Please read and comment on the entries that follow.  The most current one will be highlighted on this page; earlier entries can be found under the archives link below.

Mortgage Finance Reform Panel Dicsussion, CFA Financial Services Conference

December 02, 2017

CFA's 2017 Financial Services Conference featured a panel discussion on Dec 1 with Michael Stegman, Milken Institute; Mark Zandi, Moody's Analytics; Steve O'Connor, Mortgage Bankers Association; and Robert Henson, Credit Union National Association.


Credit Access and Mortgage Finance Reform

May 08, 2017

In late April, 2017 I was invited to participate in a panel on affordability issues in mortgage finance reform at a New York workshop sponsored by the Federal Reserve Banks of New York and Atlanta, the Federal Reserve Board, the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, and UCLA's Anderson School of Management. I summarized what I think are the critical pillars of a mortgage finance system, which I’ve edited into the bullets below.  Four colleagues and I expanded on the need for and an approach to affordability in mortgage finance reform in January as part of our series of essays describing A More Promising Road to GSE Reform, which can be downloaded through the link.

Assure that entities that use government support do not “cream” the market

This first point seems obvious and hard to oppose – a mortgage finance regime supported by the government should not be allowed to exclude credit worthy borrowers or reduce liquidity for primary market lenders serving these communities without good cause.  At a minimum, the book of business at these entities should reflect the distribution of loans being originated across income, race and other characteristics.  This is the central, original purpose of the housing goals.  Yes, they are imperfect and sometimes have been misused.  But you cannot assess what you cannot measure.  Some form of bench-marking, whether imposed by the government regulator based on market research and projection, or by the entities themselves using market data and economic projections approved by a regulator as some have suggested, is needed to monitor guarantors’ performance.  Fannie and Freddie have been under a revised housing goals regime since coming under conservatorship in 2008 and the HERA revisions and a de-politicized goals process have improved them.  In fact, GSE credit terms are significantly tighter than in the early 2000's under this regime, a continuing issue that still needs to be addressed.

Create a mandate for “leading the market” into new areas through research, pilots, and partnerships that extend secondary market liquidity responsibly

But matching the market is not enough.  The government’s support for these entities should include an obligation to use the secondary market’s central role in the marketplace to responsibly expand credit.  This is what the often-abused term “lead the market” means to me.  This “duty to serve” requirement was adopted in the 2008 HERA GSE amendments to focus attention on three specific market sectors – rural housing, manufactured housing and affordable housing preservation. Fannie and Freddie published their first proposed DTS plans under this provision on May 8.  What was speculative in 2013 has become an operating reality.  It should not be cast aside as reform discussions move forward.

Charge a fee on government backed MBS to support market expanding activities and contribute to support for low income rental assistance programs

Finally, reform should include a fee on all government backed MBS in the form of a strip collected every year on outstanding securities.  These proceeds should fund the market expanding efforts in the duty to serve, through risk sharing on new, untested products, on helping to create additional effective demand from consumers, and so on, as well as housing and community development funding outside of the mortgage finance system.  Fannie and Freddie's DTS plans should show further examples of how the GSEs can help develop and prove new markets. The GSEs today already pay an assessment on each year’s business to fund the Housing Trust Fund and Capital Magnet Fund, this year amounting to $455 million.  Shifting this volume-based one-time fee to a yearly ongoing strip will provide a significantly larger and more reliable source to continue that funding in addition to the market expanding efforts in the duty to serve. 

The Promising Road proposal I co-authored and the MBA’s new effort both envision some form of this combination of requirements in a future system.  The recent Milken Institute proposal includes the fee in the form of a 10 basis point strip -- as did the ill-fated Johnson-Crapo legislation in 2014 --  and suggests further elaboration in a later paper. These features are already required under conservatorship.  Reform should maintain and improve them.  Without these or similar requirements that blend quantitative measures of broad service to the market, an expectation that enterprises benefiting from a federal guarantee will help lead the market into new opportunities, and funding to support such work through a fee, reform could easily wind up sponsoring mortgage credit in ways that exclude households and communities from its benefits, an unacceptable outcome.


