The Future of Homeownership

Brooklyn Law Notes - Fall 2018I wrote a short article, Restoring The American Dream, for Brooklyn Law Notes. It is based on my forthcoming book on federal housing finance policy. It opens,

Two movie scenes can bookend the last hundred years of housing finance. In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), George Bailey speaks to panicked depositors who are demanding their money back from Bailey Bros. Building and Loan. This tiny thrift in the little town of Bedford Falls had closed its doors after it had to repay a large loan and temporarily ran out of money to return to its depositors. George tells them:

You’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house…right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and then, they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can.

Local lenders lent locally, and local conditions caused local problems. And in the early 20th century, that was largely how Americans bought homes.

In Adam McKay’s movie The Big Short (2015), the character Jared Vennett is based on Greg Lippmann, a former Deutsche Bank trader who made well over a billion dollars for his employer betting against subprime mortgages before the market collapse. Vennett demonstrates with a set of stacked wooden blocks how the modern housing finance market has been built on a shaky foundation:

This is a basic mortgage bond. The original ones were simple, thousands of AAA mortgages bundled together and sold with a guarantee from the U.S. government. But the modern-day ones are private and are made up of layers of tranches, with the AAA highest-rated getting paid first and the lowest, B-rated getting paid last and taking on defaults first.

Obviously if you’re buying B-levels you can get paid more. Hey, they’re risky, so sometimes they fail…

Somewhere along the line these B and BB level tranches went from risky to dog shit. I’m talking rock-bottom FICO scores, no income verification, adjustable rates…Dog shit. Default rates are already up from 1 to 4 percent. If they rise to 8 percent—and they will—a lot of these BBBs are going to zero.

After the whole set of blocks comes crashing down, someone watching Vennett’s presentation asks, “What’s that?” He responds, “That is America’s housing market.” Global lenders lent globally, and global conditions caused global and local problems. And in the early 21st century, that was largely how Americans bought homes.


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The Future of Securitization

SEC Commissioner Piwowar

SEC Commissioner Piwowar

SEC Commissioner Michael Piwowar’s Remarks at ABS Vegas 2016 are worth a look for all of those interested in the future of the mortgage-backed securities market. I have interspersed selections of his remarks with my comments:

As our country’s capital markets regulator, the SEC’s tripartite mission is to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation.  Securitization can transform illiquid assets like mortgages, auto loans, credit card receivables, and future sales of David Bowie albums into marketable securities.  By serving as an efficient means of allocating scarce capital, securitization supports economic growth, business development, and job creation.  Securitization further fosters resiliency by diversifying the funding base of our economy.

There are many other benefits associated with securitization, including the potential for reduced costs of, and expanded access to, credit for borrowers, the ability to match risk profiles for specific investor demands, and increased secondary market liquidity.  Because banks and other originators can move loans off of their balance sheets into asset-backed securities (ABS), securitization can increase the availability of credit for both businesses and individuals.  In many instances, securitization can allow a person to obtain more favorable terms than can be obtained from a bank or other financial institution.

Thus, the ABS market serves as a critical source of capital, providing funding for home and automobile loans, credit cards, and many other purposes.  Yet, as shown during the recent financial crisis, investors may abandon the ABS market if they do not believe they possess sufficient information to evaluate the risks associated with a particular asset-backed security and to price it accordingly.

While I generally agree with Piwowar’s assessment of securitization’s value, it is worth noting that he does not acknowledge how important robust consumer protection is to maintaining a healthy securitization market over the long run.

I found his discussion of the Dodd-Frank credit risk retention rules particularly interesting:

For the record, I voted against the credit risk retention rules.  These rules require a securitizer to retain a minimum 5% credit risk of any securitization transaction and generally prohibit the sponsor from hedging its retained interest.  I was particularly dismayed by the “one-size-fits-all” approach taken by the regulators to create a flat 5% risk retention requirement for all asset classes, except for securitizations involving so-called “qualified residential mortgages” (QRMs) for which the risk retention level is zero.  These were arbitrary choices.

