A New Chance For Housing Finance Reform

Even as the world contends with the most recent political-economic upheavals, from the aftermath of Brexit to mass migration, unfinished work remains from the 2008 global financial crisis. If left undone, the same stresses that led to the last U.S. housing crisis will continue to dog the financial system.

Eight years have passed since Congress put Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac under conservatorship controlled by the Federal Housing Financial Agency (FHFA), meant to be a temporary salve to calm the market in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis. In 2014, legislative efforts for long-term housing finance reform gained momentum under the bi-partisan Johnson-Crapo bill, but the bill never came to a floor vote.

Now, new thinking on how to restructure the $4.5 trillion secondary mortgage market marks a growing consensus and renewed opportunity for a solution, according to a research symposium sponsored by the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative and the Penn Institute for Urban Research and held in June at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The symposium examined two proposals — one from Andrew Davidson, founder and president of Andrew Davidson & Co. Inc., and one from housing finance and policy experts Jim Parrott, Lewis Ranieri, Gene Sperling, Mark Zandi and Barry Zigas.

Housing Finance Reform
Photo by midiman
Housing Finance Reform

By addressing issues that stalled legislative action in the last go-round, the two proposals move the debate forward, according to Susan Wachter, Wharton professor of Real Estate and organizer of the symposium, in a Penn Wharton Public Policy Issue Brief co-authored with Patricia McCoy, professor at the Boston College Law School. In particular, while the Johnson-Crapo bill proposed dividing Fannie and Freddie’s functions among many players to create a competitive industry, the new proposals both advocate centralizing the system. The reason: Both plans posit that large-scale efficiencies in mortgage securitization make it a natural monopoly, and any competitive market may just naturally lead again to a duopoly or oligopoly that’s too big to fail.

But there are ways to structure the new monopoly or duopoly in ways that maintain efficiency and competition in the housing finance market, while safeguarding taxpayer liabilities, according to the plans’ authors. In particular, the proposals would consolidate the purchasing, pooling, master servicing and risk control functions, still enabling “competition where it should occur” in mortgage origination, innovation and customer service, write Wachter and McCoy. The centralization of those securitization infrastructure functions would allow lenders of all sizes to compete and the secondary market to access a variety of private capital sources, including the capital markets, reinsurers, mortgage insurers, lenders and others. A primary difference between the two proposals is the structure chosen to house the new centralized functions.

A New Government Corporation

Representing his co-authors at the Wharton symposium, Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, recommended that government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac be merged into a single government corporation, a closely regulated monopoly tentatively named the National Mortgage Reinsurance Corporation (NMRC). By separating out mortgage securitization as a government function and mortgage origination as the province of private lenders, the system helps avoid perverse incentives by the mortgage securitization entity to make excessively risky loans to feed the creation of securities. In addition, lenders of all sizes will have equal access to securitize their loans at the NMRC, and competition between lenders will help keep mortgage rates down, increase access to mortgages and promote innovation in products and services, noted Zandi.

Both plans posit that large-scale efficiencies in mortgage securitization make it a natural monopoly, and any competitive market may just naturally lead again to a duopoly or oligopoly that’s too big to fail.

The NMRC would take on Fannie and Freddie’s core functions of purchasing and pooling home loans, issuing securities backed by the loans, providing master servicing of the loans, and furthering affordable housing goals and duty-to-serve requirements, funded by a 10 basis points fee included in the NMRC’s guarantee fee. The entity would be required to transfer non-catastrophic risk to the private sector. In addition, the NMRC’s retained portfolio of mortgage-backed securities would shrink significantly, and the new government corporation would be prohibited from using it for investment purposes.

To help inject market discipline into the government corporation and protect taxpayers, the NMRC would raise capital from the private capital markets. The NMRC would be backed by 8.5% capital altogether — with holders of common equity raised from the markets covering the first 3.5% in losses and holders of fixed-dividend securities raised from the markets covering the next 2.5% of losses. If losses exceed 6%, a mortgage insurance fund (MIF), akin to federal bank deposit insurance and funded by the 10 basis point fee referenced above, would cover the next 2.5% of losses. The 6% level is double the realized GSE losses during housing crisis but under the 10% required under the Johnson-Crapo bill, noted Wharton’s Wachter.

Zandi highlighted five benefits of the NMRC. First, it solves too-big-to-fail by helping to eliminate incentives towards making riskier loans to feed the securitization engine. Second, it provides access to all lenders, big and small, including those lending in underserved communities. Third, its capital structure helps protect taxpayers while maintaining mortgage rates at current levels, rather than raising them. Fourth, the new system promotes competition by giving every lender access to the system on the same terms, creating “pure competition in the primary market, key to creating innovation in the mortgage market and to addressing demographic changes,” said Zandi. Last, transition costs are minimal, leveraging off a transition already under way, as the FHFA has been requiring the GSEs to transfer more credit risk to the private market since 2013.

A Co-op

In contrast, Davidson proposes putting the functions of mortgage securitization, “central to the government-sponsored enterprises’ mission of creating liquidity in the secondary market,” into new entities that are mutually owned by mortgage originators. Similar to Zandi’s proposal, these functions would include the buying and pooling of loans, the issuance of mortgage-based securities, and master servicing of the loans. (Unnecessary functions include a retained portfolio of mortgage-backed securities, which would be significantly cut or eliminated.) In Davidson’s plan, profits paid out to the mutual owners in the form of dividends ideally would be recycled into their mortgage businesses. Each mutual would also have the freedom to fulfill its duty to the secondary market through means of its own choosing.

Under the plan, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac each would have the opportunity to convert into a mutual, regulated by the FHFA. Down the road, if the two new mutual companies find they cannot coexist, they could merge. But that more radical transformation isn’t necessary in the near term to move Fannie and Freddie out of conservatorship.

To protect taxpayers and enable the mutual companies to continue operating through housing crises, Davidson recommends that up to 75% of risk on new GSE loans be “reinsured” through credit risk sharing programs with mortgage insurers, reinsurers, REIT’s, banks, loan originators and others. The mutual companies’ exposure to losses would be subject to a cap. In addition, the entities’ mortgage-backed securities then receive

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