Fannie Mae’s Game Changing Announcement

August 31, 2015

Fannie Mae last week announced a significant new product, HomeReadyTM, designed to expand the company’s ability to provide financing for low and moderate income borrowers.  HomeReady builds on the company’s historical family of low-down payment mortgage products with flexible underwriting features, starting with Community Home BuyersTM in 1993 and continuing through the My Community Mortgage® product. It is available to borrowers with incomes at or below 80 percent of their Area Median Income (AMI) or borrowers of any income living in designated Census tracts.

The product adds underwriting flexibilities and caps risk-based fees for loans above 80 percent LTV with borrower credit scores of 680 at 150 basis points, less than for similar non-HomeReady loans.  It also requires only 25 percent MI cover on HomeReady loans with LTV’s above 90 percent. These should make Fannie Mae mortgages more competitive for the targeted low wealth and LMI borrowers and enable lenders to make more loans to these borrowers with a secondary market execution.

But the really game-changing features of HomeReady are its adoption of a standardized consumer education requirement and the incorporation of the product into Fannie Mae’s Desktop Underwriter® (DU) automated underwriting system while offering unlimited lender access to the product.  With the first Fannie Mae has established a new standard that will affect the entire housing education and counseling industry.  With the second it has broken a long-standing tradition of offering HomeReady’s antecedents in only limited quantities as part of individual lender contracts. By promising that DU® will flag loans that qualify for HomeReady even if the lender does not specify them as such, and by offering them without volume limits, Fannie Mae has brought a flexible low down payment loan into its mainstream business in an unprecedented way.

Homebuyer Education

Fannie has been a supporter of homeownership education and counseling since the beginning of its community lending business in the early 1990’s.  Both Community Home Buyer and My Community Mortgage required borrowers to certify they had received housing counseling (although this requirement was briefly suspended for MCM in the mid-2000’s).  While at first this requirement could only be fulfilled through a HUD-certified counseling agency, years of pressure from lenders and mortgage insurers led Fannie to broaden the requirement to permit these other actors and other methods in the mortgage process to provide it.  Given the self-interested nature of these players, and the increasing pressure to increase the velocity and efficiency of mortgage originations, these products’ counseling requirement became less standardized and, according to some, less comprehensive and meaningful at the products aged.

HomeReady requires that the borrower complete an on-line homeownership education course offered through a platform called Framework®.  It requires borrowers to complete the course and to foot a $75 fee for it.  While Fannie is encouraging consumers to also consult certified housing counselors (who would receive 20 percent of the fee if they refer a borrower to Framework) this will not be required.  Framework is sponsored by the Housing Partnership Network (HPN) and the Minnesota Homeownership Center and meets the requirements of the HUD Housing Counseling Program and the National Industry Standards for Homeownership Education and Counseling.

By picking one platform that is accessible to any consumer with online access in order to obtain HomeReady’s flexibilities and pricing, Fannie has reset the table for the future of homeownership education and counseling. Fannie has neatly cut through a decades-long debate about how to incorporate education into the loan process by adopting it.  The education and counseling industry will have to adjust to this standard now.  Efforts to further refine or expand the use of classroom or face to face counseling will have to start with the premise that targeted consumers will use the Framework curriculum and certification.

DU and Community Lending

The announced availability of HomeReady through DU without contract limits is a huge paradigm shift.  If the product actually succeeds in qualifying more LMI borrowers it means its growth will be hindered only by effective demand, while MCM and Community Home Buyer were constrained by budgeted supply.

If the biggest story in mortgage underwriting in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s was the introduction and widespread adoption of automated underwriting, one of the biggest in 2015 will be Fannie’s decision to make their new HomeReady product available on the platform.  MCM was offered only through manual underwriting until 2006.  This required lenders to pull these loans out of their newly developed default business processes, which slowed its adoption.  Moreover,  lenders only could access it through individual contract provisions and for fixed amounts specified in them.  As described in last week’s announcement, this is not the case with HomeReady.

Enabling DU to flag loans that are eligible for HomeReady is another accelerant that should increase its market penetration.  Rather than manually assess a loan’s eligibility for the increased flexibilities, lenders should be able to run all loans through DU and get a recommendation from the system if a loan qualifies.  This removes another process barrier for lenders and should increase consumer access to the product compared to a non-DU execution, or one that requires the lender to flag the loan as HomeReady eligible.

