Housing Affordability and GSE Reform

Jim Parrott and Laurie Goodman of the Urban Institute have posted Making Sure the Senate’s Access and Affordability Proposal Works. It opens,

One of the most consequential and possibly promising components of the draft bill being considered in the Senate Banking Committee is the way in which it reduces the cost of a mortgage for those who need it. In the current system, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs) deliver subsidy primarily through the level pricing of their guarantee fees, overcharging lower-risk borrowers in order to undercharge higher-risk borrowers. While providing support for homeownership through cross-subsidy makes good economic and social sense, there are a number of shortcomings to the way it is done in the current system.

First, it does not effectively target those who need the help. While Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are both pushed to provide secondary market liquidity for the loans of low- and moderate-income (LMI) borrowers in order to comply with their affordable housing goals and duty to serve obligations, almost one in four beneficiaries of the subsidy are not LMI borrowers (Parrott et al. 2018). These borrowers receive the subsidy simply because their credit is poorer than the average GSE borrower and thus more costly than the average guarantee fee pricing covers. And LMI borrowers who pose less than average risk to the GSEs are picking up part of that tab, paying more in the average guarantee fee than their lower-than-average risk warrants.

Second, the subsidy is provided almost exclusively through lower mortgage rates, even though that is not the form of help all LMI borrowers need. For many, the size of their monthly mortgage is not the barrier to homeownership, but the lack of savings needed for a down payment and closing costs or to cover emergency expenses once the purchase is made. For those borrowers, the lower rate provided in the current system simply does not help.

And third, the opacity of the subsidy makes it difficult to determine who is benefiting, by how much, and whether it is actually helping. The GSEs are allocating more than $4 billion a year in subsidy, yet policymakers cannot tell how it has affected the homeownership rate of those who receive it, much less how the means of allocation compares with other means of support. We thus cannot adjust course to better allocate the support so that it provides more help those who need it.

The Senate proposal remedies each of these shortcomings, charging an explicit mortgage access fee to pay for the Housing Trust Fund, the Capital Magnet Fund, and a mortgage access fund that supports LMI borrowers, and only LMI borrowers, with one of five forms of subsidy: a mortgage rate buy-down, assistance with down payment and closing costs, funding for savings for housing-related expenses, housing counseling, and funding to offset the cost of servicing delinquent loans. Unlike the current system, the support is well targeted, helps address the entire range of impediments to homeownership, and is transparent. As a means of delivering subsidy to those who need it, the proposed system is likely to be more effective than what we have today.

If, that is, it can be designed in a way that overcomes two central challenges: determining who qualifies for the support and delivering the subsidy effectively to those who do. (1-2, footnote omitted)

This paper provides a clear framework for determining whether a housing finance reform proposal actually furthers housing affordability for those who need it most. It is unclear where things stand with the Senate housing finance reform bill as of now, but it seems like the current version of the bill is a step in the right direction.

The FHFA’s Take on Housing Finance Reform

FHFA Director Watt

Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Watt sent Federal Housing Finance Agency Perspectives on Housing Finance Reform to Senate Banking Chair Michael Crapo (R-ID) and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the top Democrat on that committee. There are no real surprises in it, but it does set forth a series of housing finance objectives that the FHFA supports:

• Preserve the 30-year fixed-rate, prepayable mortgage;

• End taxpayer bailouts for failing firms;

• Maintain liquidity in the housing finance market;

• Attract significant amounts of private capital to the center of the housing finance system through both robust equity capital requirements and credit risk transfer (CRT) participation;

• Provide for a single government-guaranteed mortgage-backed security that will improve the liquidity of the to-be-announced (TBA) market and promote a fair and competitive funding market for Secondary Market Entities (SMEs);

• Ensure access to affordable mortgages for creditworthy borrowers, sustainable rental options for families across income levels, and a focus on serving rural and other underserved markets;

• Provide a level playing field for institutions of all sizes to access the secondary market;

• Include tools for the regulator to anticipate and mitigate downturns in the housing market, including setting appropriate capital and liquidity requirements for SMEs, having prompt, corrective action authority for SMEs that are weak or troubled, and having authority to adjust CRT requirements as needed; and

• Provide a stable transition path that protects the housing finance market and the broader economy from potential disruptions and ensures that the new housing finance system operates as intended. (1)

The FHFA’s take on housing finance reform seems to be somewhat different from what various members of Congress are reportedly promoting. It is not clear though that the views of the FHFA are all that relevant to the Congressional leaders who are shaping the next housing finance reform bill. Nor do I expect that Director Watt’s views are particularly valued by the Trump Administration, given that he is a former Democratic member of Congress. That being said, Director Watt has always made it clear that it is Congress and not the FHFA that should be charting the path forward for housing finance reform.

