Tag Archives: mortgages

Regulators Repeat Exactly What They Did During the Last Housing Boom

By James Kwak

The Dodd-Frank Act was supposed to require securitizers to retain 5 percent of the credit risk of the mortgage-backed securities that they issued, in order to reduce the risk of a repeat of the last housing bubble. Today, the federal financial regulators said, “Whatever,” and ignored that requirement. In particular, they created an exemption that would have covered at least 98 percent of all mortgages issued last year.

Why? Because

“adding additional layers of regulation would have contracted credit for first time home buyers and borrowers without large down payments, and prevented private capital from entering the market.”

That’s according to the head of the Mortgage Bankers Association.

This is the exact same argument that was made in favor of deregulation during the two decades prior to the last financial crisis, without the slightest hint of irony. It’s further proof that everyone has either forgotten that the financial crisis happened or is pretending that it didn’t happen because, well, maybe it won’t happen again?

Even leaving aside the specific merits of this decision, the worrying thing is that the intellectual, regulatory, and political climate seems to be basically the same as it was in 2004: no one wants to to anything that might be construed as hurting the economy, and no one wants to offend the housing industry.

The Bad Old Days

By James Kwak

There was a time when the main purpose of this blog was to explain just how some government policy or other official action was designed to benefit some large bank under the cover of the public interest. In a bit of nostalgia, I wrote this week’s Atlantic column on the Freddie Mac–Bank of America story reported on by Gretchen Morgenson. It’s clear that Bank of America got a sweetheart deal from Freddie. The question is why. Did Freddie Mac’s people, some of the most knowledgeable people in the country when it comes to mortgages, not realize they were giving away money? (Hint: Probably not.) Did FHFA examiners, some more of the most knowledgeable people in the country when it comes to mortgages, not realize that Freddie was giving money away? (Hint: See above.)

It’s amazing that after three full years of our government trying to give Bank of America money at every possible opportunity, it’s still a basket case. Now it’s charging people $5 per month to use their debit cards. Yes, this is a predictable response to new Federal Reserve regulations limiting debit card fees. But it’s easily avoidable: just find another bank. (Neither of mine charges me debit card fees.) Not every bank out there is still trying to pay for the Countrywide acquisition.

Made-Up Definitions

By James Kwak

Many commentators who want to blame Fannie and Freddie for the financial crisis base their arguments on analysis done by Edward Pinto. (Peter Wallison bases some of his dissent from the FCIC report on Pinto; even Raghuram Rajan cites Pinto on this point.) According to Pinto’s numbers, about half of all mortgages in the U.S. were “subprime” or “high risk,” and about two-thirds of those were owned by Fannie or Freddie. Last year I pointed out that Pinto’s definition of “subprime” was one he made up himself and that most of the “subprime” loans held by Fannie/Freddie were really prime loans to borrowers with low FICO scores. Unfortunately, I made that point in an update to a post on the somewhat obscure 13 Bankers blog that was mainly explaining what went wrong with a footnote in that book.

Fortunately, there’s a much more comprehensive treatment of the issue by David Min. One issue I was agnostic about was whether prime loans to people with low (<660) FICO scores should have been called “subprime,” following Pinto, or not, following the common definition. Min shows (p. 8) that prime loans to <660 borrowers had a delinquency rate of 10 percent, compared to 7 percent for conforming loans and 28 percent for subprime loans, implying that calling them the moral equivalent of subprime is a bit of a stretch. Min also shows that most of the Fannie/Freddie loans that Pinto classifies as subprime or high-risk didn’t meet the Fannie/Freddie affordable housing goals anyway — so to the extent that Fannie/Freddie were investing in riskier mortgages, it was because of the profit motive, not because of the affordable housing mandate imposed by the government.

Min also analyzes Pinto’s claim that the Community Reinvestment Act led to 2.2 million risky mortgages and points out that, as with “subprime” loans, this number includes loans made by institutions that were not subject to the CRA in the first place. Of course, the CRA claim is ridiculous on its face (compared to the Fannie/Freddie claim, which I would say is not ridiculous on its face) for a number of reasons, including the facts that only banks are subject to the CRA (not nonbank mortgages originators) and most risky loans were made in middle-income areas where the CRA is essentially irrelevant.

Mainly, though, I’m just glad that someone has dug into this in more detail than I did.

Not with a Bang

By James Kwak

In the Times, Neil Barofsky, Special Inspector General for TARP, performed the admirable feat of fitting a clear, comprehensive, sober critique of how TARP was implemented and what its long-term impact will be in fewer than 1,000 words. It’s a perspective I mainly agree with,* and it highlights the different priorities that the administration put on aid to large banks and aid to homeowners, even though both were goals of the bill.