Lenders will be able to commingle HomeReady and other loans in MBS pools and whole loan commitments, another feature that should make using the product easier and more seamless for lenders.

New Product Features

The HomeReady product adopts a number of underwriting flexibilities that are designed to increase credit access for LMI borrowers.

• Non borrower income will be included in calculating debt to income ratios up from the default limit of 45 percent to as high as 50 percent, which should increase such households’ buying power.  Fannie Mae states in its product materials that its research shows such income is “sticky” and persistent, and as stable as income that does not include such sources.

• Allows non occupant borrowers, and rental payments, such as from a basement apartment, and boarder income can augment the borrower’s qualifying income

• Lower mortgage insurance requirements, though these weren’t specified in the announcement

• Use of nontraditional credit

• Allowing gifts, grants, Community Seconds® and cash-on-hand to be used for down payments

• Allowing manufactured homes and HomeStyle® renovation loans up to 95 percent LTV

Freddie Mac has not announced a comparable product yet.  But historically, Freddie has followed Fannie Mae in such initiatives after some period of time.  Fannie’s announcement promises further details through the rest of the year and expects to go live with the product on DU and accept HomeReady loan deliveries late in 2015.


Progress on Mortgage Finance Reform?

March 12, 2014

More than five years after the housing bust pushed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into conservatorship, housing finance reform seems a step closer to reality with the announcement  on March 11, 2014 that the Chair of the Senate Banking Committee and the Ranking Minority Member have reached agreement on a comprehensive bill.

In announcing the agreement yesterday, staffs from both Chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Ranking Member Mike Crapo (R-ID) provided a high-level summary of the bill they have been drafting for months, following an extensive series of hearings and meetings with stakeholders.  Staff was only able to provide a brief, one-page summary of the developing legislation’s details yesterday at a hastily convened briefing for stakeholders.  They said that actual legislative language will be circulated to committee members “shortly,” with the expectation that a full draft bill will be available within weeks and a mark up in the full  Senate Committee scheduled within months.

Staff said that the bill is “built” on S. 1217, the bill introduced last year by Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Mark Warner (D-VA) and cosponsored by a bipartisan group of 10 Senators.  That bill built on recommendations from, among others, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s housing commission, and would wind down Fannie and Freddie and replace them with a full faith and credit guarantee on mortgage backed securities, offered through a new public regulator to issuers of securities that first obtained significant private guarantees that would protect investors ahead of any government-funded guarantee.  The bill attracted significant attention throughout the year, and has become the “chassis” for other approaches.

Staff yesterday said that their bill will change some important aspects of S. 1217 in response to all the hearings and stakeholder feedback.  These changes include the following important features:

