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 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.

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.

Are The Stars Aligning For Fannie And Freddie Reform?

Law360 published my op ed, Are The Stars Aligning For Fannie And Freddie Reform? It reads,

There has been a lot of talk of the closed-door discussions in the Senate about a reform plan for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mammoth housing finance government-sponsored enterprises. There has long been a bipartisan push to get the two entities out of their conservatorships with some kind of permanent reform plan in place, but the stars never aligned properly. There was resistance on the right because of a concern about the increasing nationalization of the mortgage market and there was resistance on the left because of a concern that housing affordability would be unsupported in a new system. It looks like the leader of that right wing, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, has indicated that he is willing to compromise in order to create a “sustainable housing finance system.” The question now is whether those on the left are also willing to compromise in order to put that system on a firm footing for the 21st century.

In a speech at the National Association of Realtors, Hensarling set forth a set of principles that he would be guided by:

  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac must be wound down and their charters repealed;
  • Securitizers need strong bank-like capital and community financial institutions must be able to compete on a level playing field;
  • Any new government affordable housing program needs to at least be on budget, be results-based and target actual homebuyers for the purpose of buying a home they can actually afford to keep;
  • The Federal Housing Administration must return to its traditional role of serving the first-time homebuyer and low- and moderate-income individuals.

I am not yet sure that all of the stars are now aligned for Congress to pass a GSE reform bill. But Hensarling’s change of heart is a welcome development for those of us who worry about some kind of slow-moving train wreck in our housing finance system. That system has been in limbo for nearly a decade since Fannie and Freddie were placed in conservatorship, with no end in sight for so long. Ten years is an awfully long time for employees, regulators and other stakeholders to play it by ear in a mortgage market measured in the trillions of dollars.

Even with a broad consensus on the need for (or even just the practical reality of) a federal role in housing finance, there are a lot of details that still need to be worked out. Should Fannie and Freddie be replaced with many mortgage-backed securities issuers whose securities are guaranteed by some arm of the federal government? Or should Fannie and Freddie become lender-owned mutual insurance entities with a government guarantee of the two companies? These are just two of the many options that have been proposed over the last 10 years.

Two housing finance reform leaders, Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., appear to favor some version of the former while Hensarling seems to favor the latter. And Hensarling stated his unequivocal opposition to some form of a “recap and release” plan, whereas Corker and Warner appear to be considering a plan that recapitalizes Fannie and Freddie and releases them back into private ownership, to the benefit of at least some of the companies’ shareholders. The bottom line is that there are still major differences among all of these important players, not to mention the competing concerns of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and other progressives. Warren and her allies will seek to ensure that the federal housing system continues to support meaningful affordable housing initiatives for both homeowners and renters.

Hensarling made it clear that he does not favor a return to the status quo — he said that the hybrid GSE model “cannot be saved, it cannot be salvaged, it must not be resurrected, and needs to be scrapped.” But Hensarling also made it clear that he will negotiate and compromise. This represents a true opening for a bipartisan bill. For everyone on the left and the right who are hoping to create a sustainable housing finance system for the 21st century, let’s hope that his willingness to compromise is widely shared in 2018.

I am now cautiously optimistic that Congress can find some common ground. With Hensarling on board, there is now broad support for a government role in the housing sector. There is also broad support for a housing finance infrastructure that does not favor large financial institutions over small ones. Spreading the risk of default to private investors — as Fannie and Freddie have been doing for some time now under the direction of their regulator — is also a positive development, one with many supporters. Risk sharing reduces the likelihood of a taxpayer bailout in all but the most extreme scenarios.

There are still some big sticking points. What should happen with the private investors in Fannie and Freddie? Will they own part of the new housing finance infrastructure? While the investors have allies in Congress, there does not seem to be a groundswell of support for them on the right or the left.

How much of a commitment should there be to affordable housing? Hensarling acknowledges that the Federal Housing Administration should serve first-time homebuyers and low- and moderate-income individuals, but he is silent as to how big a commitment that should be. Democrats are invested in generating significant resources for affordable housing construction and preservation through the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Hensarling appears to accept this in principle, while cautioning that any “new government affordable housing program needs to at least be on budget, results based, and target actual homebuyers for the purpose of buying a home they can actually afford to keep.” Democrats can work with Hensarling’s principles, although the extent of the ultimate federal funding commitment will certainly be hotly contested between the parties.

