Rising Rates and The Mortgage Market

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance at a Glance Chartbook for March focuses on how rising interest rates have been impacting the mortgage market. The chartbook makes a series of excellent points about current trends, although homeowners and homebuyers should keep in mind that rates remain near historic lows:

As mortgage rates have increased, there has been no shortage of articles explaining the effect of rising rates on the mortgage market. Mortgage rates began their present sustained increase immediately after the last presidential election in November 2016, 20 months ago. Enough data points have become available during thisperiod that we can now measure the effects of rising rates. Below we outline a few.

Refinances: The most immediate impact of rising rates is on refinance volumes, which fall as rates rise. For mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the refinance share of total originations declined from 63 percent in Nov 2016 to 46 percent today (page 11). For FHA, VA and USDA-insured mortgages, the refinance share dropped from 44 percent to 35 percent. In terms of volume, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac backed refinance volume totaled $390 billion in 2017, down from $550 billion in 2016. For Ginnie Mae, refi volume dropped from $197 billion in 2016 to $136 billion in 2017. Looking ahead, most estimates for 2018 point to a continued reduction in the refi share and origination volumes (page 15).

Originator profitability: Of course, less demand for mortgages isn’t good for originator profitability because lenders need to compete harder to attract borrowers. They do this often by reducing profit margins as rates rise (conversely, when rates are falling and everyone is rushing to refinance, lenders tend to respond by increasing their profit margins). Indeed, since Nov 2016, originator profitability has declined from $2.6 per $100 of loans originated to $1.93 today (page 16). Post crisis originator profitability reached as high as $5 per $100 loan in late 2012, when rates were at their lowest point.

Cash-out share: Another consequence of falling refinance volumes is the rising share of cash-out refinances. The share of cash-out refinances varies partly because borrowers’ motivations change with interest rates. When rates are low, the primary goal of refinancing is to reduce the monthly payment. Cash-out share tends to be low during such periods. But when rates are high, borrowers have no incentive to refinance for rate reasons. Those who still refinance tend to be driven more by their desire to cash-out (although this doesn’t mean that the volume is also high). As such, cash-out share of refinances increased to 63 percent in Q4 2017 according to Freddie Mac Quarterly Refinance Statistics. The last time cash-out share was this high was in 2008.

Industry consolidation: A longer-term impact of rising rates is industry consolidation: not every lender can afford to cut profitability. Larger, diversified originators are more able to accept lower margins because they can make up for it through other lines of business or simply accept lower profitability for some time. Smaller lenders may not have such flexibility and may find it necessary to merge with another entity. Industry consolidation due to higher rates is not easy to quantify as firms can merge or get acquired for various reasons. At the same time, one can’t ignore New Residential Investment’s recent acquisition of Shellpoint Partners and Ocwen’s purchase of PHH. (5)

Bringing Housing Finance Reform over the Finish Line

photo by LarryWeisenberg

Mike Milkin at Milkin Institute Global Conference

The Milkin Institute have released Bringing Housing Finance Reform over the Finish Line. It opens,

The housing finance reform debate has once again gained momentum with the goal of those involved to move forward with bipartisan legislation in 2018 that results in a safe, sound, and enduring housing finance system.

While there is no shortage of content on the topic, two different conceptual approaches to reforming the secondary mortgage market structure are motivating legislative discussions. The first is a model in which multiple guarantor firms purchase mortgages from originators and aggregators and then bundle them into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) backed by a secondary federal guarantee that pays out only after private capital arranged by each guarantor takes considerable losses (the multiple-guarantor model). This approach incorporates several elements from the 2014 Johnson-Crapo Bill and a subsequent plan developed by the Mortgage Bankers Association. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs)—would continue as guarantors, but would face new competition and would no longer enjoy a government guarantee of their corporate debt or other government privileges and protections.

The second housing finance reform plan is based on a multiple-issuer, insurance-based model originally proposed by Ed DeMarco and Michael Bright at the Milken Institute, and builds on the existing Ginnie Mae system (the DeMarco/Bright model). In this model, Ginnie Mae would provide a full faith and credit wrap on MBS issued by approved issuers and backed by loan pools that are credit-enhanced either by (i) a government program such as the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) or U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), or (ii) Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)- approved private credit enhancers that arrange for the required amounts of private capital to take on housing credit risk ahead of the government guarantee. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would be passed through receivership and reconstituted as credit enhancement entities mutually owned by their seller/servicers.