  • All guaranteed securities would be issued by a single entity, created by the public guarantor (called the Federal Mortgage Insurance Corporation, FMIC, in S. 1217) and operated as a utility mutually owned by the private entities making use of it.  Other, non guaranteed securities could use the same platform, but all guaranteed securities would be required to do so.  It was unclear if such PLS customers would have to join the cooperative operating the platform or not.  This single securitization platform would build on one that the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) has sponsored through a new corporation jointly owned by Fannie and Freddie. (Progress on this new platform has been slow, with no Chairman or CEO yet chosen to run the company, although it has leased space in suburban Washington, D.C.)  This platform would establish consistent underwriting, servicing and other requirements for insured bonds.  The servicing rules would build on those issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) last year as part of the Dodd-Frank implementation; how they would elaborate on that rule is not clear. Staff said the underwriting requirements would “mirror” the so-called “Qualified Mortgage” definition issued by the CFPB that became effective earlier this year, but no details were provided.  The current maximum single family mortgage amounts would be retained.    
  • The bill would require a minimum down payment of at least 5 percent, phased in over a short period.  First time homebuyers could put down a minimum of 3.5 percent. 
  • FMIC is modeled in part on the FDIC.  It will collect guarantee fees to finance its work and to fund a reserve that would be used to cover timely payment of principal and interest to investors in the event the private capital required is exhausted.  FMIC would require aggregators to obtain private credit guarantees backed by capital equal to at least 10 percent of the exposure, in a form determined by the FMIC.  This could include straight equity as well as back-end risk sharing arrangements through capital markets structures.  Private guarantees provided by capital market structures alone would have to include a full 10 percent first loss.  
  • Mortgage assets would be aggregated by private firms for issuance by the new utility.  To facilitate participation in the system by smaller lenders, the bill would establish a new, mutually owned lender cooperative open to any lender with less than $500 billion in assets which would operate a cash window and keep servicing rights for lenders who wish to use that execution, a holdover from S. 1217.  In addition, FMIC would require all aggregators to offer a “level playing field” for lenders by barring variable pricing based on size.  
  • Fannie and Freddie would be wound down over a 5 year transition period, which could be extended if certain benchmarks in developing the new system are not met.  Their existing MBS would receive a full faith and credit guarantee to assure continued liquidity after the new system is launched.  
  • Staff said that their bill will include a mandate that the system facilitate the broad availability of credit, and monitor consumer and market access to credit.  S. 1217 lacked both a strong mandate and a viable mechanism for monitoring the performance of both the system and its users.  Whether the new bill accomplishes this important objective successfully will depend on the actual language.  The bill would terminate the current housing goals regime for Fannie and Freddie.   
  • Like S. 1217, the bill would impose a new fee on all insured mortgage backed securities in the form of a 10 basis point strip on the bonds’ outstanding UPB.  This fee would directly fund affordable housing and community development activities through the Housing Trust Fund at HUD and the Capital Magnet Fund for CDFIs at Treasury.  Whether and how the fee would finance a so-called “Market Access Fund” within the FMIC, a key goal for many consumer and progressive groups, is unclear. Staff also said that the fee could vary depending on issuers and guarantors success at meeting certain objectives to fully serve the market as determined by the FMIC. But they said while fees could be lower or higher for individual issuers, the average charged fee on each year’s production would have to be 10 percent,  
  • The bill would extend a federal guarantee to multifamily mortgage bonds.  It would retain the current risk-sharing models at Fannie and Freddie and spin out their current multifamily businesses.  Multifamily issuers and guarantors could be the same entities, which how the current GSE risk-sharing models are run.  This this is not the case for single family guarantors, who have to be separate and, if part of a larger institutions, separately capitalized.  Staff described but did not detail affordability requirements that would apply ao all insured multifamily securities.

As in all things congressional, the devil of this new attempt to reform the mortgage finance system will be in its details.  These will become clear once actual legislative language is available for review.  But the agreement on these major “architectural” features, and the commitment to move forward, are very important steps.  And based on the staff briefing, the new draft has incorporated a number of important new features sought by progressive and consumer groups, including the preservation of the fee at the maximum level of 10 bps included in the early version of S. 1217; the addition of what staff described as a strong, clear mandate to make sure the system supports widespread access for the widest range of credit-worthy borrowers and communities; a clear expectation that the FMIC judge the performance of both the system and its participants; and a significant approach to ensuring federal support for rental housing finance, including a requirement that it primariliy serve tenants at affordable rents.


Love Me Do

September 08, 2013

There has recently been a spate of articles with headlines like “More Evidence Ending Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is a Mistake,” and “Don’t Kill Fannie Mae.” It seems the closer Congress actually gets to taking on the mortgage finance system, the more reasons people find for loving Fannie and Freddie.  This reminds me of my daily struggle to walk the mile home from the Metro, rather than take the bus.  They both get me home, but walking is healthier.  But when I get to the bus stop, the doubts rise up - it’s hot.  It’s hard.  I’ll do it tomorrow.  Likewise, changing the mortgage finance system is hard.  There are a lot of unknowns.  Congress has an iffy track record trying to legislate new, complicated financial systems.  The old system worked well.  The companies are making money.  The crisis is over and we should just go back to the comfortable way we did things and it’ll all be good.

Fannie and Freddie did produce lots of value for the US housing economy and homebuyers in general.  They standardized the mortgage process and helped lower costs.  They attracted trillions of dollars in capital into the housing system, keeping it liquid and robust.  They provided stability for housing finance when other financial markets suffered liquidity crises.  Fannie and Freddie achieved these objectives through charters that mixed a series of benefits with a series of obligations.  After Fannie was privatized in 1968, and Freddie in 1989, both companies were forced to balance the demands of shareholders with the public benefit obligations their charters required.  Even after they were taken into conservatorship and funded with billions of public money to shore up their capital, their structures, brand and expertise have kept mortgage funds flowing through the worst financial crisis in generations.

