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.

GSE Investors Propose Reform Blueprint

Moelis & Company, financial advisors to some of Fannie and Freddie investors including Paulson & Co. and Blackstone GSO Capital Partners, has release a Blueprint for Restoring Safety and Soundness to the GSEs. The blueprint is a version of a “recap and release” plan that greatly favors the interests of Fannie and Freddie’s private shareholders over the public interest. The blueprint contains the following elements:

1. Protects Taxpayers from Future Bailouts. This Blueprint protects taxpayers by restoring safety and soundness to two of the largest insurance companies in the United States, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This is achieved by (a) rebuilding a substantial amount of first-loss private capital, (b) imposing rigorous new risk and leverage-based capital standards, (c) facilitating the government’s exit from ownership in both companies, and (d) providing a mechanism to substantially reduce the government’s explicit backstop commitment facility over time.

2. Promotes Homeownership and Preserves the 30-Year Mortgage. This Blueprint ensures that adequate mortgage market liquidity is maintained, the GSE debt markets continue to function without interruption, and the affordable 30-year fixed-rate conventional mortgage remains widely accessible for every eligible American.

3. Repositions the GSEs as Single-Purpose Insurers. Given the substantial reforms implemented by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) since 2008, the GSEs can now be repositioned and safely operated as single-purpose insurers, bearing mortgage credit risk in exchange for guarantee fees with limited retained investment portfolios beyond that necessary for securitization “inventory” and loan purchases.

4. Enables Rebuild of Equity Capital while Winding Down the Government Backstop. The Net Worth Sweep served the purpose of dramatically accelerating the payback of Treasury’s investment in both companies. The focus must now turn to protecting taxpayers by rebuilding Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s equity capital and winding down the government’s backstop.

5. Repays the Government in Full for its Investment during the Great Recession. Treasury has retained all funds received to date during the conservatorships. The government has recouped the entire $187.5 billion that it originally invested, plus an additional $78.3 billion in profit, for total proceeds of $265.8 billion. Treasury’s profits to date on its investment in the GSEs are five times greater than the combined profit on all other investments initiated by Treasury during the financial crisis.

6. Produces an Additional $75 to $100 Billion of Profits for Taxpayers. Treasury can realize an estimated $75 to $100 billion in additional cash profits by exercising its warrants for 79.9% of each company’s common stock and subsequently selling those shares through secondary offerings. This monetization process, which follows the proven path of Treasury’s AIG and Ally Bank (GMAC) stock dispositions, could bring total government profits to $150 to $175 billion, the largest single U.S. government financial investment return in history.

7. Implements Reform Under Existing Authority. This Blueprint articulates a feasible path to achieving the Administration’s GSE reform objectives with the least amount of execution risk. It can be fully implemented during the current presidential term by FHFA in collaboration with Treasury utilizing their existing legal authorities. Congress could build on these reforms to develop an integrated national housing finance policy that accounts for the Federal Housing Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Rural Housing Service, and emphasizes (i) affordable housing, (ii) safety and soundness, and (iii) universal and fair access to mortgage credit for all Americans. (1)

As can be seen from the last paragraph, GSE investors are trying to use the logjam in the Capitol to their own advantage. They are arguing that because Congress has not been able to get real reform bill passed, it makes sense to implement a reform plan administratively. There is nothing wrong with such an approach, but this plan would benefit investors more than the public.

My takeaway from this blueprint is that the longer Fannie and Freddie remain in limbo, the more likely it is that special interests will win the day and the public interest will fall by the wayside.

Trump and The Housing Market

photo by Gage Skidmore

President-Elect Trump

TheStreet.com quoted me in 5 Ways the Trump Administration Could Impact the 2017 U.S. Housing Market. It opens,

Yes, President-elect Donald Trump may have chosen Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but as the U.S. housing market revs its engines as 2016 draws to a close, an army of homeowners, real estate professionals and economists are focused on cheering on a potentially rosy market in 2017.

And with good reason.

According to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Indices released on November 29, U.S. housing prices rose, on average, by 5.5% from September, 2015 to September, 2016. Some U.S. regions showed double-digit growth for the time period – Seattle, saw an 11.0% year-over-year price increase, followed by Portland, Ore. with 10.9% and Denver with an 8.7% increase, according to the index.

The data point to further growth next year, experts say.

“The new peak set by the S&P Case-Shiller CoreLogic National Index will be seen as marking a shift from the housing recovery to the hoped-for start of a new advance,” notes David M. Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “While seven of the 20 cities previously reached new post-recession peaks, those that experienced the biggest booms — Miami, Tampa, Phoenix and Las Vegas — remain well below their all-time highs. Other housing indicators are also giving positive signals: sales of existing and new homes are rising and housing starts at an annual rate of 1.3 million units are at a post-recession peak.”

