Treasury’s Take on Housing Finance Reform

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Being Sworn In

The Department of the Treasury released its Strategic Plan for 2018-2022. One of its 17 Strategic Objectives is to promote housing finance reform:

Support housing finance reform to resolve Government-Sponsored Enterprise (GSE) conservatorships and prevent taxpayer bailouts of public and private mortgage finance entities, while promoting consumer choice within the mortgage market.

Desired Outcomes

Increased share of mortgage credit supported by private capital; Resolution of GSE conservatorships; Appropriate level of sustainable homeownership.

Why Does This Matter?

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been in federal conservatorship for nine years. Taxpayers continue to stand behind their obligations through capital support agreements while there is no clear path for the resolution of their conservatorship. The GSEs, combined with federal housing programs such as those at the Federal Housing Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, support more than 70 percent of new mortgage originations. Changes should encourage the entry of greater private capital in the U.S. housing finance system. Resolution of the GSE conservatorships and right-sizing of federal housing programs is necessary to support a more sustainable U.S. housing finance system. (16)

The Plan states that Treasury’s strategies to achieve these objectives are to engage “stakeholders to develop housing finance reform recommendations.” (17) These stakeholders include Congress, the FHFA, Fed, SEC, CFPB, FDIC, HUD (including the FHA), VA, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Association of State Banking Regulators as well as “The Public.” Treasury further intends to disseminate “principles and recommendations for housing finance reform” and plan “for the resolution of current GSE conservatorships.” (Id.)

This is all to the good of course, but it is at such a high level of generality that it tells us next to nothing. In this regard, Trump’s Treasury is not all that different from Obama and George W. Bush’s. Treasury has not taken a lead on housing finance reform since the financial crisis began. While there is nothing wrong with letting Congress take the lead on this issue, it would move things forward if Treasury created an environment in which housing finance reform was clearly identified as a priority in Washington. Nothing good will come from letting Fannie and Freddie limp along in conservatorship for a decade or more.

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.

Challenges for Modern Housing Markets

Professor Barnes

Professor Boyack

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I will be speaking in a free American Bar Association webinar tomorrow, Challenges for Modern Housing Markets:

Our current housing system is not sustainable in terms of the market, residential tenure, cost stability, and neighborhood inequality. Our panelists will discuss some key areas in which housing must be stabilized in order to strengthen our economy and society. Our panelists will address ways to lessen the volatility of housing prices and home mortgage lending, the importance of and ways to improve stability of residency, ways to improve the sustainability of affordable housing, and recent lawsuits that have reframed the problem of distressed and inequitable communities.

The other speakers are

The program will be moderated by Professor Wilson R. Freyermuth, University of Missouri School of Law.

My remarks will be drawn in part from my work on the Federal Housing Administration.

The webinar is free and open to all.  It will take place Tuesday, December 12, 2017 at 12:30 p.m. Eastern/11:30 a.m. Central/9:30 a.m. Pacific.

Register for the webinar at http://ambar.org/ProfessorsCorner.

The webinar is sponsored by the ABA Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Section Legal Education and Uniform Laws Group. It is part of a series of webinars that features a panel of law professors who address topics of interest to practitioners of real estate and trusts/estates.

 

Dodd-Frank Repeal Unappealing for Homeowners

photo by Gage Skidmore

Congressman Jeb Hensarling

The Hill published my latest column, Why Repealing Dodd-Frank Is Unappealing if You Own a Home. It opens, 

President Trump has made it clear that he wished to dismantle the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Just two weeks after his inauguration, he issued an executive order to get the ball rolling by means of agency action, an effort that will be led by the Department of the Treasury. Trump will have lots of allies in Congress as he pursues this agenda. A recent memo by House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) to his committee’s leadership team outlines a legislative path that leads to much the same goal.

One of the key components of the Dodd-Frank regulatory regime was the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The bureau is responsible for administering a range of consumer protection regulations, some of which predate Dodd-Frank and some of which were mandated by it. Homeowners should sit up and take notice because a lot of protections they can now take for granted will be stripped away if this push is successful.