What troubles me about these articles is that conflating the companies with the important outcomes we need in the mortgage system muddies the water and makes an already difficult public policy challenge even moreso.  Once, affordable consumer access to mortgage credit and the companies themselves were inextricably intertwined.  But their collapse in 2008 offers a rare and important opportunity to address some of the uncomfortable problems that really were too hard to deal with before, when there was no compelling reason to do so and the companies’ combined political muscle made it impractical.

The outcomes Fannie and Freddie were charged with assuring - liquidity in the mortgage market, standardization and stability through business cycles, and the broadest possible access for both consumers and lenders - remain critically important.  These must be the touchstones for whatever path Congress takes.

The rest of this blog looks at some of concerns about the companies that predate this crisis, and reviews and comments on the arguments that are appearing in support of returning to them as the system’s anchors.

The Old System Was Not Perfect

The companies enjoyed the benefits of a federal guarantee but didn’t pay for it. They did operate under corresponding constraints—they were restricted to the mortgage business, limited to the US, and they were expected to operate everywhere in the US at all times, for instance.  But the heart of their business model was leveraging this implicit guarantee.  Fannie engaged in multiple deep dives to explore the benefits of a fully private alternative, and each time concluded that the charter’s benefits far outweighed its costs.  I assume Freddie did similar research.

Benefits to shareholders were obvious, but not as much to borrowers. The companies did standardize the system, kept mortgages liquid and brought capital into the system through the full range of business cycles.  Their dominance and standardization shrank margins that otherwise could have been inflated by other market players.  In fact, some of the rush to invest in private label securities (PLS) that fueled the housing boom and bust was driven by the higher margins lenders and securitizers could command for these bonds where Fannie and Freddie were not active.  But disputes over just where their charter benefits ended up were long-standing and promoted not just by banks hoping to cut into their markets and margins, but also by economists and government regulators concerned about private enrichment through the public benefits.

Until Congress insisted in 1992, neither company had a very robust or convincing commitment to using their market position to extend homeownership opportunities or to experiment with new products and services that would do so. When they were good -through the Opening Doors Campaign and the Trillion Dollar Commitment at Fannie Mae, for instance - they were very good.  But even more than a decade after Congress rebalanced their mission vs. shareholder obligations, there was constant pressure at both companies to minimize investments in the former and maximize the latter.

They weren’t immune to failure, and when the country needed them most, they failed the test. Fannie and Freddie didn’t cause the mortgage crisis.  But when the chips were down and they had to choose between satisfying shareholders clamoring for growth when PLS was booming and eroding their market share vs. standing by their chartered purpose to provide a stable anchor for the mortgage finance system, they picked the shareholders, tried to recapture market share by moving into riskier market segments, and ended up requiring billions in taxpayer support. And Fannie had nearly failed once before in the 1980’s, when it was a portfolio lender and got caught in a severe squeeze between low-yielding assets and high cost liabilities.

What Are the Arguments?

The Argument:  We Shouldn’t Kill Fannie and Freddie. They are the best way to deliver the needed results.  They worked for decades.  Plenty of large financial institutions failed in the Great Recession.  That crisis is over and we can take our finger off the “pause” button and get back to the way things were.

There certainly are proposals that wind down Fannie and Freddie and do not replace them with any system of government support for the broad market.  But while this is a catchy headline, the current debate is not the all or nothing proposition it suggests.  Most of the proposals that have emerged post-2009 have focused on disaggregating and reorganizing the functions that Fannie and Freddie grew to include over more than 70 years.  They focus on what the government must do to preserve public benefits and outcomes, not preserving structures or specific companies.

This is the path emerging in the Senate Banking Committee through the legislation introduced by Sens. Corker and Warner and other co-sponsors.  It was repeatedly invoked by House Financial Services Committee members arguing against Chairman Jeb Hensarling’s PATH Act, which would kill Fannie and Freddie and not replace it them with another form of government support.  It was the heart of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s housing commission recommendations in February, 2013.  And it was sort of endorsed by President Obama in his August 7, 2013 speech on housing policy.

