finance system for the 21st century, one with broad enough support to survive the political winds that are buffeting so many other important policy areas today.

Watt’s Happening with Fannie and Freddie?

FHFA Director Watt

Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Watt testified before the House Committee on Financial Services today and gave a good overview of the decade-long conservatorship of Fannie and Freddie.  He also gave some sense of the urgency of coming up with at least a stopgap measure before the two companies’ capital buffer drops to zero at the end of the year pursuant to the terms of the Senior Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements (PSPAs) that govern the two companies’ relationship with the Treasury. He stated that it would

be a serious misconception for members of this Committee, or for anyone else, to consider any actions FHFA may take as conservator to avoid additional draws of taxpayer support either as interference with the prerogatives of Congress, as an effort to influence the outcome of housing finance reform, or as a step toward recap and release. FHFA’s actions would be taken solely to avoid a draw during conservatorship.

This signifies to me that he is planning on doing something other than reducing the capital buffer to $0.  As far as I can tell, Watt is playing a game of chicken with Congress — if you do not act, I will.

It is not clear to me clear how much authority Watt has or thinks he has to change the rules relating to the capital buffer. Does he think that he could act inconsistent with the PSPAa and withhold capital?  I have not seen a legal argument that says he could.  Is he willing to do it and be sued by Treasury?  These are speculative questions, but I do think that he has laid the groundwork for taking action if Congress and Treasury do not.

It does not seem to me that he was much wiggle room according to the terms of the PSPAs themselves, except perhaps to delay making the net worth sweep at the end of this year by converting it to an annual sweep or by some other mechanism.  That will be a short-term fix.

Given his strong language — “FHFA’s actions would be taken solely to avoid a draw during conservatorship” — I think he might be prepared to take an action that is inconsistent with the plain language of the PSPAs in order to act in a way that he thinks is consistent with his duty as the conservator.  This is less risky than it sounds because the only party that would seem to have standing to sue would be the Treasury, the counter-party to the PSPAs.  One could imagine that the Treasury would prefer to negotiate a response with the FHFA or await Watt’s departure rather than to have a judge decide the issue.  One could also imagine that Treasury would go along with the FHFA without explicitly condoning its actions, particularly if its actions soothed a turbulent market for Fannie and Freddie mortgage-backed securities.

Watt has consistently signaled that he will act if no other responsible party does and he emphasized that again today.

GSE Investors Propose Reform Blueprint

Moelis & Company, financial advisors to some of Fannie and Freddie investors including Paulson & Co. and Blackstone GSO Capital Partners, has release a Blueprint for Restoring Safety and Soundness to the GSEs. The blueprint is a version of a “recap and release” plan that greatly favors the interests of Fannie and Freddie’s private shareholders over the public interest. The blueprint contains the following elements:

1. Protects Taxpayers from Future Bailouts. This Blueprint protects taxpayers by restoring safety and soundness to two of the largest insurance companies in the United States, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This is achieved by (a) rebuilding a substantial amount of first-loss private capital, (b) imposing rigorous new risk and leverage-based capital standards, (c) facilitating the government’s exit from ownership in both companies, and (d) providing a mechanism to substantially reduce the government’s explicit backstop commitment facility over time.

2. Promotes Homeownership and Preserves the 30-Year Mortgage. This Blueprint ensures that adequate mortgage market liquidity is maintained, the GSE debt markets continue to function without interruption, and the affordable 30-year fixed-rate conventional mortgage remains widely accessible for every eligible American.

3. Repositions the GSEs as Single-Purpose Insurers. Given the substantial reforms implemented by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) since 2008, the GSEs can now be repositioned and safely operated as single-purpose insurers, bearing mortgage credit risk in exchange for guarantee fees with limited retained investment portfolios beyond that necessary for securitization “inventory” and loan purchases.

4. Enables Rebuild of Equity Capital while Winding Down the Government Backstop. The Net Worth Sweep served the purpose of dramatically accelerating the payback of Treasury’s investment in both companies. The focus must now turn to protecting taxpayers by rebuilding Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s equity capital and winding down the government’s backstop.

5. Repays the Government in Full for its Investment during the Great Recession. Treasury has retained all funds received to date during the conservatorships. The government has recouped the entire $187.5 billion that it originally invested, plus an additional $78.3 billion in profit, for total proceeds of $265.8 billion. Treasury’s profits to date on its investment in the GSEs are five times greater than the combined profit on all other investments initiated by Treasury during the financial crisis.

