An Inquest into the Subprime Crisis

, image by Paul Townsend

Coroners Inquests in Gloucestershire from The Gloucester Journal 1814

Juan Ospina and Harald Uhlig have posted Mortgage-Backed Securities and the Financial Crisis of 2008: A Post-Mortem to SSRN. Given that the market for private-label MBS pretty much died by 2008, the title is apt. The paper presents a challenge to many of the standard narratives that have developed to explain the causes of the subprime crisis and the broader financial crisis that followed. Other researchers in this area will surely take up the gauntlet thrown down by this paper. Hopefully, we will collectively come up with the right narrative to explain the whole mess. The paper opens,

Gradually, the deep financial crisis of 2008 is in the rearview mirror. With that, standard narratives have emerged, which will inform and influence policy choices and public perception in the future for a long time to come. For that reason, it is all the more important to examine these narratives with the distance of time and available data, as many of these narratives were created in the heat of the moment.

One such standard narrative has it that the financial meltdown of 2008 was caused by an overextension of mortgages to weak borrowers, repackaged and then sold to willing lenders drawn in by faulty risk ratings for these mortgage back securities. To many, mortgage backed securities and rating agencies became the key villains of that financial crisis. In particular, rating agencies were blamed for assigning the coveted AAA rating to many securities, which did not deserve it, particularly in the subprime segment of the market, and that these ratings then lead to substantial losses for institutional investors, who needed to invest in safe assets and who mistakenly put their trust in these misguided ratings.

In this paper, we re-examine this narrative. We seek to address two questions in particular. First, were these mortgage backed securities bad investments? Second, were the ratings wrong? We answer these questions, using a new and detailed data set on the universe of non-agency residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS), obtained by devoting considerable work to carefully assembling data from Bloomberg and other sources. This data set allows us to examine the actual repayment stream and losses on principal on these securities up to 2014, and thus with a considerable distance since the crisis events. In essence, we provide a post-mortem on a market that many believe to have died in 2008. We find that the conventional narrative needs substantial rewriting: the ratings and the losses were not nearly as bad as this narrative would lead one to believe.

Specifically, we calculate the ex-post realized losses as well as ex-post realized return on investing on par in these mortgage backed securities, under various assumptions of the losses for the remaining life time of the securities. We compare these realized returns to their ratings in 2008 and their promised loss distributions, according to tables available from the rating agencies. We shall investigate, whether ratings were a sufficient statistic (to the degree that a discretized rating can be) or whether they were, essentially, just “noise”, given information already available to market participants at the time of investing such as ratings of borrowers.

We establish seven facts. First, the bulk of these securities was rated AAA. Second, AAA securities did ok: on average, their total cumulated losses up to 2013 are 2.3 percent. Third, the subprime AAA-rated segment did particularly well. Fourth, later vintages did worse than earlier vintages, except for subprime AAA securities. Fifth, the bulk of the losses were concentrated on a small share of all securities. Sixth, the misrating for AAA securities was modest. Seventh, controlling for a home price bust, a home price boom was good for the repayment on these securities. (1-2)

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)

Treasury’s Overreach on Securitization Reform

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Being Sworn in by Vice President Pence

The Department of the Treasury released its report, A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities Capital Markets. I will leave it to others to dissect the broader implications of this important document and will just highlight what it has to say about the future of securitization:

Problems related to certain types of securitized products, primarily those backed by subprime mortgage loans, contributed to the financial crisis that precipitated the Great Recession. As a result, the securitization market has acquired a popular reputation as an inherently high-risk asset class and has been regulated as such through numerous post-crisis statutory and rulemaking changes. Such treatment of this market is counterproductive, as securitization, when undertaken in an appropriate manner, can be a vital financial tool to facilitate growth in our domestic economy. Securitization has the potential to help financial intermediaries better manage risk, enhance access to credit, and lower funding costs for both American businesses and consumers. Rather than restrict securitization through regulations, policymakers and regulators should view this component of our capital markets as a byproduct of, and safeguard to, America’s global financial leadership. (91-92, citations omitted)

This analysis of securitization veers toward the incoherent. It acknowledges that relatively unregulated subprime MBS contributed to the Great Recession but it argues that stripping away the regulations that were implemented in response to the financial crisis will safeguard our global financial leadership. How’s that? A full deregulatory push would return us to the pre-crisis environment where mortgage market players will act in their short-term interests, while exposing counter-parties and consumers to greater risks.