While the multiple guarantor and DeMarco/Bright models differ in many ways, they share important common features; both address key elements of housing finance reform that any effective legislation must embrace. In the remainder of this paper, we first identify these key reform elements. We then assess some common features of the two models that satisfy or advance these elements. The final section delves more deeply into the operational challenges of translating into legislative language specific reform elements that are shared by or unique to one of the two models. Getting housing finance reform right requires staying true to high-level critical reform elements while ensuring that technical legislative requirements make economic and operational sense.  (2-3, footnotes omitted)

The report does a good job of outlining areas of broad (not universal, just broad) agreement on housing finance reform, including

  • The private sector must be the primary source of mortgage credit and bear the primary burden for credit losses.
  • There must be an explicit federal backstop after private capital.
  • Credit must remain available in times of market stress.
  • Private firms benefiting from access to a government backstop must be subject to strong oversight. (4-5)

We are still far from having a legislative fix to the housing finance system, but it is helpful to have reports like this to focus us on where there is broad agreement so that legislators can tackle the areas where the differences remain.

Taking up Housing Finance Reform

photo by Elliot P.

I am going to be a regular contributor to The Hill, the political website.  Here is my first column, It’s Time to Take Housing Finance Reform Through The 21st Century:

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mortgage giants under the control of the federal government, have more than 45 percent of the share of the $10 trillion of mortgage debt outstanding. Ginnie Mae, a government agency that securitizes Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Affairs (VA) mortgages, has another 16 percent.

These three entities together have a 98 percent share of the market for new residential mortgage-backed securities. This government domination of the mortgage market is not tenable and is, in fact, dangerous to the long-term health of the housing market, not to mention the federal budget.

No one ever intended for the federal government to be the primary supplier of mortgage credit. This places a lot of credit risk in the government’s lap. If things go south, taxpayers will be on the hook for another big bailout.

It is time to implement a housing finance reform plan that will last through the 21st century, one that appropriately allocates risk away from taxpayers, ensures liquidity during crises, and provides access to the housing markets to those who can consistently make their monthly mortgage payments.

The stakes for housing finance reform today are as high as they were in the 1930s when the housing market was in its greatest distress. It seems, however, that there was a greater clarity of purpose back then as to how the housing markets should function. There was a broadly held view that the government should encourage sustainable homeownership for a broad swath of households and the FHA and other government entities did just that.

But the Obama Administration and Congress have not been able to find a path through their fundamental policy disputes about the appropriate role of Fannie and Freddie in the housing market. The center of gravity of that debate has shifted, however, since the election. While President-elect Donald Trump has not made his views on housing finance reform broadly known, it is likely that meaningful reform will have a chance in 2017.

Even if reform is more likely now, just about everything is contested when it comes to Fannie and Freddie. Coming to a compromise on responses to three types of market failures could, however, lead the way to a reform plan that could actually get enacted.

Even way before the financial crisis, housing policy analysts bemoaned the fact that Fannie and Freddie’s business model “privatizing gains and socialized losses.” The financial crisis confirmed that judgment. Some, including House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), have concluded that the only way to address this failing is to completely remove the federal government from housing finance (allowing, however, a limited role for the FHA).

The virtue of Hensarling’s Protecting American Taxpayers and Homeowners Act (PATH) Act of 2013 is that it allocates credit risk to the private sector, where it belongs. Generally, government should not intervene in the mortgage markets unless there is a market failure, some inefficient allocation of credit.

But the PATH Act fails to grapple with the fact that the private sector does not appear to have the capacity to handle all of that risk, particularly on the terms that Americans have come to expect. This lack of capacity is a form of market failure. The ever-popular 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, for instance, would almost certainly become an expensive niche product without government involvement in the mortgage market.

The bipartisan Housing Finance Reform and Taxpayer Protection Act of 2014, or the Johnson-Crapo bill, reflects a more realistic view of how the secondary mortgage market functions. It would phase out Fannie and Freddie and replace it with a government-owned company that would provide the infrastructure for securitization. This alternative would also leave credit risk in the hands of the private sector, but just to the extent that it could be appropriately absorbed.

Whether we admit it or not, we all know that the federal government will step in if a crisis in the mortgage market gets bad enough. This makes sense because frozen credit markets are a type of market failure. It is best to set up the appropriate infrastructure now to deal with such a possibility, instead of relying on the gun-to-the-head approach that led to the Fannie and Freddie bailout legislation in 2008.

