FHFA Answers Conflict of Interest Charges against Freddie Mac

The
Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) issued a statement late Monday refuting a
story
from ProPublic and NPR
that a complicated investment strategy utilized by Freddie Mac had influenced
it to discourage refinancing of some of its mortgages.  FHFA confirmed that the investments using
Collateralized Mortgage Obligations (CMOs) exist but said they did not impact
refinancing decisions and that their use has ended. (the NPR Story)

Freddie Mac’s charter calls for
it to make home loans more accessible, both to purchase and refinance their
homes but the ProPublica story, written by Jesse
Eisinger (ProPublica) and Chris Arnold (NPR) charged that the CMO trades “give Freddie a powerful incentive to do
the opposite
, highlighting a conflict of interest at the heart of the company.
In addition to being an instrument of government policy dedicated to making
home loans more accessible, Freddie also has giant investment portfolios and
could lose substantial amounts of money if too many borrowers refinance.”

Here,
in a nutshell, is what the story (we are quoting from an “updated” version)
says Freddie has been doing.  

Freddie
creates a security (MBS) backed by mortgages it guarantees which was divided
into two parts.  The larger portion, backed
by principal, was fairly low risk, paid a low return and was sold to investors.  The smaller portion, backed by interest
payments on the mortgages, was riskier, and paid a higher return determined by
the interest rates on the underlying loans. 
This portion, called an inverse floater, was retained by Freddie Mac.

In
2010 and 2011 Freddie Mac’s purchase (retention) of these inverse floaters rose
dramatically, from a total of 12 purchased in 2008 and 2009 to 29.  Most of the mortgages backing these floaters had
interest rates of 6.5 to 7 percent.

In
structuring these transactions, Freddie Mac sells off most of the value of the
MBS but does not reduce its risk because it still guarantees the underlying
mortgages and must pay the entire value in the case of default.  The floaters, stripped of the real value of
the underlying principal, are also now harder and possibly more expensive to
sell, and as Freddie gets paid the difference between the interest rates on the
loans and the current interest rate, if rates rise, the value of the floaters
falls. 

While
Freddie, under its agreement with the Treasury Department, has reduced the size
of its portfolio by 6 percent between 2010 and 2011, “that $43 billion drop in
the portfolio overstates the risk reduction because the company retained risk
through the inverse floaters
.”

Since
the real value of the floater is the high rate of interest being paid by the
mortgagee, if large numbers pay off their loans the floater loses value.  Thus, the article charges, Freddie has tried
to deter prospective refinancers by tightening its underwriting guidelines and
raising prices.  It cites, as its sole
example of tightened standards that in October 2010 the company changed a rule
that had prohibited financing for persons who had engaged in some short sales
to prohibiting financing for persons who had engaged in any short sale, but it
also quotes critics who charge that the Home Affordable Refinance Program
(HARP) could be reaching “millions more people if Fannie (Mae) and Freddie
implemented the program more effectively.”

It
has discouraged refinancing by raising fees. 
During Thanksgiving week in 2010, the article contends, Freddie quietly
announced it was raising post-settlement delivery fees.  In November 2011, FHFA announced that the
GSEs were eliminating or reducing some fees but the Federal Reserve said that “more
might be done.”

If
Freddie Mac has limited refinancing, the article says, it also affected the whole
economy which might benefit from billions of dollars of discretionary income generated
through lower mortgage payments.  Refinancing
might also reduce foreclosures and limit the losses the GSEs suffer through defaults
of their guaranteed loans.

The
authors say there is no evidence that decisions about trades and decisions
about refinancing were coordinated.  “The
company is a key gatekeeper for home loans but says its traders are “walled
off” from the officials who have restricted homeowners from taking advantage of
historically low interest rates by imposing higher fees and new rules.”

ProPublica/NPR says that the
floater trades “raise questions about the FHFA’s oversight of Fannie and
Freddie” as a regulator but, as conservator it also acts as the board of
directors and shareholders and has emphasized that its main goal is to limit
taxpayer losses.  This has frustrated the
administration because FHFA has made preserving the companies’ assets a
priority over helping homeowners.  The
President tried to replace acting director Edward J. DeMarco, but Congress
refused to confirm his nominee. 

