Housing in the Trump Era

 

The Real Estate Transactions Section of the American Association of Law Schools has issued the following Call for Papers:

Access + Opportunity + Choice: Housing Capital, Equity, and Market Regulation in the Trump Era

Program Description:

The year 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the 2008 housing crisis—an event described as the most significant financial and economic upheaval since the Great Depression. This year is also the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which upended many decades of overt housing discrimination. Both events remind us of the significant role that housing has played in the American story—both for good and for bad.

Of the many aspects of financial reform that followed 2008, much of the housing finance-related work was centered around mortgage loan origination and creating incentives and rules dealing with underwriting and the risk of moral hazard. Some of these reforms include the creation of the qualified mortgage safe-harbor and the skin-in-the-game risk retention rules. But when it came to the secondary mortgage market, little significant reform was undertaken. The only government action of any serious importance related to the federal government—through the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)—taking over control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This major government intervention into the workings of the country’s two mortgage giants yielded takings lawsuits, an outcry from shareholders, and the decimation of the capital reserves of both companies. Despite Fannie and Freddie having both paid back all the bailout funds given to them, the conservatorship remains in place to this day.

In the area of fair housing, the past several years saw the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities case whereby the U.S. Supreme Court upheld (and narrowed the scope of) the disparate impact theory under the Fair Housing Act. We also saw efforts aimed at reducing geographic concentrations of affordable housing through the Obama administration’s promulgation of the affirmatively furthering fair housing rule.

Yet, meaningful housing reform remains elusive. None of the major candidates in the most recent presidential election meaningfully addressed the issue in their policy platforms, and a lack of movement in resolving the Fannie/Freddie conservatorship is viewed as a major failure of the Obama administration. Additionally, housing segregation and access to affordable mortgage credit continues to plague the American economy.

In recent months, the topics of housing finance reform and providing Americans with credit (including mortgage credit) choices have been a point of focus on Capitol Hill and in the Trump White House. Will these conservations result in meaningful legislation or changes in regulatory approaches in these areas? Will programs like the low-income-housing tax credit, the CFPB’s mandatory underwriting requirements, public housing subsidies, and the government’s role in guaranteeing and securitizing mortgage loans significantly change? Where are points of possible agreement between the country’s two major parties in this area and what kinds of compromises can be made?

Call for Papers:

The Real Estate Transactions Section looks to explore these and related issues in its 2019 AALS panel program titled: “Access and Opportunity: Housing Capital, Equity, and Market Regulation in the Trump Era.” The Section invites the submission of abstracts or full papers dealing broadly with issues related to real estate finance, the secondary mortgage market, fair housing, access to mortgage credit, mortgage lending discrimination, and the future of mortgage finance. There is no formal paper requirement associated with participation on the panel, but preference will be given to those submissions that demonstrate novel scholarly insights that have been substantially developed. Untenured scholars in particular are encouraged to submit their work. Please email your submissions to Chris Odinet at codinet@sulc.edu by Friday, August 3, 2018. The selection results will be announced in early September 2018. In additional to confirmed speakers, the Section anticipates selecting two to three papers from the call.

Confirmed Speakers:

Rigel C. Oliveri, Isabelle Wade and Paul C. Lyda Professor of Law, University of Missouri School of Law

Todd J. Zywicki, Foundation Professor of Law, George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

David Reiss, Professor of Law and Research Director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, Brooklyn Law School

Eligibility:

Per AALS rules, only full-time faculty members of AALS member law schools are eligible to submit a paper/abstract to Section calls for papers. Faculty at fee-paid law schools, foreign faculty, adjunct and visiting faculty (without a full-time position at an AALS member law school), graduate students, fellows, and non-law school faculty are not eligible to submit.

All panelists, including speakers selected from this Call for Papers, are responsible for paying their own annual meeting registration fee and travel expenses.

The Miraculous Continuous Workout Mortgage

Professor Robert Shiller

Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller et al. have posted Continuous Workout Mortgages: Efficient Pricing and Systemic Implications to SSRN. The paper opens,

The ad hoc measures taken to resolve the subprime crisis involved expending financial resources to bail out banks without addressing the wave of foreclosures. These short-term amendments negate parts of mortgage contracts and question the disciplining mechanism of finance. Moreover, the increase in volatility of house prices in recent years exacerbated the crisis. In contrast to ad hoc approaches, we propose a mortgage contract, the Continuous Workout Mortgage (CWM), which is robust to downturns. We demonstrate how CWMs can be offered to homeowners as an ex ante solution to non-anticipated real estate price declines.