Many of these regulations protect homeowners as they obtain mortgages for their homes. Others protect homeowners over the life of the mortgages, particularly when they are having trouble keeping up with their mortgage payments because of those common life events that still knock us for a loop when they happen to us: job loss, divorce, medical bills, a death in the family.

Hensarling’s memo makes clear the extent to which he wants to weaken the CFPB. Among many other things, he wants to eliminate the bureau’s consumer education functions, bar it from commencing actions involving unfair, deceptive or abusive acts and practices, end its practice of tracking consumer complaints, and stop if from monitoring and conducting research on the consumer credit market.

Before the financial crisis, homeowners suffered from a range of abusive and predatory behaviors that were prevalent in the mortgage industry for years and years. Lenders would lend without regard to a borrower’s ability to repay a loan, so long as there was sufficient equity in the home to make the lender whole after a foreclosure. Dodd-Frank’s ability-to-repay rule keeps lenders from doing that now. Lenders would make loans that had large balloon payments at the end of the term, forcing unsophisticated borrowers to refinance with all of the fees and costs that that entails. The lenders would look at those refinancing costs as another profit center. Dodd-Frank’s qualified mortgage rule banned those abusive balloon payments for the most part.

While Hensarling claims that Dodd-Frank “clogs the arteries of capitalism,” he seems to forget that unfettered capitalism nearly gave us a fatal heart attack just 10 years ago, when the subprime mortgage crisis led us to the brink of a second Great Depression. He seems to forget that predatory mortgage lending is not only bad for the individuals affected by it, but also for the housing market and economy in general. Housing prices did not just fall for those with unsustainable mortgages—they fell for all of us.

The push to get rid of the CFPB is not being driven by the consumer finance industry. The industry has learned to live with the bureau. It has come to see that there are some benefits that accrue from primarily dealing with one regulator, in place of the patchwork of regulators that was the norm before Dodd-Frank. Rather, the push is being driven by an unfettered free market ideology that is out of step with the workings of the modern economy.

Getting rid of the CFPB will be bad for homeowners. They will no longer be able to assume that a mortgage they receive is one that has payments they can make month-in and month-out. They will need to treat lenders as predators because predatory lending will certainly return to the mortgage market. Caveat emptor.

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.

HUD, Exit Stage Left

photo by Gage Skidmore

Obama HUD Secretary Julián Castro

President Obama had members of his Cabinet write Exit Memos that set forth their vision for their agencies. Julián Castro, his Secretary of HUD, titled his Housing as a Platform for Opportunity. It is worth a read as a roadmap of a progressive housing agenda. While it clearly will carry little weight over the next few years, it will become relevant once the political winds shift back, as they always do. Castro writes,

Every year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) creates opportunity for more than 30 million Americans, including more than 11.6 million children. That support ranges from assisting someone in critical need with emergency shelter for a night to helping more than 7.8 million homeowners build intergenerational wealth. Simply put, HUD provides a passport to the middle class.

HUD is many things but, most of all, it is the Department of Opportunity. Everything we did in the last eight years was oriented to bring greater opportunity to the people we serve every day. That includes the thousands of public housing residents who now have access to high-speed Internet through ConnectHome. It includes the more than 1.2 million borrowers in 2016 – more than 720,000 of them first-time homebuyers – who reached their own American Dream because of the access to credit the Federal Housing Administration provides. And it includes the hundreds of thousands of veterans since 2010 who are no longer experiencing homelessness and are now better positioned to achieve their full potential in the coming years.

Our nation’s economy benefits from HUD’s work. As our nation recovered from the Great Recession, HUD was a driving force in stabilizing the housing market. When natural disasters struck, as with Superstorm Sandy in the Northeast, the historic flooding in Louisiana, and many other major disasters – HUD helped the hardest-hit communities to rebuild, cumulatively investing more than $18 billion in those areas, and making it possible for folks to get back in their homes and back to work. And when we invested those dollars, we encouraged communities not just to rebuild, but to rebuild in more resilient ways. The $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition demonstrated our commitment to encourage communities to build infrastructure that can better withstand the next storm and reduce the costs to the American taxpayer.

Housing is a platform for greater opportunity because it is so interconnected with health, safety, education, jobs and equality. We responded to the threat posed by lead-contaminated homes by launching a forthcoming expansion of critical protections for children and families in federally assisted housing. And we finally fulfilled the full obligation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act by putting into practice the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule to ensure that one day a child’s zip code won’t determine his or her future.