Residential mortgages, commercial mortgages, credit card receivables, and automobile loans each have distinct and different attributes associated with their underlying borrowers.  Rather than carefully examining these attributes to determine an optimal credit risk retention rate for each asset class, prudential regulators in Washington, D.C., took the easy way out – they simply set it at the maximum statutory rate and ignored the authorization from Congress to create lower risk retention requirements or use alternative methods to align interests.

Perhaps the prudential bureaucrats had their own conflict of interests in setting these requirements.  After all, a prudential bureaucrat has a strong interest in self-preservation.  Will a prudential bureaucrat get credit if optimally tailored risk retention rates increase economic growth and provide additional opportunities to families and businesses across America?  No.  Will a prudential bureaucrat take the blame if the next financial crisis – and there will be one eventually – relates at all to securitizations?  Probably.  Hence, what better way to side step responsibility than to refrain from using reasoned judgment and rely solely on the most risk-averse interpretation of statute instead?

Bureaucratic self-preservation might also explain the decision to adopt as broad of an exemption for QRMs as possible, so as to minimize any political fallout from the real estate and housing industries.  Few will disagree that residential mortgage-backed securities played an important role in the 2008 financial crisis.  For those in the audience involved in RMBS offerings, you must be quite happy with the broad exemption from the risk retention rules.  For those of you in the audience who are involved in other types of securitizations that had little, if any, part in causing the financial crisis, you are probably wondering why you were unfairly targeted.  Unfortunately, unlike Las Vegas, what happens in Washington does not stay in Washington. (footnotes omitted)

Piwowar gives short shrift to the benefits of clear and simple rules, but it is still worth paying attention to his critique of the “one size fits all” risk retention rules. If researchers can demonstrate that these rules are not optimally tailored, perhaps that would provide a reason to reconsider them. This is, of course, a long shot, given that the rules have been finalized, but Piwowar is right to shine light on the issue nonetheless.

Candid and thoughtful remarks from regulators are always refreshing. These make the grade.

Reviewing the Big Short


Wax Statue of Ryan Gosling at Madame Tussauds quoted me in Explaining the Housing Crash With Jenga—Did ‘The Big Short’ Get It Right? The story reads in part,

One of the more hyped movie releases this Oscar season stars the housing crisis itself: “The Big Short,” in which four financial wheelers and dealers (Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt) join forces to figure out what caused the housing bubble of 2003-2005 to burst (and how they could profit from it, of course). It’s based on the best-selling, intensively reported book by journalist Michael Lewis.

Granted, the subprime mortgage meltdown is a complicated subject… but this movie purports to illuminate all with a simple visual aid: a tower of Jenga blocks. As Gosling explains in [this video clip], mortgage bonds at that time were made up of layers called tranches, with the highest-rated and most secure loans stacked on top of the lower-rated “subprime” ones. And once holders of those subprime mortgages defaulted in droves, as they did starting in 2006, the whole structure collapsed. Jenga!

Which seems simple enough. Only is this depiction accurate, or just a Hollywood set piece?

Well, according to David Reiss, Research Director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, this movie’s high-concept depiction of the mortgage crisis is largely on the money.

“There is a lot that is accurate in the clip: the history of mortgage-backed securities, the degradation of mortgage quality during the subprime boom, the loss of value of lower grade tranches,” he says.

*     *     *

Yet there is one thing that the movie did fudge, according to Reiss.

“I would argue that there is one big inaccuracy that exists, I am sure, for dramatic effect,” he says. “I would have put the AAA [tranches] at the bottom of the Jenga stack. In fact, the failure of the Bs and BBs did not cause the failure of AAAs, and many AAAs survived just fine or with modest losses.”

In other words, only the top half of the Jenga tower should have crumbled … but that wouldn’t have looked quite as flashy, would it?

“It would not sound as cool if only the top part of the stack crashed,” Reiss concedes. “But the bigger point, that the failures of the secondary mortgage market led to the crash of the housing market, is spot on.”

And hopefully one that won’t play out again in real life.