6. Produces an Additional $75 to $100 Billion of Profits for Taxpayers. Treasury can realize an estimated $75 to $100 billion in additional cash profits by exercising its warrants for 79.9% of each company’s common stock and subsequently selling those shares through secondary offerings. This monetization process, which follows the proven path of Treasury’s AIG and Ally Bank (GMAC) stock dispositions, could bring total government profits to $150 to $175 billion, the largest single U.S. government financial investment return in history.

7. Implements Reform Under Existing Authority. This Blueprint articulates a feasible path to achieving the Administration’s GSE reform objectives with the least amount of execution risk. It can be fully implemented during the current presidential term by FHFA in collaboration with Treasury utilizing their existing legal authorities. Congress could build on these reforms to develop an integrated national housing finance policy that accounts for the Federal Housing Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Rural Housing Service, and emphasizes (i) affordable housing, (ii) safety and soundness, and (iii) universal and fair access to mortgage credit for all Americans. (1)

As can be seen from the last paragraph, GSE investors are trying to use the logjam in the Capitol to their own advantage. They are arguing that because Congress has not been able to get real reform bill passed, it makes sense to implement a reform plan administratively. There is nothing wrong with such an approach, but this plan would benefit investors more than the public.

My takeaway from this blueprint is that the longer Fannie and Freddie remain in limbo, the more likely it is that special interests will win the day and the public interest will fall by the wayside.

The Housing Market Under Trump

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

TheStreet.com quoted me in Interest Rates Likely to Rise Under Trump, Could Affect Confidence of Homebuyers. It opens,

Interest rates should increase gradually during the next four years under a Donald Trump administration, which could dampen growth in the housing industry, economists and housing experts predict.

The 10-year Treasury rose over the 2% threshold on Wednesday for the first time in several months, driving mortgage rates higher with the 30-year conventional rate rising to 3.73% according to Bankrate.com. Mortgage pricing is tied to the 10-year Treasury.

Housing demand will remain flat with a rise in interest rates as many first-time homebuyers will be saddled with more debt, said Peter Nigro, a finance professor at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I.

“With first-time homebuyers more in debt due to student loans, I don’t expect much growth in home purchasing,” he said.

Interest rates will also be affected by the size of the fiscal stimulus since additional infrastructure spending and associated debt “could push interest rates up through the issuance of more government debt,” Nigro said.

Even if interest rates spike in the next year, banks will not benefit, because there is a lack of demand, said Peter Borish, chief strategist with Quad Group, a New York-based financial firm. The economy is slowing down, and consumers have already borrowed money at very “cheap” interest rates, he said.

The policies set forth by a Trump administration will lead to contractionary results and will not spur additional growth in the housing market.

“I prefer to listen to the markets,” Borish said. “This will put downward pressure on the prices in the market. Everyone complained about Dodd-Frank, but why is JPMorgan Chase’s stock at all time highs?”

An interest rate increase could still occur in December, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based real estate company. With nearly five weeks before the December Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, the market can contemplate the potential outcomes.

“While the market is now indicating a reduced probability of a short-term rate hike at that meeting, the Fed has repeatedly indicated that they would be data-driven in their decision,” he said in a written statement. “If the markets calm down and November employment data look solid on December 2, a rate hike could still happen. The market moves yesterday are already indicating that financial markets are pondering that the Trump effect could be positive for the economy.

“The Fed is likely to start increasing the federal funds rate at a “much faster pace starting next year,” said K.C. Sanjay, chief economist for Axiometrics, a Dallas-based apartment market and student housing research firm. “This will cause single-family mortgage rates to increase slightly, however they will remain well below the long-term average.”

Since Trump has remained mum on many topics, including housing, predicting a short-term outlook is challenging. One key factor is the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who are the main players in the mortgage market, because they own or guarantee over $4 trillion in mortgages, remain in conservatorship and “play a critical role in keeping mortgage rates down through the now explicit subsidy or government backing which allows them to raise funds more cheaply,” Nigro said.

It is unlikely any changes will occur with them, because “Trump has not articulated a plan to deal with them and coming up with a plan to deal with these giants is unlikely,” he said.

Trump could attempt to take on government sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, said Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist for Trulia, a San Francisco-based real estate website.

“If he does, it’s going to be a hairy endeavor for him, because he’ll need bipartisan support to do so,” he said.

Since he has alluded to ending government conservatorship and allowing government sponsored enterprises to “recapitalize by allowing retention of their own profits instead of passing them on to the Treasury,” the result is that banks could have their liquidity and lending activity increase, which could help boost demand for homes, McLaughlin said.

