Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

March 13, 2017

Three Paths to Housing Finance Reform

By David Reiss

photo by theilr

The Urban Institute’s Jim Parrott has posted Clarifying the Choices in Housing Finance Reform. It opens,

The housing finance reform debate has often foundered under the weight of its complexity. Not only is it a complicated topic, both in its substance and its politics, but the way that we talk about it makes the issues involved indecipherable to all but a few. Each proponent brings a different nomenclature, a different frame of reference, often an entirely different language, making it enormously difficult to sort through where there is agreement and where there is not.

As a case in point, three prominent proposals for reform have been put on the table in recent months: one offered by Lew Ranieri, Gene Sperling, Mark Zandi, Barry Zigas, and me (Promising Road Proposal); one offered by Ed DeMarco and Michael Bright (Milken Proposal); and one offered by the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA Proposal). These proposals have been discussed and debated in many forums, each assessed for its respective merits, risks, and likelihood of passage in Congress, but each largely in isolation from one another. That is, they are not compared in any intelligible way, forcing those hoping to come to an informed view to choose among what appear to be entirely different visions of reform, without any easy way to make sense of the choice.

In this brief essay, I thus bring these three proposals together into a single framework, making it clearer what they share and where they differ. Once the explanatory fog is lifted, one can see that they actually share a great deal and that deciding among them is not prohibitively complex, but a matter of assessing two or three key differences. (1-2)

After a review of each proposal, Parrott finds that there are two critical differences between the three proposals.

  • Ginnie versus CSP. For the securitization infrastructure in the new system, Milken uses the Ginnie Mae infrastructure, while the MBA and our proposal both use the CSP.
  • What to do with Fannie and Freddie. The MBA would turn them into privately owned utilities that compete with other market participants over the distribution of the system’s non-catastrophic credit risk, Milken would turn them into lender-owned mutuals that do the same, and we would combine them with the CSP to distribute that risk and manage the system’s securitization.

With these distinctions in mind, the proposals can be much more easily compared across the criteria that should ultimately drive our decisions on housing finance reform:

  • Access to sustainable credit. Which best maintains broad access to mortgage loans for those in a financial position to be a homeowner at the lowest rates?
  • Protecting the taxpayer. Which best insulates taxpayers behind private capital, aligns incentives systemwide and addresses the too-big-to-fail risk that undermined the prior system?
  • Promoting healthy competition. Which best maximizes the kinds of competition that will improve options and services for consumers, lenders, and investors?
  • Ease of transition. Which provides the least disruptive, least costly path of reform? (7-8)

This is a very useful tool for understanding the choices that we face if we are to move beyond the limbo of Fannie and Freddie’s conservatorships.  One limitation is that Parrott does not address the Hensarling wing of the Republican Party which is looking to completely privatize the housing finance system for conforming mortgages. Given that Hensarling is the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee, he will have a powerful role in enacting any reform legislation.

I am not all that hopeful that Congress will be able to come up with a bill that can pass both houses in the near future.  But Parrott’s roadmap is helpful preparation for when we are ready.

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