While his views on the matter differ from those of some members of Congress, all of the relevant stakeholders seem to agree on the broad contours of what the 21st century’s housing finance infrastructure should look like. There should be an explicit guarantee to support the housing market during liquidity crises.  And the main elements of the current market, such as the thirty year fixed-rate mortgage, should be maintained. Here’s hoping that a bipartisan push can get this done this year.

Mnuchin, When No One Is Watching

Alexander Hamilton

My latest column for The Hill is Hamilton Acted in Good Faith. Will Steven Mnuchin Do The Same? It reads:

UCLA’s legendary basketball coach John Wooden famously said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

Steven Mnuchin, another leading citizen of Los Angeles, is now in the spotlight as President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Running the Treasury Department requires financial know-how, which this former Goldman Sachs banker has in spades. But it also requires character, as a large part of the Treasury secretary’s job is to embody the good faith that the American people want the rest of the world to have in us.

In Alexander Hamilton’s Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit, written just after he became the first U.S. Treasury secretary, he notes that the government must maintain public credit “by good faith, by a punctual performance of contracts. States, like individuals, who observe their engagements, are respected and trusted, while the reverse is the fate of those, who pursue an opposite conduct.”

OneWest’s actions during Mnuchin’s tenure as chief executive officer raise questions about whether Mnuchin has demonstrated the character necessary to be a worthy successor to Hamilton.

A recently disclosed memo by lawyers at California’s Office of the Attorney General documents a pattern of bad faith toward homeowners with OneWest mortgages. The memo documents evidence of widespread wrongdoing that helped the bank and hurt the homeowners. The evidence includes the backdating of notarized and recorded documents in 99.6 percent of the examined mortgage files and unlawful credit bids and substitutions of trustees in 16.0 percent of those files.

These are not merely technical violations. They shortened the time that homeowners had to get their mortgages back in good standing and they violated a number of procedural protections for homeowners facing non-judicial foreclosures.

Non-judicial foreclosures give lenders the ability to bypass the courts so long as they strictly abide by the procedural protections set forth by statute. Non-judicial foreclosures can only maintain their legitimacy if lenders respect those procedural protections. This is because there is no judge to make sure that the procedural protections are being adhered to. Without them, a homeowner can be no more than a sheep being led to the financial slaughterhouse of an improper foreclosure.

Some bankers have argued that focusing on violations of mortgage terms is overly legalistic, and beside the point given the widespread defaults during the financial crisis. It isn’t. The violations documented in the memo benefited the bank and harmed homeowners by allowing foreclosures to occur faster than they would if the formalities were followed.

They also allowed the bank to avoid paying various taxes relating to the sale of foreclosed properties. Some of the violations documented in the memo can result in felony convictions, which shows just how seriously California views the procedural requirements relating to non-judicial foreclosures. Ultimately, California’s then-Attorney General (and now U.S. Senator) Kamala Harris, chose not to file this complex lawsuit, but the memo’s findings are disturbing nonetheless.

As Hamilton knew, acting in good faith, performing agreements as they are written and keeping promises lead to respect and trust, “while the reverse is the fate of those, who pursue an opposite conduct.” The American people deserve a leader at Treasury with those traits, one who cherishes the rule of law as the basis of a both a healthy market economy and a well-functioning democratic government.

Other nations expect that we meet this standard, too. If they see us as just another bully on the world stage, we will lose our ability to lead by example. Members of the Senate Finance Committee should ask Mnuchin whether his actions at OneWest met the standard set forth by Hamilton.

We won’t be in the rooms where important decisions happen, so we need to have confidence in how Mnuchin will act when he thinks that no one is watching.

Dr. Carson’s Slim Housing Credentials

photo by Gage Skidmore

Law360 quoted me in Carson’s Slim Housing Credentials To Be Confirmation Focus (behind paywall). It opens,

Dr. Ben Carson will face a barrage of questions Thursday on topics ranging from his views on anti-discrimination enforcement to the basics of running a government agency with a multibillion-dollar budget at his confirmation hearing to lead the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Carson, a famed neurosurgeon and former Republican presidential candidate, was President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise choice for HUD secretary, given the nominee’s lack of experience or statements on housing issues. That lack of a track record means that senators and housing policy advocates will have no shortage of areas to probe when Carson appears before the Senate Banking Committee.