The Continuous Workout Mortgage (CWM, Shiller (2008b)) is a two-in-one product: a fixed rate home loan coupled with negative equity insurance. More importantly its payments are linked to home prices and adjusted downward when necessary to prevent negative equity. CWMs eliminate the expensive workout of defaulting on a plain vanilla mortgage. This subsequently reduces the risk exposure of financial institutions and thus the government to bailouts. CWMs share the price risk of a home with the lender and thus provide automatic adjustments for changes in home prices. This feature eliminates the rational incentive to exercise the costly option to default which is embedded in the loan contract. Despite sharing the underlying risk, the lender continues to receive an uninterrupted stream of monthly payments. Moreover, this can occur without multiple and costly negotiations. (1, references omitted)

If it is not obvious, this is a radical idea.  It was not even contemplated before the financial crisis. That being said, it is pretty brilliant financial innovation, one that should not just be discussed by academics. The paper provides a lot more detail about the proposal for those who are interested. And if you want to avoid taxpayer bailouts of the housing market in the future, you should be interested.

Mortgage Servicing Since The Financial Crisis

photo by Dan Brown

Standard & Poors issued a report, A Decade After The Financial Crisis, What’s The New Normal For Residential Mortgage Servicing? It provides a good overview of how this hidden infrastructure of the mortgage market is functioning after it emerged from the crucible of the subprime and foreclosure crises. It reads, in part,

Ten years after the start of the financial crisis, residential mortgage servicing is finally settling into a new sense of normal. Before the crisis, mortgage servicing was a fairly static business. Traditional prime servicers had low delinquency rates, regulatory requirements rarely changed, and servicing systems were focused on core functions such as payment processing, investor accounting, escrow management, and customer service. Subprime was a specific market with specialty servicers, which used high-touch collection practices rather than the low-touch model prime servicers used. Workout options for delinquent borrowers mainly included repayment plans or extensions. And though servicers completed some modifications, short sales, and deeds in lieu of foreclosure, these were exceptions to the normal course of business.

Today, residential mortgage servicing involves complex regulation, increased mandatory workout options, and multiple layers of internal control functions. Over the past 10 years servicers have had to not only modify their processes, but also hire more employees and enhance their technology infrastructure and internal controls to support those new processes. As a result, servicing mortgage loans has become less profitable, which has caused loan servicers to consolidate and has created a barrier to entry for new servicers. While the industry expects reduced regulatory requirements under the Trump administration and delinquency rates to continue to fall, we do not foresee servicers reverting to pre-crisis operational processes. Instead, we expect states to maintain, and in some cases enhance, their regulatory requirements to fill the gap for any lifted or reduced at the federal level. Additionally, most mortgage loan servicers have already invested in new processes and technology, and despite the cost to support these and adapt to any additional requirements, we do not expect them to strip back the controls that have become their new normal. (2/10, citation omitted)

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As The Economy Improves, Delinquency Rates Have Become More Stable

Total delinquency rates have only just begun returning to around pre-crisis levels as the economy–and borrowers’ abilities to make their mortgage payments–has improved (see charts 1 and 2). Lower delinquency rates can also be attributed to delinquent accounts moving through the default management process, either becoming reperforming loans after modifications or through liquidation. New regulatory requirements have also extended workout timelines for delinquent accounts. In 2010, one year after 90-plus delinquency rates hit a high point, the percentage of prime and subprime loans in foreclosure actually surpassed the percentage that were more than 90 days delinquent–a trend that continued until 2013 for prime loans and 2014 for subprime loans. But since the end of 2014, all delinquency buckets have remained fairly stable, with overall delinquency rates for prime loans down to slightly over 4% for 2016 from a peak of just over 8% in 2009. Overall delinquency rates for subprime loans have fluctuated more since the peak at 29% in 2009. (2/10)

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Modifications Now Make Up About Half Of Loan Workout Strategies

Government agencies and government-sponsored enterprises (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) developed new formal modification programs beginning in 2008 to address the rising delinquency and foreclosure rates. The largest of these programs was HAMP, launched in March 2009. While HAMP was required for banks accepting funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), all servicers were allowed to participate. These programs required that servicers exhaust all loss mitigation options before completing foreclosure. This requirement, and the fact that servicers started receiving incentives to complete modifications, spurred the increase in modifications. (4/10)

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Foreclosure Timelines Have Become Longer

As the number of loans in foreclosure rose during the financial crisis, the requirements associated with the foreclosure process grew. As a result, the time it took to complete the foreclosure process increased to almost 475 days in 2016 from more than 160 days in 2007–an increase of almost 200%. While this is not a weighted average and therefore not adjusted for states with smaller or larger foreclosure portfolios, which could skew the average, the data show longer timelines across all states. And even though the percentage of loans in foreclosure has decreased in recent years (to 1% and 9% by the end of 2016 for prime and subprime, respectively, from peaks of 3% in 2010 and 13% in 2011) the time it takes to complete a foreclosure has still not lessened (6/10)

