Aggressive Retirement Investing in Real Estate Lending

InsuranceNewsNet.com quoted me in Investors ‘Flocking In’ to Real Estate Lending. It reads, in part,

The stock market is off to a roaring start in 2018, but there’s no shortage of investment gurus who warn that continued equities growth is far from guaranteed.

The dreaded market correction could be coming sooner, rather than later, some say.

That gives some money managers pause about what asset tools to steer in and out of a client’s retirement portfolio. But there’s an emerging school of thought that one specific alternative investment could be good protection against a stock market correction.

“We’re seeing financial experts weigh in with their 2018 investing recommendations, citing everything from mutual funds to value stocks,” said Bobby Montagne, chief executive officer at Walnut Street Finance, a private lender.

But one prime retirement savings vehicle often gets overlooked — real estate lending, Montagne said.

Real estate lending means investing in a private loan fund managed by a private lender. Walnut Street is one such lender in the $56 billion home-flipping market.

“Your money helps finance individuals who purchase distressed properties, renovate them, and then quickly resell at a profit,” Montagne explained. “Investments are first-lien position and secured by real assets.”

With real estate lending, investors can put small percentages of their 401(k)s or IRAs in a larger pool of funds, which lenders then match with budding entrepreneurs working on home flipping projects, he said.

“It allows investors to diversify their portfolios without having to collect rent or renovate homes, as they would in hands-on real estate investing,” Montagne added.

*     *     *

An Aggressive Investment

Some investment experts deem any investment associated with real estate flipping as a higher-risk play.

“Investing a percentage of a retirees funds in real estate flipping would be considered an aggressive investment,” said Sid Miramontes, founder and CEO of Irvine, Calif.-based Miramontes Capital, which has more than $250 million in assets under management.

Even though the investor would not directly manage the real estate project, he or she has to understand the risks involved in funding the project, material costs, project completion time, the current interest rate environment, where the properties are located geographically and the state of the economy, he said.

“I have had pre-retirees invest in these projects with significant returns, as well as clients that did not have experience and results were very poor,” he added. “The investor needs to realize the risks involved.”

A 1 percent to 5 percent allocation is appropriate, only if the investor met the aggressive investment criteria and understood the real estate market, Miramontes said.

Investment advisors and their clients should also be careful about grouping all real estate lending into one basket.

“You could invest in a mortgage REIT, which would be a more traditional vehicle to get exposure to real estate lending,” said David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, N.Y. “If you’re doing something less traditional, research the fund’s track record, volatility, management, performance and expenses.

“You should be very careful about buying into a fund that does not check out on those fronts.”

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.

*     *     *

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)

Fannie, Freddie and Climate Change

NOAA / National Climatic Data Center

The Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute issued its September 2017 Housing Finance At A Glance Chartbook. The introduction asks what the recent hurricanes tell us about GSE credit risk transfer. But it also has broader implications regarding the impact of climate-change related natural disasters on the mortgage market:

The GSEs’ capital markets risk transfer programs that began in 2013 have proven to be very successful in bringing in private capital, reducing the government’s role in the mortgage market and reducing taxpayer risk. Investor demand for Fannie Mae’s CAS and Freddie Mac’s STACR securities overall has been robust, in large part because of an improving economy and extremely low delinquency rates for loans underlying these securities.

Enter hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. These three storms have inflicted substantial damage to homes in the affected areas. Many of these homes have mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and many of these mortgages in turn are in the reference pools of mortgages underlying CAS and STACR securities. It is too early to know what the eventual losses might look like – that will depend on the extent of the damage, insurance coverage (including flood insurance), and the degree to which loss mitigation will succeed in minimizing borrower defaults and foreclosures.

Depending on how all of these factors eventually play out, investors in the riskiest tranches of CAS and STACR securities could witness marginally higher than expected losses. Up until Harvey, CRT markets had not experienced a real shock that threatened to affect the credit performance of underlying mortgages (except after Brexit, whose impact on the US mortgage market proved to be minimal). The arrival of these storms therefore in some ways is the first real test of the resiliency of credit risk transfer market.