Republicans and Democrats alike have placed homeownership at the center of their housing policy platforms for a long time. Homeownership represents stability, independence and engagement with community. It is also a path to financial security and wealth accumulation for many.

In the past, housing policy has overemphasized the importance of access to credit. This has led to poor mortgage underwriting. When the private sector also engaged in loose underwriting, we got into really big trouble. Federal housing policy should emphasize access to sustainable credit.

A reform plan should ensure that those who are likely to make their mortgage payment month-in, month-out can access the mortgage markets. If such borrowers are not able to access the mortgage market, it is appropriate for the federal government to correct that market failure as well. The FHA is the natural candidate to take the lead on this.

Housing finance reform went nowhere over the last eight years, so we should not assume it will have an easy time of it in 2017. But if we develop a reform agenda that is designed to correct predictable market failures, we can build a housing finance system that supports a healthy housing market for the rest of the century, and perhaps beyond.

Ensuring Sustainable Homeownership

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My short article, Ensuring That Homeownership Is Sustainable, was just published in the Westlaw Journal, Bank & Lender Liability. It opens,

The Federal Housing Administration has suffered as a result of many of the same unrealistic underwriting assumptions that led to problems for many lenders during the 2000s. It, too, was harmed by a housing market as bad as any since the Great Depression.

As a result, the federal government announced in 2013 that the FHA would require the first bailout in the agency’s history. While facing financial challenges, the FHA has also come under attack for the poor execution of policies designed to expand homeownership opportunities.

Leading commentators have called for the federal government to stop having the FHA do anything but provide liquidity to the low end of the mortgage market.

These critics rely on a few examples of agency programs that were clearly failures, but they do not address the FHA’s long history of undertaking comparable initiatives.

 In fact, the FHA has a history of successfully undertaking new homeownership programs. However, it also has operational flaws that should be addressed before it undertakes similar future homeownership initiatives.

INTRODUCTION TO THE FHA

Mortgage insurance is a product that is paid for by the homeowner but protects the lender if the homeowner defaults on the mortgage. The insurer pays the lender for losses it suffers from the homeowner’s default. Mortgage insurance is typically required for borrowers who have limited funds for down payments.

The FHA provides mortgage insurance for loans on single family and multifamily homes, and it is the world’s largest government mortgage insurer. Other significant providers are the Department of Veterans Affairs and private companies known as private mortgage insurers.

Mortgage insurance makes homeownership possible for many households that would otherwise not be able to meet lenders’ underwriting requirements.

Just like much of the federal housing infrastructure, the FHA has its roots in the Great Depression. The private mortgage insurance industry, like many others, was decimated in the early 1930s. Companies in the industry began to fail as almost half of all mortgages went into default. The government created the FHA to replace the PMI industry, which remained dormant for decades.

In the Great Depression, the housing markets faced problems that were similar to those faced by the same markets in the late 2000s. These problems included rapidly falling housing prices, widespread unemployment and underemployment, the rapid tightening of credit and — as a result of all of those trends — much higher default and foreclosure rates.

The FHA noted in its second annual report, issued in 1936, that the “shortcomings of the old system need no recital. It financed extensive overselling of houses at inflated values, to borrowers unable to pay for them.” Needless to say, the same could be said of our most recent housing bust.

Over its lifetime, the FHA has insured more than 40 million mortgages, helping to make homeownership available to a broad swath of American households. Indeed, the FHA mortgage has been essential to America’s transformation from a nation of renters to one of homeowners.

The early FHA created the modern American housing finance system, as well as the look and feel of post-war suburban communities through the construction standards the agency set for the new houses it insured.

The FHA has also had many other missions over the course of its existence — and a varied legacy to match.

Beginning in the 1950s, the FHA’s role changed from serving the entire mortgage market to focusing on certain segments. This changed mission had a major impact on everything the FHA did, including how it underwrote mortgage insurance and for whom it did so.

In recent years, the FHA has come under attack for poorly executing some of its attempts to expand homeownership opportunities, and leading commentators have called for the federal government to stop assigning such mandates to the agency. They argue that the FHA should focus only on providing liquidity for the portion of the mortgage market that serves low- and moderate-income households.

These critics rely on a couple of examples of failed programs, such as the Section 235 program enacted as part of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 and the American Dream Downpayment Assistance Act of 2003.

Those programs required borrowers to make only tiny and sometimes even nominal down payments. The government enacted the Section 235 program in response to the riots that burned through American cities in the 1960s. It was intended to expand homeownership opportunities for low-income households, particularly black ones.