The
authors conclude by saying that FHFA knew about the inverse floater trades
before they were approached about the story but officials declined to comment on whether the
FHFA knew about them as Freddie was conducting them or whether the FHFA had
explicitly approved them.”

The
FHFA statement
said that Freddie Mac has historically used CMOs as a tool to
manage its retained portfolio and to address issues associated with security
performance.  The inverse floaters were
used to finance mortgages sold to Freddie through its cash window and to sell
mortgages out of its portfolio “in response to market demand and to shrink its
own portfolio.”  The inverse floater
essentially leaves Freddie with a portion of the risk exposure it would have
had if it had kept the entire mortgage on its balance sheet and also results in
a more complex financing structure that requires specialized risk management
processes.  (Full FHFA Statement)

The
agency said that for several reasons Freddie’s retention of inverse floaters ended in
2011 and only $5 billion is held in the company’s $650 billion retained
portfolio.  Later that year FHFA staff
identified concerns about the floaters and the company agreed that these
transactions would not resume pending completing of the agency examination.

These
investments FHFA said did not have any impact on the recent changes to
HARP.  In evaluating changes, FHFA
specifically directed both Freddie and Fannie not to consider changes in their
own investment income in the HARP evaluation process and now that the HARP
changes are in place the refinance process is between borrowers and loan
originators and servicers, not Freddie Mac.

…(read more)

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HAMP Changes: Treasury Increases Incentives for Principal Reduction

The Federal Housing Finance Agency announced on Friday that it was extending
the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) for another year – through December
13, 2013 – and that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae would continue as financial
agents for Treasury in implementing the changes it then announced.  The press release also said the two GSEs
would “extend their use of HAMP Tier 1 as the first modification option through
2013” and that they were already in alignment with HAMP Tier 2 and no further
changes were necessary.

However, the Treasury Department, which jointly
administers HAMP, simultaneously announced what appear to be some significant
changes in the program.  Perhaps Timothy G. Massad, Assistant Treasury Secretary
for Financial Stability, was merely providing the English translation of
the FHFA press release or perhaps there is a division in the ranks.  In either case, here is the information he
provided in his blog posting.
 

The Treasury Department intends to triple the incentives offered to
investors holding distressed loans to encourage them to participate in reducing
the principal for those loans.  Under the
new guidelines, Treasury will pay from 18 to 63 cents on the dollar to
investors, depending on the degree of change in the loan-to-value ratio of the
individual loans.

While principal reduction has always been
available for modifying proprietary loans under the HAMP program (it even has
its own acronym, PRA) it has not been widely used.  Of over 900,000 permanent modifications
completed since the program began, only 38,300 are classified as utilizing principal
reduction

As we have previously reported,
FHFA has resisted all suggestions that the GSEs also include principal reduction
in their tools for dealing with distressed loans where borrowers are upside
down in their mortgages.  According to
Massad, Treasury has notified FHFA that it will pay principal reduction incentives
to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac as well if they allow servicers to forgive principal
in conjunction with a HAMP modification. 

In its press release FHFA said of the
Treasury proposal

“FHFA has
been asked to consider the newly available HAMP incentives for principal
reduction. FHFA recently released analysis concluding that principal
forgiveness did not provide benefits that were greater than principal
forbearance as a loss mitigation tool. FHFA’s assessment of the investor
incentives now being offered will follow its previous analysis, including
consideration of the eligible universe, operational costs to implement such
changes, and potential borrower incentive effects.”

Again,
according to Treasury, HAMP will be expanding its eligibility to reach a
broader pool of borrowers.  An additional
evaluation process is being implemented that will allow servicers to recognize that
some borrowers who can afford their first mortgage payments still struggle because
of other debt.  Some analyses of HAMP
have found that many borrowers could not qualify for a modification solely because
their housing expenses were already below the 31 percent ceiling allowed by
HAMP guidelines.  This ceiling will now
be flexible enough to include secondary debt such as medical expenses or second
liens in the evaluation ratio. 