But there are question marks heading into the new year for the housing market. The surprise election of Donald Trump as president has industry professionals openly wondering how a new Washington regime will impact the real estate sector, one way or another.

For instance, Dave Norris, chief revenue officer of loanDepot, a retail mortgage lender located in Orange County, Calif., says dismantling the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, encouraging higher interest rates, and broadening consumer credit are potential scenario shifters for the housing market in the early stages of a Trump presidency.

Other experts contacted by TheStreet agree with Norris and say change is coming to the housing market, and it may be more radical than expected. To illustrate that point, here are five key takeaways from market experts on how a Trump presidency will shape the 2017 U.S. real estate sector.

Expect higher interest rates – The new administration will likely lead to higher interest rates, which will compress home and investment property values, says Allen Shayanfekr, chief executive officer of Sharestates, an online crowd-funding platform for real estate financing. “Specifically, loans are calculated through debt service coverage ratios and a borrower’s ability to make their payments,” Shayanfekr says. “Higher interest rates mean larger monthly payments and in turn, lower loan amount qualifications. If lenders tighten up, it will restrict the buyer market, causing either a plateau in market values or possibility a decrease depending on the margin of increased rates.”

Housing reform will also impact home purchase costs – Trump’s effect on interest rates will likely depress housing prices in some ways, says David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School. “That’s because the higher the monthly cost of a mortgage, the lower the price that the seller can get,” he notes. Reiss cites housing reform as a good example. “Housing finance reform will increase interest rates,” he says. “Republicans have made it very clear that they want to reduce the role of the federal government in the housing market in order to reduce the likelihood that taxpayers will be on the hook for another bailout. If they succeed, this will likely raise interest rates because the federal government’s involvement in the mortgage market tends to push interest rates down.”

Spreading Mortgage Credit Risk

photo by A Syn

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has released the Single-Family Credit Risk Transfer Progress Report. Important aspects of Fannie and Freddie’s future are described in this report. It opens,

Since 2012, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) has set as a strategic objective that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac share credit risk with private investors. While the Enterprises have a longstanding practice of sharing credit risk on certain loans with primary mortgage insurers and other counterparties, the credit risk transfer transactions have taken further steps to share credit risk with private market participants. Since the Enterprises were placed in conservatorship in 2008, they have received financial support from the U.S. Department of the Treasury under the Senior Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements (PSPAs). The Enterprises’ credit risk transfer programs reduce the overall risk to taxpayers under these agreements.

These programs have made significant progress since they were launched in 2012 and credit risk transfer transactions are now a regular part of the Enterprises’ businesses. This progress is reflected in FHFA’s 2016 Scorecard for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Common Securitization Solutions (2016 Scorecard), which sets the expectation that the Enterprises will transfer risk on 90 percent of targeted single-family, 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages. FHFA works with the Enterprises to ensure that credit risk transfer transactions are conducted in an economically sensible way that effectively transfers risk to private investors.

This Progress Report provides an overview of how the Enterprises share credit risk with the private sector, including through primary mortgage insurance and the Enterprises’ credit risk transfer programs. The discussion includes year-end 2015 data, a discussion of which Enterprise loan acquisitions are targeted for the credit risk transfer programs, and an overview of investor participation information. (1, footnotes omitted)

This push to share credit risk with private investors is a significant departure from the old Fannie/Freddie business model and it should do just what it promises: reduce taxpayer exposure to credit risk for the trillions of dollars of mortgages the two companies guarantee through their mortgage-backed securities. That being said, this is a relatively new initiative and the two companies (and the FHFA, as their conservator and regulator) have to navigate a lot of operational issues to ensure that this transfer of credit risk is priced appropriately.

There are also some important policy issues that have not been settled. The FHFA has asked for feedback on a series of issues in its Single-Family Credit Risk Transfer Request for Input, including,

  • how to “develop a deeper mortgage insurance structure” (RfI, 17)
  • how to develop credit risk transfer strategies that work for small lenders (RfI, 18)
  • how to price the fees that Fannie and Freddie charge to guarantee mortgage-backed securities (RfI, 19)

Congress has abdicated its responsibility to implement housing finance reform, so it is left up to the FHFA to make it happen. Indeed, the FHFA’s timeline has this process being finalized in 2018. The only way for the public to affect the course of reform is through the type of input the FHFA is now seeking:

FHFA invites interested parties to provide written input on the questions listed [within the Request for Input] 60 days of the publication of this document, no later than August 29, 2016. FHFA also invites additional input on the topics discussed in this document that are not directly responsive to these questions.

Input may be submitted electronically using this response form. You may also want to review the FHFA’s update on Implementation of the Single Security and the Common Securitization Platform and its credit risk transfer page as it has links to other relevant documents.