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.

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.”

Be Careful What You Wish For GSEs

Genie Lamp

Jim Parrott and Mark Zandi have released a report, Privatizing Fannie and Freddie: Be Careful What You Ask For. The authors go through a very useful exercise in which they break down the cost of reprivatizing. The report opens,

Few are happy with the current housing finance system that has Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in conservatorship and taxpayers backing most of the nation’s residential mortgage loans. Yet legislative efforts to replace the system have largely faltered, raising concern that we may not have the political will or competence to replace it any time soon.

This has created an opening for those who contend that we should not replace the system at all, but simply recapitalize the government-sponsored enterprises and release them from conservatorship. Fannie and Freddie were remarkably profitable prior to the financial crisis, after all, and have been consistently in the black recently. Why embark on the laborious, risky and now stalled process of fundamental reform when we can simply return to a model that we know can provide steady access to affordable, long-term fixed-rate lending?

While we both have serious concerns with the wisdom of releasing the duopoly back into the market, we thought it useful to set those concerns aside for the moment to explore the economics of the move. The discussion often takes for granted that this path would take us back to the world precrisis, but economic conditions and the regulatory environment have changed in ways that would significantly affect how Fannie and Freddie would function as reprivatized institutions. (2)

Parrott and Zandi conclude that

The debate over whether to recapitalize and release the GSEs into the private market is often framed as a choice of whether or not to return to a prior period in lending. For all its shortcomings, the argument goes, at least we know what to expect in the cost and availability of mortgage credit. But this is a misconception. In releasing the GSEs into the private market again, we would release them into a very different regulatory and economic environment, and they would respond, not surprisingly, by charging very different mortgage rates. (4)

I really have no argument with Parrott and Zandi’s paper, but I would note that their conclusions don’t differ so much from the pre-crisis academic papers that attempted to quantify the increase in mortgage rates that would result from privatizing the two companies — fifty basis points, give or take (see, for example, The GSE Implicit Subsidy and Value of Government Ambiguity).

I value Parrott and Zandi’s paper because it reminds us to keep pushing forward with real housing finance reform even though Congress has not yet made any progress on that front.