“We caution President-elect Trump that he would also need to simultaneously help address housing supply, which has been at a low point over the past few years,” he said. “The difficulty for him is that most of the impediments to new housing supply rest and the state and local levels, not the federal.”

Even on Trump’s campaign website, there is “next to nothing” about his ideas on housing, said David Reiss, a law professor at the Brooklyn Law School in New York. The platform of the Republican Party and Vice President-elect Mike Pence could mean that the federal government will have a smaller footprint in the mortgage market.

“There will be a reduction in the federal government’s guaranty of mortgages, and this will likely increase the interest rates charged on mortgages, but will reduce the likelihood of taxpayer bailouts,” he said. “Fannie and Freddie will likely have fewer ties to the federal government and the FHA is likely to be limited to the lower end of the mortgage market.”

Obama Administration on Frannie

Michael Stegman

Michael Stegman, a White House Senior Policy Advisor, offered up the Obama Administration’s “perspective on critical housing issues” recently. (1) I found the remarks on the future of Fannie and Freddie to be of particular interest:

Before discussing what we would like to see happen in this Congress on GSE reform, you should be aware that last week the Administration made clear its opposition to taking any action in support of what has become known as “recap and release.” We believe that recapitalizing the GSEs with taxpayer funds and administratively- or legislatively-releasing them from conservatorship with a business model that conflicts with their public mission— in essence turning back the clock to the run up to the crisis~ would be both bad policy and poor stewardship of the taxpayers’ interest; willfully recreating the very system that helped do this nation so much harm.
ln remarks I presented two weeks ago at the Mortgage Bankers Association conference, I cautioned that no one should be misled by the increasingly noisy chorus of the advocates of recap and release, many of whom have placed big bets against reform so they can make a‘profit, and are doing everything they can to make sure that those bets pay off.
Nor, I said, should their promise that recap and release would generate a pot of money for affordable housing be taken seriously.
Despite claims to the contrary, recapitalizing the GSEs would not itself provide any resources for affordable housing. Nor can a related — or even unrelated — sale of Treasury’s investment in the GSEs provide any resources for affordable housing. The proceeds of the sale of any GSE obligations acquired by Treasury must by law be “dedicated for the sole purpose of deficit reduction.”
Rather than freeing recapitalized GSEs from conservatorship with their flawed charters intact, we should pursue more comprehensive approaches to reform such as those that members of Congress have introduced over the past two years including mutualizing Fannie and Freddie, or build upon bipartisan agreements on the features of a future secondary market system that were hammered out in the Senate Banking Committee last year:
Preservation of the TBA market; an explicit, paid for government guarantee of catastrophic losses for investors in qualifying MBS; maintaining a clear separation of the primary and secondary markets; ensuring the flow of mortgage credit in both good times and bad; separating the securitization plumbing from private credit risk taking; ensuring that community lenders have the same access to the secondary market as big banks; and making the benefits of government guaranteed MBS available to all households — both those who choose to rent and those with the ability and desire to own.
Members in Congress also reached bipartisan consensus on a transparent way to serve those the private market cannot serve without subsidy, through an annual 10 basis point assessment on the outstanding balance of government-guaranteed MES—which once fully implemented, would generate about 15 times more resources a year for affordable housing than FHFA is expected to raise through the GSEs’ current affordable housing levy–though we were pleased to see the Director begin collections on the affordability fee and look forward to effectively implementing the dollars through the Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund that should become available for the first time in the early months of 2016.
But there is much more work to be done on ensuring a level playing field in the new system, including a robust role for community banks and credit unions who know how best to serve their customers, and ensuring that all communities are served fairly, which can be most effectively achieved through a statutory duty to serve. Regrettably, the Committee could not agree upon such a provision during last year’s negotiations, and we will continue to fight for it. (3-4)
Much of these remarks are eminently reasonable but I have to say that the Obama Administration has not deployed much political capital on reforming the housing finance system. This has left the whole system in limbo and the longer it stays in limbo, the more likely it is that special interests will make inroads into the reform of the system, inroads that will not be in the public interest.
While the likelihood of reform coming out of the current Congress is incredibly small, the Administration should take all of the administrative steps it can to sketch out an outline of a housing finance system that can work for a broad range of borrowers through the credit cycle without putting excessive risk on taxpayers.
The Administration has taken some steps in the right direction, like off-loadling some risk from Fannie and Freddie to private investors. But there is a lot more work to be done if we are to have a system that provides the optimal amount of credit through the 21st century.