The American Dream program was also geared to increasing homeownership among lower-income and minority households. The crux of the critique of these programs is that they failed to ensure that borrowers had the capacity to repay their mortgages, leading to bad results for the FHA and borrowers alike.

Notwithstanding these failed initiatives, the FHA has a parallel history of successfully undertaking new homeownership programs. These successes include programs for veterans returning home from World War II, a mission that was later handed off to the VA.

At the same time, historically the FHA has clearly suffered from operational failures that should be addressed in the design of any future initiatives.

Unfortunately, the agency has not really grappled with its past failures as it moves beyond the financial crisis. To properly address operational failures, the FHA must first identify its goals. (6-7, footnote omitted)

Friday’s Government Reports Roundup

CFPB Mortgage Market Rules

woodleywonderworks

Law360 quoted me in Questions Remain Over CFPB Mortgage Rules’ Market Effects (behind a paywall). The story highlights the fact that the jury is still out on exactly what a mature, post-Dodd-Frank mortgage market will look like. As I blogged yesterday, it seems like the new regulatory regime is working, but we need more time to determine whether it is providing the optimal amount of sustainable credit to households of all income-levels. The story opens,

Despite fears that a set of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau mortgage rules that went into effect last year would cut off many black, Hispanic and other borrowers from the mortgage market, a recent government report showed that has not been the case.

Indeed, the numbers from the Federal Financial Institutions Examinations Council’s annual Home Mortgage Disclosure Act annual report showed that the percentage of black and Hispanic borrowers within the overall mortgage market actually ticked up in 2014, even as the percentage of loans those two communities got from government sources went down.

However, it may be too early to say how the CFPB’s ability-to-repay and qualified-mortgage rules are influencing decisions by lenders and potential borrowers as the housing market continues to recover from the 2008 financial crisis, experts say. 

“Clearly, there’s a story here, and clearly there’s a story from this 2014 data,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School. “But I don’t know that it’s that QM and [ability to repay] work.”

The CFPB was tasked with writing rules to reshape the mortgage market and stop the subprime mortgage lending — including no-doc loans and other shoddy underwriting practices — that marked the period running up to the financial crisis.

Those rules included new ability-to-repay standards, governing the types of information lenders would have to collect to have a reasonable certainty that a borrower could repay, and the qualified mortgage standard, a class of mortgages with strict underwriting standards that would be considered the highest quality.

The rules took effect in 2014, after the CFPB made changes aimed at easing lenders’ worries over potential litigation by borrowers should their QMs falter.

Even with those changes, there were worries that black, Hispanic and low-income borrowers could be shut out of the market, as lenders focused only on making loans that met the QM standard or large loans, known as jumbo mortgages, issued primarily to the most affluent borrowers.

According to the HMDA report, that did not happen in the first year the rules were in effect.

Both black and Hispanic borrowers saw a small uptick in the percentage of overall mortgages issued in 2014.

Black borrowers made up 5.2 percent of the overall market in 2014 compared with 4.8 percent in 2013, when lenders were preparing to comply with the rule, and 5.1 percent in 2012, the report said. Latino borrowers made up 7.9 percent of the overall market in 2014 compared with 7.3 percent in 2013 and 7.7 percent in 2012, the federal statistics show.

And the percentage of the loans those borrowers got from government-backed sources like the Federal Housing Administration, a program run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development targeting first-time and low- to middle-income borrowers, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies fell.

Overall, 68 percent of the loans issued to black borrowers came with that direct government support in 2014, down from 70.6 percent in 2013 and 77.2 percent in 2012, the HMDA report found. For Hispanic borrowers, 59.5 percent of the mortgages issued in 2014 had direct government support, down from 62.8 percent in 2013 and 70.7 percent in 2012.

For backers of the CFPB’s mortgage rules, those numbers came as a relief.

“We were definitely waiting with bated breath for this,” said Yana Miles, a policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending.

To supporters of the rules, the mortgage origination numbers reported by the federal government showed that black and Hispanic borrowers were not being shut out of the mortgage market.

“Not only did we not see lending from those groups go to zero, we’re seeing a very, very small baby step in the right direction,” Miles said. “We’re seeing opposite evidence as to what was predicted.”

And in some ways, the CFPB has written rules that met the goal of promoting safe lending following the poor practices of the housing bubble era while still giving space to lenders to get credit in the market.

“We have a functioning mortgage market,” Reiss said.