The Argument:  Fannie and Freddie Can Efficiently Provide Market Stability and Liquidity: Fannie and Freddie have continued to provide liquidity to the markets under conservatorship, and did so before they failed.  Like other bailed-out financial institutions, they should be allowed to pay back what they borrowed and move on.

There’s no doubt that they’ve continued to provide liquidity.  But this is because conservatorship has preserved the key feature of the companies’ charters—a government guarantee-and kept them running in a form of managed bankruptcy.

There’s broad agreement that attracting the capital needed for the country’s housing finance needs will require securitization to tap capital markets.  There’s also broad agreement that some form of government guarantee to rate investors will be necessary to do this, especially for long term, fixed rate mortgages.  Pre-conservatorship, Fannie and Freddie provided this guarantee on their securities.  As their boosters point out, this system worked great.  Housing finance boomed.  Homeownership rates climbed.  Access increased.  Why try to fix something that’s not broken?

But the model worked because of the implied guarantee that led investors to assume that the companies’ mortgage backed securities (MBS) were “as good as” government securities.  When the companies failed in 2008, it turned out the investors were right,  getting everything the companies promised them through billions of dollars in new capital provided by taxpayers.

Since the crisis broad consensus has emerged that any government guarantee going forward should be explicit and paid for, and apply only to the securities themselves, not private companies that issue or insure them.  The fees charged for the guarantee would underwrite the government’s insurance to protect taxpayers from all but the most calamitous financial donnybrooks.

But if Fannie and Freddie have to give up their most important feature - the free, implicit support of the US Government - then they have nothing to offer that any other very large financial institution could.  If the government is going to provide a guarantee to investors and charge for it, why should just two companies have access to it?  Ginnie Mae offers a federal guarantee of mortgage securities, for which lenders pay, and many entities issue securities through their execution.

(Of course, other financial institutions, insurance companies or automobile manufacturers that required government support during the financial crisis didn’t pay for that guarantee, either.  Two wrongs, though, don’t make a right. The Dodd Frank Act attempted to deal with the larger problem through its too big to fail provisions and the so-called Volcker Rule.  Whether those are effective or not is a topic for someone else.  One lesson of the crisis is that no matter what, the government always will bear the tail risk of any deep and sustained financial crisis or real estate asset bubble. The challenge is to minimize the likelihood of it happening again and not be unprepared when it does.)

The Argument:  It’s Not Possible to Build a Better Mousetrap. What Fannie and Freddie did is too complicated to do any other way.  It would add too much uncertainty to the market.  It might not work.  It’s fixing something that isn’t broken.

But the crisis did break the model.  As government chartered entities with special privileges and public mission responsibilities, the GSEs should have been an unbreachable safe harbor from the reckless lending by private investors and lenders that overran the financial system.  Report after report has documented that they did not start the boom.  But their eroding market share and fears of growing irrelevance led them to move into riskier loans to claw back share from private label executions and to remain a favored partner of some of their largest customers.  The inherent conflict between having a franchise from the government and responsibilities to shareholders in an asset bubble like the housing boom proved a major contributor to their undoing.

Again, the functions that Fannie and Freddie provided must be preserved in any new system.  But doing that does not require using the same entities or the same organizational model.

Some have suggested that rather than try to totally reengineer the system, the government should preserve them by simply exercising its current rights to 79.9 percent of the companies’ shares and operate them as a government-owned enterprise.  (I described and explored this and other options in a white paper published by CFA in 2010.) This would rewind the tape back to before 1968, at least organizationally, when Fannie was part of the government and Freddie hadn’t been created yet.  They’d have a full guarantee.  The billions in profits they are now making would benefit the government.  It would justify the scores of billions of dollars already lent them.  There would be no future conflict between shareholders and the taxpayer.  Management could be paid fairly, but not exorbitantly.

It sounds appealing.  But advocates for this approach need to explain how to get Congress to agree to nationalize the American mortgage system and raise the government’s debt ceiling by more than $5 trillion to cover their combined outstanding debt and guarantees.  And the result would not be Fannie and Freddie as we know them today.

