Tag: mortgage lending

The CAP-AEI Fannie Mae Food Fight

It’s probably never wise to inject oneself into the middle of a food fight, but since I think both sides actually have something right and something wrong, its been a worthwhile debate to follow.  That is the ongoing debate between Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute and David Min at the Center for American Progress (at least we can all agree we love America) on the role of Fannie Mae (and Freddie Mac) in the financial crisis.  If you can’t guess, Peter says Fannie/Freddie caused the crisis, David says they didn’t.

David makes an interesting point, one I’ve actually argued, in his latest retort.  That is, this wasn’t exclusively a housing crisis/bubble.  Other sectors, like commercial real estate, boomed and then went bust; other countries, with different housing policies, also had bubbles.  True from what I can tell.  I will also add that the U.S. office market actually peaked and fell before the housing market, so we can safely say there wasn’t contagion from housing to other parts of the real estate market. 

But the problem with this argument, at least for David, is that it undercuts the Dodd-Frank Act, which he has regularly defended.  The implicit premise of Dodd-Frank is that predatory mortgage lending caused the crisis, so now we need Elizabeth Warren to save us from evil lenders.  But how does predatory lending explain the office market bubble?  Do we really believe that deals between sophisticated parties, poured over by lawyers, were driven by predatory lending practices?  Do we also believe that other countries were also plagued by bad mortgage brokers?  Again, I think David is right about the problem being beyond housing, but he can’t have it both ways.

What is the common factor driving bubbles in commercial real estate, housing, and foreign real estate markets?  Maybe interest rates.  This was a credit bubble after all.  Especially since the Fed basically sets interest rate policy for the world.  It is hard for me to believe that three years (2002–2004) of a negative real federal funds rate isn’t going to end badly.  This is what I think Peter misses, the critical role of the Federal Reserve in helping blow the bubble.  But Dodd-Frank does nothing to change this. 

Now there are a ton of things I think both still miss.  We could argue all day about what a subprime mortgage is.  I think the definitions used by Wallison (and Pinto) are reasonable.  There is also a degree, a large one, to which David and Peter are just talking past each other.  For instance, there is something special about the U.S. housing market that transfers much of the risk to the taxpayer.  In contrast, the bust in the office market didn’t leave the taxpayer to pick up the tab.  That has to count for something, unless one just doesn’t care about the taxpayer. 

There are a few other issues that make Fannie/Freddie uniquely important in the crisis, but I lack the space to go into them here. Instead, I’ll wrap up by saying that their role in the overnight repurchase (re-po) market is under-appreciated and their ability to essentially neuter the Fed was critical in keeping the bubble going.  What’s for dessert?

If Not Fannie, then Who?

A common defense offered for keeping Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or something like them, is that the market simply cannot absorb the same level of mortgage lending without them.  The central flaw in this argument is that Fannie and Freddie themselves must be funded by the market.  So if the financial markets can absorb X in GSE debt, then the financial markets can absorb X in mortgages.

Different market participants currently face different capital requirements for the same assets.  To some extent, Fannie and Freddie were a vehicle for shifting mortgage risk from higher capitalized institutions to less capitalized.  If the Obama administration and bank regulators are serious about closing “regulatory gaps” then all entities backed by the govt, implicit or otherwise, should hold the same capital against the same risks.  In the following I will thus assume that differences in capital requirements behind mortgages are irrelevant.

So to determine who could absorb the GSEs’ buying of mortgages, let’s look at who holds GSE debt.  Of the approximately $5 trillion in GSE debt and mortgage backed securities (MBS), about a trillion is held by commercial banks and thrifts.  Another trillion is held by insurance companies and pension funds.  Close to a trillion is held by mutual funds.  That quickly gets one to 3 trillion.  Households and state/local governments also hold close to a trillion.  That leaves us with about a trillion left, held mostly by foreign governments (usually central banks).  For this analysis, I am using data pre-Federal Reserve purchases of GSE debt/MBS.

Given that banks hold about a trillion in excess reserves and over 9 trillion in deposits, I think its fair to assume commercial banks could easily absorb another $1 trillion in mortgages, as represented by foreign holders.   Some holders of GSE debt are legally prohibited from holding mortgages.  These entities can generally hold bank commercial paper (think mutual funds) which could then fund the same level of mortgages.  

The point here should be clear, by swapping out GSE debt for mortgages, our financial markets have sufficient capacity to replace Fannie and Freddie.  In fact, we are the only advanced country that does not fund our mortgage market primarily or exclusively with bank deposits.  This analysis also does not assume any reduction in the size of our mortgage market, which should actually be an objective of reform.  We devote too much capital to mortgages, at the expense of more productive sectors of our economy.

FHA Bailout Watch

The Federal Housing Administration has been one of the government’s main instruments for propping up the housing market in the wake of the housing bust. But as has been widely reported, the FHA is in danger of needing a taxpayer bailout because of rising defaults on mortgages it insures.

FHA-insured loans originated in 2007 and 2008 – when Bush administration housing officials were mainly concerned with “winning back our share of the market” – are defaulting at higher rates as this graphic from the Washington Post shows:

FHA officials are optimistic a bailout won’t be needed, but the Post reports that not everyone shares this optimism:

The audit, released in November, found that the cash the FHA set aside to pay for unexpected losses had dipped to historic lows, well below the level required by law. As of Sept. 30, those reserves were estimated at $3.6 billion, down from nearly $13 billion a year earlier. The most recent figure represents 0.53 percent of the value of all FHA single-family-home loans – far lower than the 2 percent required by Congress.

But Ann Schnare, a former Freddie Mac official, said the situation could be even worse. She said the audit underestimates future losses because it does not take into account all loans that are now overdue, only those that the FHA has paid claims on.