American Bankers on Mortgage Market Reform

The American Bankers Association has issued a white paper, Mortgage Lending Rules: Sensible Reforms for Banks and Consumers. The white paper contains a lot of common sense suggestions but its lack of sensitivity to consumer concerns greatly undercuts its value. It opens,

The Core Principles for Regulating the United States Financial System, enumerated in Executive Order 13772, include the following that are particularly relevant to an evaluation of current U.S. rules and regulatory practices affecting residential mortgage finance:

(a) empower Americans to make independent financial decisions and informed choices in the marketplace, save for retirement, and build individual wealth;

(c) foster economic growth and vibrant financial markets through more rigorous regulatory impact analysis that addresses systemic risk and market failures, such as moral hazard and information asymmetry; and

(f) make regulation efficient, effective, and appropriately tailored.

The American Bankers Association offers these views to the Secretary of the Treasury in relation to the Directive that he has received under Section 2 of the Executive Order.

 Recent regulatory activity in mortgage lending has severely affected real estate finance. The existing regulatory regime is voluminous, extremely technical, and needlessly prescriptive. The current regulatory regimen is restricting choice, eliminating financial options, and forcing a standardization of products such that community banks are no longer able to meet their communities’ needs.

 ABA recommends a broad review of mortgage rules to refine and simplify their application. This white paper advances a series of specific areas that require immediate modifications to incentivize an expansion of safe lending activities: (i) streamline and clarify disclosure timing and methodologies, (ii) add flexibility to underwriting mandates, and (iii) fix the servicing rules.

 ABA advises that focused attention be devoted to clarifying the liability provisions in mortgage regulations to eliminate uncertainties that endanger participation and innovation in the real estate finance sector. (1, footnote omitted)

Its useful suggestions include streamlining regulations to reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens; clarifying legal liabilities that lenders face so that they can act more freely without triggering outsized criminal and civil liability in the ordinary course of business; and creating more safe harbors for products that are not prone to abuse.

But the white paper is written as if the subprime boom and bust of the early 2000s never happened. It pays not much more than lip service to consumer protection regulation, but it seeks to roll it back significantly:

ABA is fully supportive of well-regulated markets where well-crafted rules are effective in protecting consumers against abuse. Banks support clear disclosures and processes to assure that consumers receive clear and comprehensive information that enables them to understand the transaction and make the best decision for their families. ABA does not, therefore, advocate for a wholesale deconstruction of existing consumer protection regulations . . . (4)

If we learned anything from the subprime crisis it is that disclosure is not enough.  That is why the rules.  Could these rules be tweaked? Sure.  Should they be dramatically weakened? No. Until the ABA grapples with the real harm done to consumers during the subprime era, their position on mortgage market reform should be taken as a special interest position paper, not a white paper in the public interest.

GSE Investors’ Hidden Win

Judge Brown

The big news yesterday was that the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in the main for the federal government in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin, one of the major cases that investors brought against the federal government over the terms of the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships.

In a measured and carefully reasoned opinion, the court rejected most but not all of the investors’ claims.  The reasoning was consistent with my own reading of the broad conservatorship provisions of the Housing and Economic Recover Act of 2008 (HERA).

Judge Brown’s dissent, however, reveals that the investors have crafted an alternative narrative that at least one judge finds compelling. This means that there is going to be some serious drama when this case ultimately wends its way to the Supreme Court. And there is some reason to believe that a Justice Gorsuch might be sympathetic to this narrative of government overreach.

Judge Brown’s opinion indicts many aspects of federal housing finance policy, broadly condemning it in the opening paragraph:

One critic has called it “wrecking-ball benevolence,” James Bovard, Editorial, Nothing Down: The Bush Administration’s Wrecking-Ball Benevolence, BARRONS, Aug. 23, 2004, http://tinyurl.com/Barrons-Bovard; while another, dismissing the compassionate rhetoric, dubs it “crony capitalism,” Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr., Commentary, Fannie/Freddie Bailout Baloney, CATO INST., http://tinyurl.com/Cato-O-Driscoll (last visited Feb. 13, 2017). But whether the road was paved with good intentions or greased by greed and indifference, affordable housing turned out to be the path to perdition for the U.S. mortgage market. And, because of the dominance of two so-called Government Sponsored Entities (“GSE”s)—the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae” or “Fannie”) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac” or “Freddie,” collectively with Fannie Mae, the “Companies”)—the trouble that began in the subprime mortgage market metastasized until it began to affect most debt markets, both domestic and international. (dissent at 1)

While acknowledging that the Fannie/Freddie crisis might justify “extraordinary actions by Congress,” Judge Brown states that

even in a time of exigency, a nation governed by the rule of law cannot transfer broad and unreviewable power to a government entity to do whatsoever it wishes with the assets of these Companies. Moreover, to remain within constitutional parameters, even a less-sweeping delegation of authority would require an explicit and comprehensive framework. See Whitman v. Am. Trucking Ass’ns, Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001) (“Congress . . . does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions—it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes.”) Here, Congress did not endow FHFA with unlimited authority to pursue its own ends; rather, it seized upon the statutory text that had governed the FDIC for decades and adapted it ever so slightly to confront the new challenge posed by Fannie and Freddie.