A twist on this is to restore them as some kind of utility, devoted only to providing insurance on securities, presumably with an explicit government guarantee.  This would mean regulating their returns and business practices and hoping that they wouldn’t gain the upper hand over their regulator over time.  This also could be a path to maintaining the functions necessary to support affordable mortgage credit.  Utilities typically work when there’s a monopoly provider of a service and preserving that monopoly is the most efficient way to provide the service, like electric power.  Whether mortgage finance fits the model is a good question.  But a mortgage utility would not be Fannie and Freddie.

Some others have suggested avoiding the uncertainty of changing the system by keeping the current conservatorship going indefinitely.  The companies are making billions.  FHFA has its foot on their necks. Consumers are getting mortgages.  There’s an effective government guarantee. Through a kind of “see no evil, speak no evil” agreement with Congress, their debt isn’t yet on the government’s balance sheet.  But the recent swarm of lawsuits from the remaining junior preferred and common stockholders suggests that this is not a tenable option. The longer this goes on, the more credible these claims are likely to seem.

Finally, some have suggested leaving them intact but making them pay for their government guarantees, hold higher levels of capital, and reorganize in some fashion, perhaps as a mutual company owned by lenders, subject to much closer regulation.  This is a kind of “utility light” concept.  The companies may have a future in a system with these features in some reorganized form.  Unwinding them in their current form wouldn’t foreclose this.  But if the government shifts to charging for a guarantee of securities, what is the compelling argument that only two, specially chartered entities or two reorganized into one should be entitled to take advantage of it?  And the resulting companies wouldn’t be the Fannie and Freddie that we know today.

The recent calls to keep the companies don’t offer any concrete suggestions other than noting that their current structure could be “tweaked.” But the “tweaks” are the heart of the matter.  That’s not at all the same thing as “Save Fannie and Freddie,” which only adds distraction to an already complicated policy debate.

The Argument:  Fannie and Freddie Have Expertise that No One Else Can Replicate

Fannie and Freddie certainly dominated the mortgage securitization market, and still do today.  But the ability to aggregate mortgages, secure credit enhancements and issue securities is not a magic trick only a few hundred people at Fannie and Freddie can perform.  Lots of issuers do these functions on their own today through the Ginnie Mae execution, for instance, and others are doing it, albeit on a very limited scale, in the so-called jumbo market for loans greater than the GSEs’ loan limits.  We certainly learned that Wall Street can do it with a vengeance, as they did in the run up to the 2008 crisis.  A government guarantee, or a government chartered guarantor, is not needed to manufacture the securities. It is needed to attract a sufficiently deep and stable market of investors for them and to support other important outcomes for US consumers.

Fannie and Freddie definitely represent a source of deep intellectual capital and experience that should not be squandered in a reorganized system. But putting that talent to work doesn’t require it to be employed by the same companies or in the same structure.

For instance, there are functions at Fannie and Freddie that can and should be conveyed to government to enable it to provide a safe and sound guarantee to investors, like a common securitization platform that could standardize terms and conditions for MBS going forward.  There are a lot of other talents that will be of high value to any number of new entrants in a properly structured system.  The companies themselves might be able to reorganize around a reduced set of responsibilities and compete with others in a new system.  But they won’t be Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in that case.

That’s a really good reason to move forward expeditiously so the leakage of that talent that’s been going on for the last five years doesn’t reach a critical point of no return.  And it argues for a careful approach that consolidates the valuable functions that are best managed in one place, like issuing government guarantees, managing counterparties, assuring that market participants serve the entire market in return for access to the guarantee, and standardizing securities, their pooling and serving standards, for instance, in a government entity devoted to these utility functions.

The Argument:  Only Big Banks and the Creators of the Mortgage Crisis will Benefit From Unwinding Fannie and Freddie. The GSE’s didn’t cause the crisis (although there remain strong advocates on the fringe of the debate who still maintain they did).  Big banks were gunning for them for years because they squeezed profit margins on mortgages through their dominance and advantaged pricing.  Eliminating these specially chartered institutions will throw mortgage consumers to the wolves.

If nothing is done to replace the functions that Fannie and Freddie provide, this is likely to be true.  But it doesn’t necessarily follow that life without them has only one outcome or that they are the only means to prevent it.