Notwithstanding that overreach, the report has some specific recommendations that could make securitization more attractive. These include aligning U.S. regulations with the Basel recommendations that govern the global securitization market; fine-tuning risk retention requirements; and rationalizing the multi-agency rulemaking process.

But it is disturbing when a government report contains a passage like the following, without evaluating whether it is true or not:  “issuers have stated that the increased cost and compliance burdens, lack of standardized definitions, and sometimes ambiguous regulatory guidance has had a negative impact on the issuance of new public securitizations.” (104) The report segues from these complaints right to a set of recommendations to reduce the disclosure requirements for securitizers. It is incumbent on Treasury to evaluate whether those complaints are valid are not, before making recommendations based upon them.

Securitization is here to stay and can meaningfully lower borrowing costs. But the financial crisis has demonstrated that it must be regulated to protect the financial system and the public. There is certainly room to revise the regulations that govern the securitization sector, but a wholesale push to deregulate would be foolish given the events of the 2000s.

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.

Blockchain and Real Estate quoted me in Land Registry: A Big Blockchain Use Case Explored. It opens,

With distributed ledger technology being promoted as a benefit to everything from farming to Fair Trade coffee, use case investigation has emerged as a full-time fascination for many.

In this light, one popular blockchain use case that has remained generally outside scrutiny has been land title projects started in countries including in Georgia, Sweden and the Ukraine.

One could argue land registries seemed to become newsworthy only after work on the use case had begun. However, those working on projects disagree, asserting that land registries could prove one of the first viable beachheads for blockchain.

Elliot Hedman, chief operating officer of Bitland Global, the technology partner for a real estate title registration program in Ghana, for example, said that issues with land rights make it a logical fit.

Hedman told CoinDesk: “As for the benefit of a blockchain-based land registry, look to Haiti. There are still people fighting over whose land is whose. When disaster struck, all of their records were on paper, that being if they were written down at all.”

Hedman argued that, with a blockchain-based registry employing a network of distributed databases as a way to facilitate data exchange, the “monumental headache” associated with a recovery effort would cease.

Modern real estate

To understand the potential of a blockchain land registry system, analysts argue one must first understand how property changes hands.

When a purchaser seeks to buy property today, he or she must find and secure the title and have the lawful owner sign it over.

This seems simple on the surface, but the devil is in the details. For a large number of residential mortgage holders, flawed paperwork, forged signatures and defects in foreclosure and mortgage documents have marred proper documentation of property ownership.

The problem is so acute that Bank of America attempted foreclosure on properties for which it did not have mortgages in the wake of the financial crisis.

Readers may also recall the proliferation of NINJA (No Income, No Job or Assets) subprime loans during the Great Recession and how this practice created a flood of distressed assets that banks were simply unable to handle.

The resulting situation means that the property no longer has a ‘good title’ attached to it and is no longer legally sellable, leaving the prospective buyer in many cases with no remedies.

Economic booster

Land registry blockchains seek to fix these problems.

By using hashes to identify every real estate transaction (thus making it publicly available and searchable), proponents argue issues such as who is the legal owner of a property can be remedied.

“Land registry records are pretty reliable methods for maintaining land records, but they are expensive and inefficient,” David Reiss, professor of law and academic program director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, told CoinDesk.

He explained:  “There is good reason to think that blockchain technology could serve as the basis for a more reliable, cheaper and more efficient land registry.”

The Advantages of ARMs

photo by Kathleen Zarubin

The Wall Street Journal quoted me in Why Home Buyers Should Consider Adjustable-Rate Mortgages (behind paywall). It opens,

While many out-of-the-mainstream loans got a black eye in the subprime debacle, today’s versions have been shorn of the toxic features—such as negative amortization and prepayment penalties—that tripped up many borrowers during the housing bubble a decade ago.