Back in late 2008 and early 2009, there was a lot of talk about how a true solution for the problems of the banking system would require a solution for the problems of homeowners, since the banks’ losses were largely the result of mortgage defaults. One of the major technical achievements of the administration was showing that it was possible to stabilize the financial system and restore the banks to short-term profitability without doing much for homeowners. As Barofsky says, and as the Times reports in yet another article today, the administration’s programs to help homeowners obtain loan modifications had little impact on the behavior of the banks that service mortgages and foreclosures continue unabated. Real housing prices have fallen below the previous lows of 2009 and now look likely to overcorrect on the downside.**

Housing modifications are admittedly more difficult than bailing out banks. It’s administratively easier to write a few $25 billion checks and create unlimited low-interest credit lines for a few of the Federal Reserve’s existing customers than to intervene in millions of mortgages. But the financial crisis was a time of bold action on other fronts. Treasury and the Federal Reserve were willing to push the limits of the law, for example in J.P. Morgan’s takeover of Bear Stearns. (See the chapter in Steven Davidoff’s book Gods at War for the details.) Henry Paulson threatened to declare the nation’s largest banks insolvent if they didn’t agree to sell preferred stock to the government. By contrast, as law professor Katherine Porter says in the Times article, “The banks were so despised, and TARP was so front and center, you could have actually done something. In the midst of real boldness in bailing out the banks, we get this timid, soft, voluntary conditional program.”

The lesson we learned learned is that homeowners were only a priority insofar as their health mattered to the banks’ health. When those two things became unmoored, the administration was willing to declare victory.

* The main thing I don’t agree with is Barofsky’s implied criticism of the Bush administration for using TARP money to buy preferred stock from banks rather than buying mortgage-backed securities directly. While I have often criticized various aspects of the preferred stock purchases, I think it was a more direct way to stop the panic of September-October 2008, and at that point a program to purchase MBS would probably have been an even more blatant transfer to the banks.

** I’m all for prices falling from bubble levels, but the policy goal should have been preventing them from falling through the long-term trend.

A Bit More on Fannie and Freddie

By James Kwak

My previous post on Fannie/Freddie had two major parts. In the first part, I questioned whether the thirty-year fixed-rate mortgage would really go away (or become much more expensive) without Fannie/Freddie, as some people have argued. In the second part, I said, who cares?

The first part has gotten a fair amount of good criticism, for example from Arnold Kling and John Hempton (by email), and also in comments. My position, simplified, was that a thirty-year fixed-rate mortgage includes three kinds of risk: credit risk, interest rate risk, and prepayment risk. Credit risk can be diversified, interest rate risk can be hedged, and Fannie/Freddie didn’t do anything about prepayment risk anyway. This is the kind of theoretical argument people make all the time, and the obvious question is whether the world actually works that way.

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My Most Libertarian Post Ever

By James Kwak

(Yes, I know that isn’t saying much.)

Most people think that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had something to do with the financial crisis. Some people think that they were the major reason the crisis happened, which (to them) proves that activist government policy was the cause of the crisis. Other people, including me, think they were a modest contributing factor because they did buy a lot of securities that were backed by subprime loans, but they were well behind the curve when it came to mortgage “innovation” and the creation of toxic assets. But that’s not the question here.

The question now is what to do about them. Although they had been private, profit-seeking companies for forty years, they were taken over by government regulators in September 2008 when they had become clearly insolvent, and are still being operated in conservatorship. Because Fannie and Freddie were very, very long housing, they have suffered massive losses since the financial crisis began. But because the private mortgage securitization market has collapsed, they are the bulk of the secondary mortgage market at the moment, which means the housing market could collapse without them.

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Finance and the Housing Bubble

By James Kwak

Adam Levitin and Susan Wachter have written an excellent paper on the housing bubble with the somewhat immodest title, “Explaining the Housing Bubble” (which has been sitting in my inbox for a month). My main complaint with it is that it’s eighty-one pages long (single-spaced), which is most likely a function of law review traditions; had it been written for economics journals, it could have been one-third the length. I also have some quibbles with the seemingly obligatory paean to the importance of homeownership, which I think is an assumption that deserves to be contested. But overall it presents both a readable overview of the history and the issues, and a core argument I have a lot of sympathy for.

The argument is that the motive force behind the credit bubble was an oversupply of housing finance—in other words, the big, bad, banking industry. Levitin and Wachter’s key evidence is that the price of residential mortgage debt was falling in 2004-06 even as the volume of such debt was rising. As Brad DeLong’s parrot would say, that can only happen if the supply curve is shifting outward, not if the demand curve is shifting outward (which is what would happen if it were all the fault of greedy borrowers who wanted to flip houses).

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