A non-Fannie/Freddie future that maintains the essential governmental functions they provide today would require a system that set high and consistent standards for assets backing guaranteed securities.  Securitizers and credit enhancers would have to demonstrate service to the entire country, and to the broadest possible range of credit-worthy borrowers.  This would require good regulation and close oversight, something that will be needed regardless of how many issuers using government guarantees there are.

Another strand of this argument is that without the modifying influence of Fannie and Freddie, big banks will be able to ramp up fees without limit and all the benefit the GSEs provided to consumers will be lost.  Ironically, recent rates for some jumbo loans have been lower than for Fannie and Freddie loans.  A system that charges for a federal guarantee will be more costly than the old one which did not charge for it.  That’s just logical.  But it’s not clear to me why transparency in pricing to consumers and competition among credit enhancers battling over market share while balancing the costs of risk and capital to mitigate it wouldn’t keep costs under control.  Fannie and Freddie competed aggressively for market share in securities guarantees, one reason guarantee fees remained low.  But they also were able to subsidize that business with their highly profitable portfolios, and without guaranteed portfolios it stands to reason that the fees will rise no matter what.

The Argument:  Fannie and Freddie Operate a Portfolio, and This Provided Significant Systemic Benefits That Cannot Be Replaced. The GSEs can buy whole loans directly from originators because they have portfolios, funded by debt they issue, which carries the same implicit guarantee as their mortgage securities.  Small lenders love the GSEs’ cash window because it is a competitive alternative to selling loans to large aggregators, and the GSEs don’t require the originator to surrender the servicing rights, with their ongoing communication with the consumer.  The cash bid also sets a reference price that limits what large aggregators can charge originators who either can’t or won’t securitize the loans on their own.

Preserving access by small lenders to secondary market capital must be a high priority for reform. But if the GSEs are stood up again without a guarantee, they won’t have any particular advantage over any other large lender willing to buy loans. And if Congress were willing to extend a guarantee to the portfolios and charge a fee for it in order to advantage a cash execution for small lenders, how could this benefit remain restricted to only one or two companies?

The 12 Federal Home Loan Banks are owned by these very same smaller banks and still have implicitly guaranteed borrowing authority.  Maybe they could be directed to provide this service, since liquidity for home lending is supposed to be their main purpose, they have no interest in taking the servicing rights, and there seems no appetite in Congress for eliminating their implicit guarantee. Or, as is proposed in the Corker-Warner bill, a cooperative owned by smaller lenders could do the same thing.

Finally, many small lenders in today’s market successfully use the Ginnie Mae guarantee directly to get liquidity.  A system with a government guarantee on securities, but not on entities issuing them, ought to offer the same opportunity.

Less Smoke, More Fire

Some of the recent essays with the headline “save Fannie and Freddie,” seem to really be making the point that radical proposals to simply eliminate the companies without replacing them with something that sustains the good outcomes they helped provide would be disastrous. I agree with that point of view.  But in that case it would be much more helpful to focus on what’s needed in the future system and how to best organize it, rather than stirring things up with headlines about the entities themselves.

Some others do go further and argue that simply hitting the “reset” button and restoring the companies themselves is the right path. Some of these are opportunistic and cynical hedge fund investors in the companies’ stock who would gain mightily if this happened.  Some think the companies have been unfairly blamed for the system’s failure and ought to be allowed the same opportunity to pay back what the government lent them and move on as other mega-finance companies.  Others believe that it is too hard to rebuild a new system, and that some decades of successful performance should count for something, even after the crisis and the firms’ collapse.

These boosters have yet to answer the tough questions of how to actually make the mousetrap better, focus it more clearly on public benefit, effectively balance the underlying tensions between private ownership and public purpose and minimize exposure by the taxpayers except in extraordinary crises. And now that we’ve had one, this is more important. The more clamor there is for preserving the companies without addressing these problems, the more focused the discussion will become on the companies and their conflicts and controversial structures, rather than their functions, and the less productive it will be.

The collapse of Fannie and Freddie is really too good a crisis to waste, as Rahm Emmanuel might put it. Creating a durable system that will support reasonable access to sustainable mortgage credit for rental and ownership housing is critical for the nation’s economic and social health.

It’s easier to take the bus, but I hope we’ll get out and walk this time.


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