Eligibility
will also be expanded to include properties that are tenant-occupied as well as
vacant properties that the owner intends to rent.  According to Massad, this will serve to
further stabilize communities with high levels of vacant and foreclosed
properties as well as expanding the rental pool as has been suggested by the
Federal Reserve and others.

…(read more)

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DeMarco Outlines Justification against GSE Principal Reduction

Acting Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)
Director Edward J. DeMarco responded Friday to a request from 16 House
Democrats to explain the statutory authority that DeMarco has claimed prohibits
FHFA from offering principal reduction as part of loan modifications on loans
it owns or guarantees.  The request was
made last November after DeMarco told the House Committee on Oversight and
Government Reform that his agency had concluded that “the use of principal reduction within the context of a loan
modification is not going to be the least-cost approach for the taxpayer.”  When a committee member pointed out that several
banks are already implementing principal reduction programs in an attempt to
help delinquent or underwater homeowners and citing specific examples, DeMarco said “I believe that the decisions that we’ve made with regard
to principal forgiveness are consistent with our statutory mandate,” and committed
to providing documentation of that statutory authority to the Committee.

In
a letter sent to the Committee’s ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) DeMarco laid
out the statutory requirements as originating in three congressional mandates;
first FHFA’s role as conservator and regulator of the government sponsored
enterprises (GSEs) which requires it to preserve and conserve the assets and
properties of the GSEs; second, maintaining the GSE’s pre-conservatorship missions
and obligations to maintain liquidity in the housing market; and third, under
the Emergency Economic  Stabilization Act
of 2008 (EESA), FHFAs statutory responsibility to maximize assistance to
homeowners to minimize foreclosure while considering the net present value
(NPV) of any action to prevent foreclosures.

The focus of the letter, however, is not
the statutory framework but rather why FHFA has decided that principal
forgiveness does not meet its core responsibility within that framework to
preserve and conserve the assets of the GSEs.

DeMarco’s rationale relies on an internal
analysis provided to him in December 2010 and updated in June 2011 which shows
that the use of principal reduction as a loss mitigation measure for GSE loans
under with the Making Home Affordable (HAMP) program or the FHA Short Refi
program would cost the Enterprises more than the benefits derived and
recommended that, instead the GSEs should more aggressively pursue propriety
loan modifications
that reduce the interest rate, extend the mortgage term, and
provide for substantial principal forbearance and promote HARP refinance
transactions for borrowers who are current on their mortgages but underwater in
respect to their equity. 

The GSEs collectively guarantee or hold
about 30 million loans and, using the FHFA Home Price Index to estimate home
values it appears that less than two million of these loans are secured by
properties valued at less than the outstanding debt; i.e. underwater.  Of these loans, more than half are performing
and about one-half million are severely delinquent or in foreclosure.  The table below clearly shows that high LTV
loans are only a small proportion of the GSE’s loans and that most of the loans
are either current or severely delinquent.

Using the Treasury HAMP NPV model the
FHFA study team compared the economic effectiveness of forgiving principal down
to a mark-to-market LTV (MTMLTV) level of 115 percent versus forbearance of the
same amount of principal for all loans with a MTMLTV greater than 115 percent.  The model suggested no better result from principal
reduction than from forbearance and showed the latter as slightly more
effective in reducing GSE losses.  The
team also evaluated the accounting and operational implications of the
principal reduction to measure those costs against benefits to borrowers.  The costs were found to include, in addition
to the immediate losses, the costs of modifying technology, providing training
to servicers, and the opportunity cost of diverting attention away from other
loss mitigation activities.

Principal forbearance, in
contrast, requires no systems changes and is a common approach in government
credit programs, including FHA. The borrower is offered changes to the loan
term and rate as well as a deferral of principal, which has the same effect on
the borrower’s monthly payment as principal reduction, but provides the investor
with potential recovery. The forborne principal is paid in full or part upon
sale of the property or payoff of the loan. This traditional approach would
minimize the Enterprise losses and treat GSE borrowers in a manner that is
consistent with other government programs.

