Laurie Goodman of the Urban Institute has posted A Realistic Assessment of Housing Finance Reform. This paper is quite helpful, given the incredible complexity of the topic. The paper includes a lot of background, but I assume that readers of this blog are familiar with that. Rather, let me share her Top Ten Design Issues:
- What form will the private capital that absorbs the first loss take: A single guarantor (a utility), multiple guarantors, or multiple guarantors along with capital markets execution? How much capital will be required?
- Who will play what role in the system? Will the same entity be permitted to be an originator, aggregator, and guarantor?
- How will the system ensure that historically underserved borrowers and communities are well served? To what extent will the pricing be cross subsidized?
- Who will have access to the new government-backed system (loan limits)? How big should the credit box be, and how does that box relate to FHA?
- Will mortgage insurance be separate from the guarantor function? (It is separate under most proposals, but in reality both sets of institutions are guaranteeing credit risk. The separation is a relic of the present system, in which, by charter, the GSEs can’t take the first loss on any mortgage above 80 LTV. However, if you allow the mortgage insurers and the guarantors to be the same entity, capital requirements must be higher to adequately protect the government and, ultimately, the taxpayers.)
- How will small lenders access the system? (All proposals attempt to ensure access, some through an aggregator dedicated to smaller lenders—a role that the Home Loan Banks can play.)
- What countercyclical features should be included? If the insurance costs provided by the guarantors are “too high” should the regulatory authority be able to adjust capital levels down to bring down mortgage rates? Should the regulatory authority be able to step in as an insurance provider?
- Will multifamily finance be included? How will that system be designed? Will it be separate from the single-family business? (The multifamily features embedded in Johnson-Crapo had widespread bipartisan support, but the level of support for a stand-alone multifamily legislation is unclear.)
- The regulatory structure for any new system is inevitably complex. Who charters new guarantors? What are the approval standards? Who does the stress tests? How does the new regulator interact with existing regulators? What enforcement authority will it have concerning equal access goals? What is the extent of data collection and publication?
- What does the transition look like? How do we move from a duopoly to more guarantors? Will Fannie and Freddie turn back to private entities and operate as guarantors alongside the new entrants? How will the new entities be seeded? What is the “right” number of guarantors, and how do we achieve that? How quickly does the catastrophic insurance fund build? (16-17)
None of this is new, but it is nice to see it all in one place. These design issues need to thought about in the context of the politics of housing reform as well — what system is likely to maintain its long-term financial health and stay true to its mission, given the political realities of Washington, D.C.?
Speaking of politics, her prognosis for reform in the near term is not too hopeful:
The current state of the GSEs can best be summed up in a single word: limbo. Despite the fact that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were placed in conservatorship in 2008, with the clear intent that they not emerge, there is little progress on a new system, with a large role for private capital, to take their place. Legislators have realized it is easy to agree on a set of principles for a new system but much harder to agree on the system’s design. It is unclear whether any legislation will emerge from Congress before the 2016 election; there is a good chance there will be none. (26)
She does allow that the FHFA can administratively move housing finance reform forward to some extent on its own, but she rightly notes that reform is really the responsibility of Congress. Like Goodman, I am not too hopeful that Congress will act in the near term. But it is crystal clear that there is a cost of doing nothing. In all likelihood, it will be the taxpayer will pay that cost, one way or another.