“I want to know whether he has any firm ideas at all about housing and urban policy. Is he a quick study?” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

Trump tapped Carson in early December to lead HUD, saying that his former rival for the Republican presidential nomination shared in his vision of “revitalizing” inner cities and the families that live in them.

“Ben shares my optimism about the future of our country and is part of ensuring that this is a presidency representing all Americans. He is a tough competitor and never gives up,” Trump said in a statement released through his transition team.

Carson said he was honored to get the nod from the president-elect.

“I feel that I can make a significant contribution particularly by strengthening communities that are most in need. We have much work to do in enhancing every aspect of our nation and ensuring that our nation’s housing needs are met,” he said in the transition team’s statement.

The nomination came as a bit of a surprise given that Carson, who has decades of experience in medicine, has none in housing policy. It also came soon after a spokesman for Carson said that he had no interest in a Cabinet position because of a lack of qualifications.

Now lawmakers, particularly Democrats, will likely spend much of Thursday’s confirmation hearing attempting to suss out just what the HUD nominee thinks about the management of the Federal Housing Administration, which provides insurance on mortgages to low-income and first-time home buyers; the management and funding for public housing in the U.S.; and even the basics of how he will manage an agency that had an approximately $49 billion budget and employs some 8,300 people.

“You will have to overcome your lack of experience managing an organization this large to ensure that you do not waste taxpayer dollars and reduce assistance for families who desperately need it,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in a letter to Carson earlier in the week.

To that end, Carson could help allay fears about management and experience by revealing who will be working under him, said Rick Lazio, a partner at Jones Walker LLP and a former four-term Republican congressman from New York.

“The question is will the senior staff have a diverse experience that includes management and housing policy,” Lazio said.

One area where Carson is likely to face tough questioning from Democrats is anti-discrimination and fair housing.

Carson’s only major public pronouncement on housing policy was a 2015 denunciation of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule that the Obama administration finalized after it languished for years.

The rule, which was part of the 1968 Fair Housing Act but had been languishing for decades, requires each municipality that receives federal funding to assess their housing policies to determine whether they sufficiently encourage diversity in their communities.

In a Washington Times, op-ed, Carson compared the rule to failed efforts to integrate schools through busing and at other times called the rule akin to communism.

“These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse. There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous,” Carson wrote.

Warren has already indicated that she wants more answers about Carson’s view of the rule and has asked whether Carson plans to pursue disparate impact claims against lenders and other housing market participants, as is the current policy at HUD and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Warren’s concerns are echoed by current HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who said in an interview with National Public Radio Monday that he feared Carson could pull back on the efforts the Obama administration has undertaken to enforce fair housing laws.

“I’d be lying if I said that I’m not concerned about the possibility of going backward, over the next four years,” Castro said in the interview.

HUD, as the agency overseeing the Federal Housing Administration, has also been involved in significant litigation against the likes of Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase & Co., among others, seeking to recover money the FHA lost on bad loans they sold to the agency.

“Will you commit to continuing to strictly enforce these underwriting standards in order to protect taxpayers from fraud?” Warren asked.

Carson has also drawn criticism from fair housing advocates for his views on the assistance the government provides to the poor, saying in his memoir that such programs can breed dependency when they do not have time limits.

To that end, housing policy experts will want to hear what Carson wants to do to ease the affordability crisis, boost multifamily building and improve conditions inside public housing units. HUD also plays a major role in disaster relief operations, another area where people will be curious about Carson’s thinking.

“I’d be looking at hints of his positive agenda, not just critiques of past programs,” Reiss said.

Carson and Fair Housing

photo by Warren K. Leffler

President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Fair Housing Act)

Law360 quoted me in Carson’s HUD Nom Adds To Fair Housing Advocates’ Worries (behind a paywall). It opens,

President-elect Donald Trump’s Monday choice of Ben Carson to lead the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development added to fears that the incoming administration would pull back from the aggressive enforcement of fair housing laws that marked President Barack Obama’s term, experts said.

The tapping of Carson to lead HUD despite a lack of any relative experience in the housing sector came after Trump named Steven Mnuchin to lead the U.S. Department of the Treasury amid concerns that the bank for which he served as chairman engaged in rampant foreclosure abuses. Trump has also nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to serve as attorney general. Sessions has drawn scrutiny for his own attitudes towards civil rights enforcement.

Coupled with Trump’s own checkered history of run-ins with the U.S. Justice Department over discriminatory housing practices, those appointments signal that enforcement of fair housing laws are likely to be a low priority for the Trump administration when it takes office in January, said Christopher Odinet, a professor at Southern University Law Center.

“I can’t imagine that we’ll see any robust enforcement or even attention paid to fair housing in this next administration,” he said.