My cautious optimism feels a whole lot better than the fatalism I have felt for many years about the fate of our housing finance system. Let’s hope that soon departing Congressman Hensarling and Sen. Corker can help focus their colleagues on creating a housing finance system for the 21st century, one with broad enough support to survive the political winds that are buffeting so many other important policy areas today.

The Housing Market Under Trump

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

TheStreet.com quoted me in Interest Rates Likely to Rise Under Trump, Could Affect Confidence of Homebuyers. It opens,

Interest rates should increase gradually during the next four years under a Donald Trump administration, which could dampen growth in the housing industry, economists and housing experts predict.

The 10-year Treasury rose over the 2% threshold on Wednesday for the first time in several months, driving mortgage rates higher with the 30-year conventional rate rising to 3.73% according to Bankrate.com. Mortgage pricing is tied to the 10-year Treasury.

Housing demand will remain flat with a rise in interest rates as many first-time homebuyers will be saddled with more debt, said Peter Nigro, a finance professor at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I.

“With first-time homebuyers more in debt due to student loans, I don’t expect much growth in home purchasing,” he said.

Interest rates will also be affected by the size of the fiscal stimulus since additional infrastructure spending and associated debt “could push interest rates up through the issuance of more government debt,” Nigro said.

Even if interest rates spike in the next year, banks will not benefit, because there is a lack of demand, said Peter Borish, chief strategist with Quad Group, a New York-based financial firm. The economy is slowing down, and consumers have already borrowed money at very “cheap” interest rates, he said.

The policies set forth by a Trump administration will lead to contractionary results and will not spur additional growth in the housing market.

“I prefer to listen to the markets,” Borish said. “This will put downward pressure on the prices in the market. Everyone complained about Dodd-Frank, but why is JPMorgan Chase’s stock at all time highs?”

An interest rate increase could still occur in December, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based real estate company. With nearly five weeks before the December Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, the market can contemplate the potential outcomes.

“While the market is now indicating a reduced probability of a short-term rate hike at that meeting, the Fed has repeatedly indicated that they would be data-driven in their decision,” he said in a written statement. “If the markets calm down and November employment data look solid on December 2, a rate hike could still happen. The market moves yesterday are already indicating that financial markets are pondering that the Trump effect could be positive for the economy.

“The Fed is likely to start increasing the federal funds rate at a “much faster pace starting next year,” said K.C. Sanjay, chief economist for Axiometrics, a Dallas-based apartment market and student housing research firm. “This will cause single-family mortgage rates to increase slightly, however they will remain well below the long-term average.”

Since Trump has remained mum on many topics, including housing, predicting a short-term outlook is challenging. One key factor is the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who are the main players in the mortgage market, because they own or guarantee over $4 trillion in mortgages, remain in conservatorship and “play a critical role in keeping mortgage rates down through the now explicit subsidy or government backing which allows them to raise funds more cheaply,” Nigro said.

It is unlikely any changes will occur with them, because “Trump has not articulated a plan to deal with them and coming up with a plan to deal with these giants is unlikely,” he said.

Trump could attempt to take on government sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, said Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist for Trulia, a San Francisco-based real estate website.

“If he does, it’s going to be a hairy endeavor for him, because he’ll need bipartisan support to do so,” he said.

Since he has alluded to ending government conservatorship and allowing government sponsored enterprises to “recapitalize by allowing retention of their own profits instead of passing them on to the Treasury,” the result is that banks could have their liquidity and lending activity increase, which could help boost demand for homes, McLaughlin said.

“We caution President-elect Trump that he would also need to simultaneously help address housing supply, which has been at a low point over the past few years,” he said. “The difficulty for him is that most of the impediments to new housing supply rest and the state and local levels, not the federal.”

Even on Trump’s campaign website, there is “next to nothing” about his ideas on housing, said David Reiss, a law professor at the Brooklyn Law School in New York. The platform of the Republican Party and Vice President-elect Mike Pence could mean that the federal government will have a smaller footprint in the mortgage market.

“There will be a reduction in the federal government’s guaranty of mortgages, and this will likely increase the interest rates charged on mortgages, but will reduce the likelihood of taxpayer bailouts,” he said. “Fannie and Freddie will likely have fewer ties to the federal government and the FHA is likely to be limited to the lower end of the mortgage market.”