Plan to move

Experts say today’s adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs, as well as interest-only loans, are especially suitable for borrowers who expect to move before any rate increases can wipe out the savings in the early years. They’re also useful for sophisticated borrowers wrestling with uneven income, borrowers who expect their income to rise, or borrowers who are willing to bet they can invest their mortgage savings for a greater return elsewhere.

“Many of the mortgage products that some may have thought slipped into extinction, such as interest-only loans, do still exist today, but in far less volume” than in the heyday of the subprime era, says Bill Handel, vice president of research and product development at Raddon Financial Group, consultant to the financial-services industry.

Adds David Reiss, a law professor and academic program director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School: “The benefits of non-30-year, fixed-rate mortgages are legion.”

A sweet spot

Many borrowers can find a sweet spot, for example, in the so-called 7/1 adjustable-rate mortgage, which carries a fixed rate for seven years before starting annual adjustments. With a typical rate of 3.75%, the monthly payment on a $300,000 loan would be $1,389, compared with $1,449 for a 30-year, fixed-rate loan at 4.1%, saving the borrower $5,040 over seven years.

Even if the loan rate then went up, it could take two or three years for higher payments to offset the initial savings, making the mortgage a good choice for a borrower likely to move within 10 years. Once annual adjustments begin, they are generally calculated by adding a fixed margin to a floating rate, such as the London interbank offered rate.

“ARMs are very underutilized,” says Mat Ishbia, president of United Wholesale Mortgage, a lender in Troy, Mich. He expects the 7/1 ARM to account for 15% of new mortgages within the next few years, up from less than 5% today. Historically, ARMs become more popular as interest rates rise, making savings from the loan’s low initial “teaser rate” more attractive, he notes.

Minority Homeownership During the Great Recession

photo by Daniel X. O'Neil

Print by Andy Kane

Carlos Garriga et al. have posted The Homeownership Experience of Minorities During the Great Recession to SSRN. The paper concludes,

The Great Recession wiped out much of the homeownership gains attained during the housing boom. However, the homeownership experience was very different across racial and ethnic groups. Black and Hispanic borrowers experienced substantial repayment difficulties that ultimately led to a greater share of homes in foreclosure.

Given that home equity often represents a substantial share of household wealth, these foreclosure events severely damaged the balance sheets of minority families. The dynamics of delinquency and foreclosure functioned differently across the income distribution within racial and ethnic groups.

For the majority, higher income was associated with lower delinquency rates and fewer foreclosures as a group. However, for Hispanic families this relationship was surprisingly reversed. Hispanics with the highest incomes fared worse than those with the lowest incomes. This counterintuitive finding suggests how college-educated Hispanic families may have had worse wealth outcomes than their non-college-educated peers: Hispanic families with high income (potentially the result of high educational attainment) had a greater share of home equity lost in foreclosure than lower-income Hispanic families.

Logit regressions suggest that underwriting standards and loan structure explain a significant amount of the greater likelihood of foreclosure among Black and Hispanic borrowers. However, underwriting standards explained more of the gap for Black borrowers, while loan structure was a stronger factor among Hispanic borrowers. Regional concentration and variation in housing markets explained more of the Hispanic-White foreclosure gap than any other group. This is understandable given that Hispanic borrowers in our sample were heavily concentrated in housing markets that experienced some of the largest volatility. Despite accounting for these important factors, sizable gaps remain in foreclosures among Blacks and Hispanics relative to Whites. Incorporating measures of labor market outcomes into the analysis may offer further insights.

In sum, the homeownership experience during the Great Recession proved to be inimical for many families, but far more so for Black and Hispanic families. For these families, financially destructive foreclosure events delayed and potentially derailed the dream of homeownership. (164-65)

I am not sure what this all means for housing finance policy other than the obvious: consumer protection in the mortgage market is a good thing as it ensures that underwriting standards evaluate ability-to-repay and loan structures exclude abusive terms like teaser rates (thanks to the ATR and QM rules and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). There are probably other policies that we should consider to reduce the depths of our busts, but they do not seem likely to gain traction in the current political environment.