It is also the first test for the GSEs in balancing the needs of borrowers with those of CRT investors. In some of the earlier fixed severity deals, investor losses were triggered when a loan went 180 days delinquent (i.e. experienced a credit event). Hence, forbearance of more than six months could trigger a credit event. Fannie Mae put out a press release that it would wait 20 months from the point at which disaster relief was granted before evaluating whether a loan in a CAS deal experienced a credit event. While most of Freddie’s STACR deals had language that dealt with this issue, a few of the very early deals did not; no changes were made to these deals. Both Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae have provided investors with an exposure assessment of the volume of affected loans in order to allow them to better estimate their risk exposure.

So how has the market responded so far? In the immediate aftermath of the first storm, spreads on CRT bonds generally widened by about 40 basis points, meaning investors demanded a higher rate of return. But thereafter, spreads have tightened by about 20 basis points, suggesting that many investors saw this as a good buying opportunity. This is precisely how capital markets are intended to work. If spreads had continued to widen substantially, that would have signaled a breakdown in investor confidence in future performance of these securities. The fact that that did not happen is an encouraging sign for the continued evolution of the credit risk transfer market.

To be clear, it is still very early to reasonably estimate what eventual investor losses will look like. As the process of damage assessment continues and more robust loss estimates come in, one can expect CAS/STACR pricing to fluctuate. But early pricing strongly indicates that investors’ underlying belief in these securities is largely intact. This matters because it tells the GSEs that the CRT market is resilient enough to withstand shocks and gives them confidence to further expand these offerings.

Hope for the Securitization Market

The Structured Finance Industry Group has issued a white paper, Regulatory Reform: Securitization Industry Proposals to Support Growth in the Real Economy. While the paper is a useful summary of the industry’s needs, it would benefit from looking at the issue more broadly. The paper states that

One of the core policy responses to the financial crisis was the adoption of a wide variety of new regulations applicable to the securitization industry, largely in the form of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”). While many post-crisis analysts believe that the crisis laid bare the need for meaningful regulatory reform, SFIG members believe that any such regulation must: ƒ

  • Reduce risk in a manner such that benefits outweigh costs, including operational costs and inefficiencies; ƒ
  • Be coherent and consistent across the various sectors and across similar risk profiles; ƒ
  • Be operationally feasible from both a transactional and a loan origination basis so as not to compromise provision of credit to the real economy; ƒ
  • Be valued by key market participants; and ƒ
  • Be implemented in a targeted way (i.e. without unintended consequences).

In this paper, we will distinguish between the types of regulation we believe to be necessary and productive versus those that are, at the very least, not helpful and, in some cases, harmful. To support this approach, we believe it is helpful to evaluate financial market regulations, specifically those related to securitization, under three distinct categories, those that are:

1. Transactional in nature; i.e., directly impact the securitization market via a focus on underlying deal structures;

2. Banking rules that include securitization reform within their mandate; and

3. Banking rules that simply do not contemplate securitization and, therefore, may result in unintended consequences. (3)

The paper concludes,

The securitization industry serves as a mechanism for allowing institutional investors to deliver funding to the real economy, both to individual consumers of credit and to businesses of all sizes. This segment of credit reduces the real economy’s reliance on the banking system to deliver such funding, thereby reducing systemic risk.

It is important that both issuers of securitization bonds and investors in those bonds align at an appropriate balance in their goals to allow those issuers to maintain a business model that is not unduly penalized for using securitization as a funding tool, while at the same time, ensuring investors have confidence in the market via “skin in the game” and sufficiency of disclosure. (19)

I think the paper is totally right that we should design a regulatory environment that allows for responsible securitization. The paper is, however, silent on the interest of consumers, whose loans make up the collateral of many of the mortgage-backed and asset-backed securities that are at issue in the bond market. The system can’t be designed just to work for issuers and investors, consumers must have a voice too.