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[Congress] chose a well-understood and clearly-defined statutory framework—one that drew upon the common law to clearly delineate the outer boundaries of the Agency’s conservator or, alternatively, receiver powers. FHFA pole vaulted over those boundaries, disregarding the plain text of its authorizing statute and engaging in ultra vires conduct. Even now, FHFA continues to insist its authority is entirely without limit and argues for a complete ouster of federal courts’ power to grant injunctive relief to redress any action it takes while purporting to serve in the conservator role. See FHFA Br. 21  (2-3)

What amazes me about this dissent is how it adopts the decidedly non-mainstream history of the financial crisis that has been promoted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Peter Wallison.  It also takes its legislative history from an unpublished Cato Institute paper by Vice-President Pence’s newly selected chief economist, Mark Calabria and a co-author.  There is nothing wrong with a judge giving some context to an opinion, but it is of note when it seems as one-sided as this. The bottom line though is that this narrative clearly has some legs so we should not think that this case has played itself out, just because of this decision.

What Is at Stake with the FHA?

The Hill published my column, The Future of American Home Ownership Under President Trump. It reads, 

One of the Trump Administration’s first official actions was to reverse the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage insurance premium cut that was announced in the last days of President Obama’s term.  This is a pretty obscure action for Trump to lead with in his first week in office, so it is worth understanding what is at stake with the FHA and what it may tell about the future of homeownership in the United States. 

The FHA has roots that stretch back to the Great Depression.  It was created to provide liquidity in a mortgage market that was frozen over and to encourage consumer-friendly practices in the Wild West mortgage and home construction markets of the early 20th century.  It was a big success on both fronts

After the Great Depression, the federal government deployed the FHA to achieve a variety of other social goals, such as supporting civilian mobilization during World War II, helping veterans returning from the War, stabilizing urban housing markets during the 1960s, and expanding minority homeownership rates during the 1990s. It achieved success with some of these goals and had a terrible record with others, leading to high rates of default for some FHA programs.

In the last few years, there have been calls to significantly restrict the FHA’s activities because of some of its more recent failures. Trump’s policy decisions for the FHA will have a big impact on the nation’s homeownership rate, which is at its lowest in over 50 years. This is because the FHA is heavily relied upon by first-time homebuyers.

We do not yet have a good sense of how President Trump views the FHA because he had very little to say about housing policy during his campaign. And his choices to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, and the Treasury Department, Steven Mnuchin, had little to add on this subject during their Senate confirmation hearings.

The 2016 Republican Party Platform does, however, offer a sense of where we might be headed: “The Federal Housing Administration, which provides taxpayer-backed guarantees in the mortgage market, should no longer support high-income individuals, and the public should not be financially exposed by risks taken by FHA officials.”

This vague language refers to two concrete policies that have their roots in actions taken by the FHA during the Bush and Obama administrations. The reference to the support given to “high-income individuals” refers to the fact that Congress significantly raised FHA loan limits starting in 2008, so that the FHA could provide liquidity to a wider swath of the mortgage market. The GOP is right to question whether that the FHA still needs to provide insurance for $500,000 and more mortgages now that the market has stabilized.

The GOP’s statement that taxpayers “should not be financially exposed by risks taken by FHA officials” refers to the fact that the FHA had a lot of losses as a result of the financial crisis. These losses resulted in the FHA failing to meet its statutorily-required minimum capital ratio starting in 2009. In response to these losses, the FHA increased the mortgage insurance premiums it charged to borrowers.

While the FHA has been meeting its minimum capital ratio for the last couple of years, premiums have remained high compared to their pre-crisis levels. Thus, the GOP’s position appears to back off from support for homeownership, which has been a bipartisan goal for nearly 100 years.

The FHA should keep its premiums high enough to meet its capital requirements, but should otherwise promote homeownership with the lowest premiums it can responsibly charge. At the same time, FHA underwriting should be required to balance access to credit with households’ ability to make their mortgage payments over the long term. That way the FHA can extend credit responsibly to low- and moderate-income households while minimizing the likelihood of future bailouts by taxpayers.

This is the most responsible way for the Trump administration to rebuild sustainable homeownership for a large swath of Americans as we recover from the brutal and compounding effects of the subprime crisis, financial crisis and foreclosure crisis.

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.”