Much has been accomplished during the Obama Administration, but new challenges are on the horizon, including a severely aging public housing stock and an affordable housing crisis in many areas of the country. Just as HUD provided necessary reinforcement to the housing market during the latest economic crisis, this vital Department will be crucial to the continued improvement of the American economy and the security of millions of Americans in the years to come. (2)

There is a fair amount of puffery in this Exit Memo, but that is to be expected in a document of this sort. it does, however, set forth a comprehensive of policies that the next Democratic administration is sure to consider. If you want an overview of HUD’s reach, give it a read.

Enlarging The Credit Box

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The Hill published my column, It’s Time to Expand The Credit Box for American Homebuyers. it reads,

The dark, dark days of the mortgage market are far behind us. The early 2000s were marked by a set of practices that can only be described as abusive. Consumers saw teaser interest rates that morphed into unaffordable rates soon thereafter, high fees that were foisted upon borrowers at the closing table and loans packed with unnecessary and costly products like credit insurance.

After the financial crisis hit, Congress enacted the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. The law included provisions intended to protect both borrowers and lenders from the craziness of the previous decade, when no one was sufficiently focused on whether loans would be repaid or not.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) promulgated the rules that Dodd-Frank had called for, like the ability-to-repay and qualified mortgages rules. These rules achieved their desired effect as predatory mortgage loans all but disappeared from the market.

But there were consequences, and they were not wholly unexpected. Mortgage credit became tighter than necessary. People who could reliably make their mortgage payments were not able to get a mortgage in the first place. Perhaps their income was unreliable, but they had a good cushion of savings. Perhaps they had more debts than the rules thought advisable, but were otherwise frugal enough to handle a mortgage.

These people banged into the reasonable limitations of Dodd-Frank and could not get one of the plain vanilla mortgages that it promoted. But many of those borrowers found out that they could not go elsewhere because lenders avoided making mortgages that were not favored by Dodd-Frank’s rules.

Commentators were of two minds when these rules were promulgated. Some believed that an alternative market for mortgages, so-called non-qualified mortgages, would sprout up beside the plain vanilla market, for good or for ill. Others believed that lenders would avoid that alternative market like the plague, again for good or for ill. Now it looks like the second view is mostly correct and it is mostly for ill.

The Urban Institute Housing Finance Policy Center’s latest credit availability index shows that mortgage availability remains weak. The center concludes that even if underwriting loosened and current default risk doubled, it would remain manageable given past experience.

The CFPB can take steps to increase the credit box from its current size. The “functional credit box” refers to the universe of loans that are available to borrowers. The credit box can be broadened from today’s functional credit box if mortgage market players choose to thoughtfully loosen underwriting standards, or if other structural changes are made within the industry.

The CFPB in particular can take steps to encourage greater non-qualified mortgage lending without needing to amend the ability-to-repay and qualified mortgages rules. CFPB Director Richard Cordray stated earlier this year that “not a single case has been brought against a mortgage lender for making a non-[qualified mortgage] loan.”

But lenders have entered the non-qualified mortgage market very tentatively and apparently need more guidance about how the Dodd-Frank rules will be enforced. Moreover, some commentators have noted that the rules also contain ambiguities that make it difficult for lenders to chart a path to a vibrant non-qualified mortgage line of business. Lenders are being very risk-averse here, but that is pretty reasonable given that some violations of these rules can result in criminal penalties, including jail time.

The mortgage market of the early 2000s provided mortgage credit to too many people who could not make their monthly payments on the terms offered. The pendulum has now swung. Today’s market offers very few unsustainable mortgages, but it fails to provide credit to some who could afford them. That means that the credit box is not at its socially optimal size.

The CFPB should make it a priority to review the regulatory regime for non-qualified mortgages in order to ensure that the functional credit box is expanded to more closely approximate the universe of borrowers who can pay their mortgage payments month in, month out. That would be good for those individual borrowers kept out of the housing market. It would also be good for society as a whole, as the financial activity of those borrowers has a multiplier effect throughout the economy.