Given the large portion of the
high LTV borrowers that are current on their mortgages, a principal reduction
program for this segment, such as the FHA Short Refi program, simply transfers
performing GSE borrowers over to FHA, at a cost to the GSEs. A less costly
approach for the Enterprises to assist these borrowers is to provide a GSE
refinance alternative, such as HARP. Clearly, the HARP program has been
underutilized to date, suggesting that the program features should be revisited
to remove barriers to entry wherever possible.

…(read more)

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Study: No Additional Restrictions on QRM Needed

The proposed down payment standards
for new mortgages might push 60 percent of potential borrowers into high-cost
loans or out of the housing market altogether according to a paper released
today by the Center for Responsible Lending.  The paper,
Balancing Risk and Access:  Underwriting
Standards for Qualified Residential Mortgages
, is the result of a study to
weigh the effects of proposed underwriting guidelines for qualified residential
mortgages (QRM)
, mortgages that are exempt from the risk retention requirements
laid out in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act.

The Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan
research and policy organization with a stated mission of “protecting
homeownership and family wealth by working to eliminate abusive financial
practices” has, along with other consumer and industry groups, raised concerns
about a potential disproportionate impact of restrictive QRM guidelines on
low-income, low-wealth, minority and other households traditionally underserved
by the mainstream mortgage market.  The
study examines the way different QRM guidelines may affect access to mortgage
credit and loan performance and estimates the additional impacts on defaults
resulting from guidelines above and beyond QM product requirements.

The researchers, Roberto G. Quercia,
University of North Carolina Center for Community Capital, Lei Ding, Wayne
State University, and Carolina Reid, Center for Responsible Lending used
datasets from Lender Processing Services (collected from servicers) and
Blackbox (data from loans in private label securities collected from investor
pools.)  They identified from among 19
million loans originated between 2000 and 2008 the 10.9 million that would meet
the current QRM guidelines, i.e. loans with full documentation that have no
negative amortization, interest only, balloon, or prepayment penalties.  Adjustable rate mortgages must have fixed
terms of at least five years and no loans over 30 years duration. 

The default rate for the universe of
loans was 11 percent, for prime conventional loans, 7.7 percent, and for loans
(regardless of type) that would have met the QM product feature limits, 5.8
percent.  In other words, the research “suggests
that the QM loan term restrictions on their own would curtail the risky lending
that occurred during the subprime boom and lead to substantially lower
foreclosure rates without overly restricting access to credit.”

The next step was to apply some of
the suggested additional criteria for QRM to the loans; a minimum down payment
of 20 percent, a range of higher FICO scores, and lower debt to income (DTI)
ratios.  The goal was to determine the
benefit of each as measured by an improvement in default rates without an undo reduction
in borrowers able to qualify for an affordable loan.

When various permutations of
loan-to-value (LTV), FICO scores, and DTI ratios were applied to the loans lower
default rates were achieved.  These
improvements, however, were accompanied by the exclusion of a larger share of
loans.  As Figure 4 shows, some of the restrictions
resulted in the exclusion of as many as 70 percent of loans.   

To quantify this, the authors
developed two additional measures.  The
first, a benefit ratio, compares the percent reduction in the number of
defaults to the percent reduction in the number of borrowers who would have
access to QRM loans with the proposed guidelines.  For example, an underwriting restriction that
resulted in a 50 percent reduction in foreclosures while excluding only 10
percent of borrowers would have a higher benefit ratio than one with the same
reduction in foreclosures that excluded 20 percent of borrowers.


One finding was that LTVs of 80 or
90 percent resulted in particularly poor outcomes while an LTV of 97 percent
had added benefits of reduced defaults relative to borrower access.  This suggests that even a very modest down payment
may play an important role in protecting against default while excluding a
smaller share of borrowers than would a higher down payment requirement.

