Housing Assistance 2012: Another Herculean Task for the FHA

Beginning the 37th month of his presidency, the Obama Administration today announced a laundry list of new programs to help struggling homeowners, crack down on abusive lending practices, make mortgage documents easier to read, convert REO to rental, and other assorted initiatives.  Some require Congressional approval; others are a work in progress, and a couple can begin quickly.
 
At the heart of the announcement is a broad new refinance program with the venerable FHA stepping in (once again) to help save the mortgage market by offering current but underwater non-FHA borrowers another lifeline.
 
Concurrently, the Administration appears to be on the verge of a broad-based “REO-to-Rental” initiative by announcing a pilot project to be led by FHFA, HUD, and Treasury.  I think the Administration is smart to move this initiative forward as they certainly have the political cover through last year’s RFI process.  They asked for comments and suggestions and reportedly received thousands of responses.  They can now say we are implementing what America said they wanted.   Of course, we do not yet know exactly how it will work.
 
Lawmakers and mortgage industry professionals have previously questioned whether or not FHA can handle yet another herculean task.  Recall in 2007 when the mortgage market sputtered and into 2008 when new higher loan limits were unveiled, FHA saw its share of the mortgage market jump exponentially in a matter of months. What was a $350 billion book of business in 2005 has today mushroomed to $1 trillion with more than 7.4 million homes with FHA insurance.
 
Since presumably these would be riskier borrowers (higher LTVs and underwater) it remains to be seen:

  1. If Congress will give FHA the authority to increase its current LTV caps.
  2. How OMB will “score” the proposal thus dictating the mortgage insurance pricing?
  3. Will proposed new bank fees and presumably higher premium revenue off-set the expected “cost” to FHA?

FHA is reportedly considering placing these loans in an insurance fund separate from its current Single Family books of business, but could ultimately require the FHA to invoke its “permanent indefinite” budget authority to keep it afloat (as opposed to the self-sustaining Mutual Mortgage Insurance fund).
 
That said, the Administration indicated the cost of these programs will “not add a dime to the deficit” and will be off-set by a fee on the “Largest Financial Institutions.”  (Note: Congress might have an opinion here.)
 
Since FHA has not in recent memory refinanced borrowers with LTVs in the 120-140 range (presumably one of the groups targeted by the Administration), I think it will be difficult to estimate the performance of these loans over time and thus their impact on FHA’s actuarial foundation regardless of which fund they place them in.  While the FHA “short re-finance” program announced in 2010 allowed a 115% CLTV, it has had very little participation thus making it difficult to gauge performance relative to what could be even higher LTV participants.
 
It should be noted that the Administration is targeting borrowers who have made 12 consecutive payments so one could argue that despite the fact they are underwater they have been able to afford their mortgage payments – presumably in some cases for several years.  So does that mitigate some of the potential risk meaning that they will certainly be able to afford reduced monthly payments?  But again, given FHA’s limited experience with borrowers outside their established guidelines and requirements predicting their performance with any degree of certainty is difficult at best.
 
And assuming those previously non-FHA borrowers default on their new FHA loan, who do you think will now be at-risk with an underwater property?  Again, the Administration stated these programs “will not add a dime to the deficit” – I hope they are right.
 
FHA’s actuarial soundness has been rocked by the on-going erosion of house prices nationwide which has led to three consecutive years of declines in their capital reserve ratio.  The best medicine for FHA is house price appreciation and the positive ripple effect of increased value to their housing portfolio.  But they have been waiting three years for that to happen.
 
Welcomed news as part of this new refinance program is they would be removed from an FHA lender’s compare ratio within Neighborhood Watch (FHA’s public database of lender’s default rates compared to its peers in a given geographic region).  That said, I suspect FHA will establish a separate category of compare ratios for this book of business, as it did for Negative Equity Refinances and the Hope For Homeowner (H4H) program.
 
So while this action will remove a potential barrier to participation, lenders should be cautioned that performance will still matter and they should stand ready for increased scrutiny especially by the HUD OIG.
 
I give the Administration credit for launching another round of housing assistance as too many homeowners continue to struggle.  Putting politics aside on the surface it appears to be the right and proper thing to do, however it remains to be seen the level of participation (and degree of Congressional acceptance) and ultimately what cost, if any, to the taxpayers – most of which have grown weary of the nagging housing crisis.
 
Note: We will continue to follow this initiative with keen interest as it makes its way through Congress and will offer periodic updates as developments warrant.

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