Women Are Better Than Men,

photo by Matt Neale

Greeks vs Amazons, Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, British Museum

at least at paying their mortgages. This is according to an Urban Institute research report that found that

It’s a fact: women on average pay more for mortgages. We are not the first people to have noticed this; a small number of other studies have also pointed it out (e.g., Cheng, Lin, and Liu 2011). One possible explanation is that women, particularly minority women, experience higher rates of subprime lending than their male peers (Fishbein and Woodall 2006; Phillips 2012; Wyly and Ponder 2011). Another explanation is that women tend to have weaker credit profiles (Van Rensselaer et al. 2013). We find that both these explanations are true and largely account for the higher rates.

Looking at loan performance for the first time by gender, however, we find that these weaker credit profiles do not translate neatly into weaker performance. In fact, when credit characteristics are held constant, women actually perform better than men. Nonetheless, since pricing is tied to credit characteristics not performance, women actually pay more relative to their actual risk than do men. Ironically, despite their better performance, women are more likely to be denied a mortgage than men. Given that more than one-third of female only borrowers are minorities and almost half of them live in low-income communities, we need to develop more robust and accurate measures of risk to ensure that we aren’t denying mortgages to women who are fully able to make good on their payments. (1)

This second paragraph undercuts the catchy title of the report, Women Are Better than Men at Paying Their Mortgage, because it is only true when comparing single women to single men and when credit characteristics are held constant.

The report confines its analysis to sole female and sole male borrowers, excluding two-borrower households. This limitation is compounded by the fact that the credit characteristics of men and women are not the same (as men have better credit characteristics as a group).  As a result of these limitations, I think the title of the report goes too far. The authors also acknowledge that the stakes are not that high because the “inequality does not translate into a significant amount that single women overpay for their mortgages: less than $150 per female-only borrower per loan.” (15)

That point aside, the report does raise an important issue about whether credit characteristics metrics are biased against women: “the dimensions we rely on to assess credit risk today do not adequately capture all the differences. This omission has real consequences.” (15) This is certainly true, but lenders will have to carefully navigate fair lending laws as they seek to capture all of those differences.

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.”

Deductible Up, Premium Down

 

photo by Stewart Black

InsuranceQuotes.com quoted me in Homeowners Insurance: Higher Deductibles Lower Premiums, But Can You Afford to Take the Risk? It opens,

Raising the deductible on your home insurance policy is one proven way to save money on your premiums, but it’s not the best financial decision for every homeowner.

Before you reach for the phone to bump up your deductible there are two important factors to consider: Do you have enough money saved to cover higher out-of-pocket claim costs, and have you discussed potential savings and ramifications with an insurance agent?

“The bottom line is that you want to make sure you are comfortable with the deductible amount you’ve selected,” says Stacy Molinari, personal lines and claims manager of Insurance Marketing Agencies, Inc. “And that means you need to make sure you have enough of a financial cushion to cover the deductible. Otherwise it could cost you more in the long run.”

So, just how much savings are out there when switching to a higher deductible? Let’s break it down by looking at a report commissioned by insuranceQuotes.com.

The 2016 Quadrant Information Services study examined the average economic impact of increasing a home insurance deductible (i.e. how much you pay out of pocket for a claim before your insurance coverage kicks in). Using a hypothetical two-story, single-family home covered for $140,000, the study looked at how much an annual U.S. home insurance premium can decrease after increasing the deductible.

According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), the average home insurance premiums is $1,034, and the study examined three different percentage increases and their respective premium savings:

  • Increase from $500 to $1,000: 7 percent savings.
  • Increase from $500 to $2,000: 16 percent savings.
  • Increase from $500 to $5,000: 28 percent savings.

What makes home insurance deductibles so significant?

In short, a home insurance deducible is one of many gauges an insurance company uses to determine how much risk the consumer is willing to accept. A higher deductible means more risk being taken on by the homeowner, and that additional risk makes it cheaper to insure the policyholder.

“A higher deductible is a signal to the insurance company that the homeowner is less likely to file claims because they are agreeing to a higher threshold for doing so,” says David Reiss, law professor and research director at Brooklyn Law School’s Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. “And the less likely you are to make a claim, the lower your premium is going to be.”