To avoid a bailout, the FHA recently proposed more stringent standards, which would include raising the premiums it charges to cover losses. However, even if a bailout isn’t needed and the FHA continues to “make money,” that would only call into question the need for the FHA to begin with. Why can’t the private sector provide all mortgage insurance?

The answer is that the mortgage lending industry likes knowing it can originate mortgages that the government will cover in the event of a default. Heads they win, tails Uncle Sam loses. The president’s new budget makes this clear in addressing concerns about the FHA’s currently low reserves:

However, it is important to note that a low capital ratio does not threaten FHA’s operations, either for its existing portfolio or for new books of business. Unlike private lenders, the guarantee on FHA and other federal loans is backed by the full faith and credit of the Federal Government, and is not dependent on capital reserves — FHA can never “run out” of money.

That’s right – the federal government can simply tax, borrow, or fire up the printing presses.

The government has been propping up the housing market with taxpayer subsidies in the wake of a housing boom and bust it helped create. If policymakers continue to keep the housing market on artificial life support, taxpayer will remain on the hook. If it pulls the plug and the market takes another downward spiral, Washington will probably rush in with more bailouts.  It appears taxpayers can’t win.

See this essay for more on federal housing finance.

Perpetuating Bad Housing Policy

Perhaps the worst feature of the bailouts and the stimulus has been that, whatever their merits as short terms fixes, they have done nothing to improve economic policy over the long haul; indeed, they compound past mistakes.

Here is a good example:

For months, troubled homeowners seeking to lower their mortgage payments under a federal plan have complained about bureaucratic bungling, ceaseless frustration and confusion. On Thursday, the Obama administration declared that the $75 billion program is finally providing broad relief after it pressured mortgage companies to move faster to modify more loans.

Five hundred thousand troubled homeowners have had their loan payments lowered on a trial basis under the Making Home Affordable Program.

The crucial words in the story are “$75 billion” and “pressured.”

No one should object if a lender, without subsidy and without pressure, renegotiates a mortgage loan. That can make sense for both lender and borrower because the foreclosure process is costly.

But Treasury’s attempt to subsidize and coerce loan modifications is fundamentally misguided. It means many homeowners will stay in homes, for now, that they cannot really afford, merely postponing the day of reckoning.

Treasury’s policy is also misguided because it presumes that everyone who owned a house before the meltdown should remain a homeowner. Likewise, Treasury’s view assumes that all the housing construction over the past decade made good economic sense.

Both presumptions are wrong. U.S. policy exerted enormous pressure for increased mortgage lending in the years leading up to the crisis, thereby generating too much housing construction, too much home ownership and inflated housing prices.

The right policy for the U.S. economy is to stop preventing foreclosures, to stop subsidizing mortgages, and to let the housing market adjust on its own. Otherwise, we will soon see a repeat of the fall of 2008.

Housing Bailouts: Lessons Not Learned

The housing boom and bust that occurred earlier in this decade resulted from efforts by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the government sponsored enterprises with implicit backing from taxpayers — to extend mortgage credit to high-risk borrowers. This lending did not impose appropriate conditions on borrower income and assets, and it included loans with minimal down payments. We know how that turned out.

Did U.S. policymakers learn their lessons from this debacle and stop subsidizing mortgage lending to risky borrowers? NO. Instead, the Federal Housing Authority lept into the breach:

The FHA insures private lenders against defaults on certain home mortgages, an inducement to make such loans. Insurance from the New Deal-era agency has enabled lending to buyers who can’t make a big down payment or who want to refinance but have little equity. Most private lenders have sharply curtailed credit to those borrowers.

In the past two years, the number of loans insured by the FHA has soared and its market share reached 23% in the second quarter, up from 2.7% in 2006, according to Inside Mortgage Finance. FHA-backed loans outstanding totaled $429 billion in fiscal 2008, a number projected to hit $627 billion this year.

And what is the result of this surge in FHA insurance?

The Federal Housing Administration, hit by increasing mortgage-related losses, is in danger of seeing its reserves fall below the level demanded by Congress, according to government officials, in a development that could raise concerns about whether the agency needs a taxpayer bailout.

This is madness. Repeat after me: TANSTAAFL (There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch).

C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z

Administration Reform Plan Misses the Mark

The Obama Administration is presenting a misguided, ill-informed remake of our financial regulatory system that will likely increase the frequency and severity of future financial crises. While our financial system, particularly our mortgage finance system, is broken, the Obama plan ignores the real flaws in our current structure, instead focusing on convenient targets.

Shockingly, the Obama plan makes no mention of those institutions at the very heart of the mortgage market meltdown – Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These two entities were the single largest source of liquidity for the subprime market during its height. In all likelihood, their ultimate cost to the taxpayer will exceed that of TARP, once TARP repayments have begun. Any reform plan that leaves out Fannie and Freddie does not merit being taken seriously.

Instead of addressing our destructive federal policies aimed at extending homeownership to households that cannot sustain it, the Obama plan calls for increased “consumer protections” in the mortgage industry. Sadly, the Administration misses the basic fact that the most important mortgage characteristic that is determinate of mortgage default is the borrower’s equity. However, such recognition would also require admitting that the government’s own programs, such as the Federal Housing Administration, have been at the forefront of pushing unsustainable mortgage lending.

While the Administration plan recognizes the failure of the credit rating agencies, it appears to misunderstand the source of that failure: the rating agencies’ government-created monopoly. Additional disclosure will not solve that problem. What is needed is an end to the exclusive government privileges that have been granted to the rating agencies. In addition, financial regulators should end the outsourcing of their own due diligence to the rating agencies.

The Administration’s inability to admit the failures of government regulation will only guarantee that the next failures will be even bigger than the current ones.