Since underwriting is unlikely to
impose restrictions in isolation, the study analyzed a combination of possible
QRM restrictions.  They found that the
strictest guidelines produced the worst outcomes and that none of the patterns
of proposed restrictions performed as well as the QM restrictions on their own.

The second measure, an exclusion
ratio, looks at the number of performing loans a certain threshold would
exclude to prevent one default.  In this
measure, the number of excluded loans can be viewed as a proxy for the number
of “creditworthy” borrowers who would be excluded from the QRM market.

Imposing 80 percent LTV requirements
on the universe of QM loans would exclude 10 loans from the QRM market to
prevent one additional default.  Adding
to this a FICO above 690 and 30 percent DTI ratio would exclude 12 creditworthy
borrowers to prevent one default.

The current QRM criteria are more
restrictive for rate-term and cash-out refinancing than for purchase
loans.  The study found that the QM
product restrictions are the most effective in balancing the demand between reducing
defaults and ensuring access to credit.

The study also found that imposing
additional LTV, DTI, and FICO underwriting requirements
on QM loans had
disproportionate effects on low-income borrowers and borrowers of color.  Just over 75 percent of African-American
borrowers and 70 percent of Latino borrowers would not qualify for a 20 percent
down QRM mortgage and significant racial and ethnic disparities are evident for
FICO requirements as well.  At FICO
scores above 690, 42 percent of African-Americans and 32 percent of Latino
borrowers would be excluded against 22 percent of white and 25 percent of Asian
households.  At the most restrictive
combined thresholds (80 percent LTV, FICO above 690, DTI of 30 percent) approximately
85 percent of creditworthy borrowers would not qualify with African American
and Latino disqualifications each above 90 percent.

The Center says in conclusion that
its research provides “compelling evidence that the QM product loan guidelines
on their own would curtail the risky lending that occurred during the subprime
boom and lead to substantially lower foreclosure rates, while not overly
restricting access to credit.”

…(read more)

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Builder Confidence Index At 54 Month High

Home builder confidence rose in January
for the fourth consecutive month as builders saw more buyer traffic and
anticipated higher sales.  The National
Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) rose
four points to 25
in January to reach its highest level since June 2007.  Each of the three components of the HMI also
increased for the fourth month and the improved confidence was evident across
every region of the country.

The HMI is the result of a monthly
survey of NAHB has conducted for 20 years. 
The survey asks the Association’s home builder members their perceptions
of current single-family home sales and their expectations for such sales over
the next six months, each graded on a scale of “good,” “fair,” or “poor.”  The survey also asks builders to rate the
current traffic of prospective buyers as “high to very high,” “average,” or “low
to very low.”  Answers to each question
are used to calculate a component index and those comprise the composite
index.  For each index a number over 50
indicates more builders view conditions as good than as poor.

Each of the three component indices rose
three points in January.  The component
measuring current sales conditions is at 25 and the index measuring traffic of
prospective buyers is at 21, the highest point for each since June 2007; the
index reflecting expectations for the next six months rose to 29, the highest score
September 2009.

Bob Nielsen, NAHB chairman said of the
results, “This good news comes on the heels of several months of gains in
single-family housing starts and sales, and is yet another indication of the
gradual but steady improvement that is beginning to take hold in an increasing
number of housing markets nationwide. Policymakers must now take every
precaution to avoid derailing this nascent recovery.”

“Builders are seeing greater interest among potential buyers as employment
and consumer confidence slowly improve in a growing number of markets, and this
has helped to move the confidence gauge up from near-historic lows in the first
half of 2011,” noted NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “That said,
caution remains the word of the day as many builders continue to voice concerns
about potential clients being unable to qualify for an affordable mortgage,
appraisals coming through below construction cost, and the continuing flow of
foreclosed properties hitting the market.”

The HMI also posted gains in all four regions in January, including a
nine-point gain to 23 in the Northeast, a one-point gain to 24 in the Midwest,
a two-point gain to 27 in the South and a five-point gain to 21 in the West.

…(read more)

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