Rethinking FHA Insurance

The Congressional Budget Office issued a report on Options to Manage FHA’s Exposure to Risk from Guaranteeing Single-Family Mortgages. FHA insurance stands out from other forms of mortgage insurance because it guarantees all of a lender’s loss, rather than just a portion of it. It is certainly a useful exercise to determine whether the FHA could reduce its exposure to those potential credit losses while also making home loans available to people who would otherwise have difficulty accessing them. This report evaluates the options available to the FHA:

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insures the mortgages of people who might otherwise have trouble getting a loan, particularly first-time homebuyers and low-income borrowers seeking to purchase or refinance a home. During and just after the 2007–2009 recession, the share of mortgages insured by FHA grew rapidly as private lenders became more reluctant to provide home loans without an FHA guarantee of repayment. FHA’s expanded role in the mortgage insurance market ensured that borrowers could continue to have access to credit. However, like most other mortgage insurers, FHA experienced a spike in delinquencies and defaults by borrowers.

Recently, mortgage borrowers with good credit scores, large down payments, or low ratios of debt to income have started to see more options in the private market. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the share of FHA-insured mortgages going to such borrowers is likely to keep shrinking as credit standards in the private market continue to ease. That change would leave FHA with a riskier pool of borrowers, creating risk-management challenges similar to the ones that contributed to the agency’s high levels of insurance claims and losses during the recession.

This report analyzes policy options to reduce FHA’s exposure to risk from its program to guarantee single-family mortgages, including creating a larger role for private lenders and restricting the availability of FHA’s guarantees. The options are designed to let FHA continue to fulfill its primary mission of ensuring access to credit for first-time homebuyers and low-income borrowers.

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What Policy Options Did CBO Analyze?

Many changes have been proposed to reduce the cost of risk to the federal government from FHA’s single-family mortgage guarantees. CBO analyzed illustrative versions of seven policy options, which generally represent the range of approaches that policymakers and others have proposed:

■ Guaranteeing some rather than all of the lender’s losses on a defaulted mortgage;

■ Increasing FHA’s use of risk-based pricing to tailor up-front fees to the riskiness of specific borrowers;

■ Adding a residual-income test to the requirements for an FHA-insured mortgage to better measure borrowers’ ability to repay the loan (as the Department of Veterans Affairs does in its mortgage guarantee program);

■ Reducing the limit on the size of a mortgage that FHA can guarantee;

■ Restricting eligibility for FHA-insured mortgages only to first-time homebuyers and low- to moderate-income borrowers;

■ Requiring some borrowers to receive mortgage counseling to help them better understand their financial obligations; and

■ Providing a grant to help borrowers with their down payment, in exchange for which FHA would receive part of the increase in their home’s value when it was sold.

Although some of those approaches would require action by lawmakers, several of the options could be implemented by FHA without legislation. In addition, certain options could be combined to change the nature of FHA’s risk exposure or the composition of its guarantees. CBO did not examine the results of combining options.

What Effects Would the Policy Options Have?

Making one or more of those policy changes would affect FHA’s financial position, its role in the broader mortgage market, and the federal budget. All of the options would improve the agency’s financial position by reducing its exposure to the risk of losses on the mortgages it insures (see Table 1). The main reason for that reduction would be a decrease in the amount of mortgages guaranteed by FHA. CBO projects that under current law, FHA would insure $220 billion in new single-family mortgages in 2018. The options would lower that amount by anywhere from $15 billion to $77 billion (see Figure 1). Some options would also reduce FHA’s risk exposure by decreasing insurance losses as a percentage of the value of the guaranteed mortgages. (1-2)

Duties to Serve in Housing Finance

Adam Levitin and Janneke Ratcliffe have posted Rethinking Duties to Serve in Housing Finance to SSRN (also on the Harvard Center for Housing Studies site here). The paper states that

an important question going forward concerns the role of duties to serve (DTS) — obligations on lending institutions to reach out to traditionally underserved communities and borrowers. Should there be DTS, and if so, who should have the responsibility to serve whom, with what, and how? (2)

These are, indeed, important questions as regulators chart a course between requiring safe underwriting by lenders and ensuring access to credit for communities that have historically had little access to sustainable credit. The authors distinguish fair lending from duties to serve, with the former being an obligation not to discriminate and the latter being an affirmative duty to address the “disparity of financial opportunity.” (2) The paper describes two main DTS regimes,the Community Reinvestment Act and the Fannie/Freddie housing goals, as well as their limitations.

The paper concludes that the “aftermath of the housing bubble presents an opportunity to rebuild DTS” and proposes a set of reforms. (29) I highlight the first two here:

  1. “DTS should apply universally to the entire primary market,” covering both depositories and non-depositories in order to avoid incentives to engage in regulatory arbitrage. (30)
  2. “DTS should apply equally for all secondary market entities,” not just the Fannies and Freddies of the world. (30)

This paper has a lot to offer thoughtful policymakers. As with everything to do with our massive housing finance system, however, the devil is in the details of any regulatory regime. Mandatory duties to serve must be drafted to so that they are consistent with safe underwriting practices. This paper starts a conversation about doing just that.