Trump said that Carson, who backed the winning candidate after his own unsuccessful run for the presidency, shared in his vision of “revitalizing” inner cities and the families that live in them.

“Ben shares my optimism about the future of our country and is part of ensuring that this is a presidency representing all Americans. He is a tough competitor and never gives up,” Trump said in a statement released through his transition team.

Carson said he was honored to get the nod from the president-elect.

“I feel that I can make a significant contribution particularly by strengthening communities that are most in need. We have much work to do in enhancing every aspect of our nation and ensuring that our nation’s housing needs are met,” he said in the transition team’s statement.

The problem that many are having with this nomination is that Carson has little to no experience with federal housing policy. A renowned neurosurgeon, Carson’s presidential campaign website made no mention of housing, and there is little record of him having spoken about it on the campaign trail. One Carson campaign document called for privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-run mortgage backstops that were bailed out in 2008.

The nomination also comes in the weeks after a spokesman for Carson said that the former presidential candidate had no interest in serving in a cabinet post because he lacked the qualifications. That statement has since been walked back but has been cited by Democrats unhappy with the Carson selection.

“Cities coping with crumbling infrastructure and families struggling to afford a roof overhead cannot afford a HUD secretary whose spokesperson said he doesn’t believe he’s up for the job,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee. “President-elect Trump made big promises to rebuild American infrastructure and revitalize our cities, but this appointment raises real questions about how serious he is about actually getting anything done.”

HUD is a sprawling government agency with a budget around $50 billion and programs that include the Federal Housing Administration, which provides financing for lower-income and first-time homebuyers, funding and administration of public housing programs, disaster relief, and other key housing policies.

It also helps enforce anti-discrimination policies, in particular the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule that the Obama administration finalized. The rule, which was part of the 1968 Fair Housing Act but had been languishing for decades, requires each municipality that receives federal funding to assess their housing policies to determine whether they sufficiently encourage diversity in their communities.

Carson has not said much publicly about housing policy, but in a 2015 op-ed in the Washington Times compared the rule to failed school busing efforts of the 1970s and at other times called the rule akin to communism.

“These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse. There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous,” wrote Carson, who lived in public housing for a time while growing up in Detroit.

That dismissiveness toward the rule has people who are concerned about diversity in U.S. neighborhoods and anti-discrimination efforts on edge, and could put an end to federal efforts to improve those metrics.

“If you’re not affirmatively furthering fair housing, we’re going to be stuck with the same situation we have now or it’s going to get worse over time,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and research affiliate at New York University’s Furman Center.

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.

Reiss on Hedge Funds’ GSE Strategy

American Banker quoted me in Everything Lenders Need to Know About GSE Shareholders’ Lawsuits (behind a paywall, but available in full here). It reads in part,

A powerful group of shareholders is amplifying attacks on housing finance reform legislation as they await resolution of a major legal battle, attempting to slow momentum on the bill before it likely passes the Senate Banking Committee.

Several big hedge funds that stand to possibly win billions of dollars for their shares in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are leading the charge, both in federal court and in the court of public opinion.

New investors’ rights groups said to be backed by the funds have popped up in recent weeks attacking legislation by Sens. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and Mike Crapo, the panel’s top Republican.

Their presence is yet another complicating factor in the tumult ahead of a scheduled April 29 vote by the committee, potentially hurting efforts to secure additional support for the measure.

“Now that different people have come out with their bills, it’s been laid bare that the people working on [government-sponsored enterprise] reform aren’t going to do major favors for the shareholders,” said Jeb Mason, a managing director at Cypress Group. “As a result, the shareholders have adjusted their strategy to muddy the waters – and, if they can, kill the Johnson-Crapo bill.”

*     *     *

As part of their effort, investors have begun taking their concerns public through new tax-exempt groups in Washington. The investors argue they were on the receiving end of a rotten deal from the government, particularly those that bought the stocks before the enterprises were put into conservatorship.

“The hedge funds have this incredibly sophisticated, multi-pronged strategy – lawsuits, legislation, academics on the payroll, funding anonymous PR campaigns, offering to buy the companies. They’re coming at it from all angles,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

*     *     *

Given the size and complexity of the cases, it’s likely to take years before the matter is resolved entirely. Analysts have suggested that if both sides continue to push the issue, it could even rise up to the Supreme Court over the next several years.

“You’re talking about many-year or potentially, decades-long lawsuits,” said Reiss. “The stakes are humongous and the parties are incredibly sophisticated and well financed. The government parties’ incentives to settle are not the same as a private party – I could imagine them seeing this all the way through.”