Top 10 turnaround towns

Florida’s cities were some of the hardest hit by the housing bust, but now they are leading the charge back. Of Realtor.com’s top 10 turnaround towns, eight are in the Sunshine State.

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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HUD CHARGES MASSACHUSETTS APARTMENT BUILDING OWNER WITH DISCRIMINATING AGAINST FAMILIES WITH CHILDREN

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced today that it is charging the owner of a 24-unit apartment building in Holyoke, Massachusetts, with housing discrimination for denying units to families that have children. HUD’s charge alleges that Nilma Fichera, who owns and manages New York-based N.A.G. Realty, LLC, violated the Fair Housing Act when she refused to show or rent apartments to families with children because she could not certify that the building was free of lead-based paint.

First Horizon’s Buybacks; Buyback Legal Chatter; Basel III and Construction Loans; Congress Snubs Small Business?

I have been subtly warning groups during speeches, and writing in this commentary, about the implications of Basel III. Most of the focus is on servicing & the value of it. But did you know that under the new Basel III rules, construction lending would likely go into the “high risk commercial real estate” category and require a 150% risk weighting? “Lenders would seek deals where a developer would contribute a substantial amount of cash equity; while banks would be less likely to let developers rely just on the equity from appraisals” per American Banker. And the government and the Fed are asking why banks aren’t lending? This is just another reason.

Last month we sold the house where my kids grew up, and I had a handyman remove the doorframe where we marked heights on birthdays. I am not mentioning this to turn the daily into a Hallmark card, but because it reminded me of one thing that the press seems to forget: a house is a home and not a share of stock. And when it comes to that, the popular press seems to forget that people need a place to live, that people want a good school district for their kids, a place to get to know the neighbors, a place to create an emotional attachment. I could go on and on, but there are very concrete reasons why people who are underwater on a house still make the payments, why many who supposedly saw the real estate decline didn’t sell their home, and why so many people don’t care about minute fluctuations in the price of housing based on the latest metric.

I’ll get off my soapbox, and get on with business: I think that the last time the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index went up was during the Eisenhower Administration – until now. Seriously, for the first time in eight months the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices rose over levels of the previous month.  Data through April 2012 showed that on average home prices increased 1.3% during the month for both the 10- and 20-City Composites. Prices are still down 2.2% for the 10-City and 1.9% for the 20-City over figures for one year earlier but this is an improvement over the year-over-year losses of 2.9% 2.6% recorded in March. This report followed Monday’s news that New Home Sales jumped 7.6% in May to 369k and was up 19.8% from a year ago, and last week’s Existing Home Sales, Housing Starts and NAHB HMI which all contained some positive signs.

How’s this to grab one’s attention: “Congressional Subcommittee REFUSES Small Business Brokers and Appraisers a Seat at the Table.” The notice from the NAIHP goes on, “For the second time in a week, the Subcommittee on Insurance, Housing and Community Opportunity, Chaired by Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Illinois), refused small business housing professionals the right to be represented during Congressional testimony.” Here you go: http://www.naihp.org/.

Yes, there are plenty of rumors that the agencies are hotly pursuing buybacks to recoup taxpayer losses, and that the agencies are losing personnel except for QA & auditing. But that reasoning doesn’t help companies like First Horizon National Corp. It “cited new information it recently received from Fannie Mae as the basis for incurring the $272 million charge this second quarter. About $250 million will go to repurchase loans made with “inadequate or incorrect” documentation, and $22 million is being charged to address pending litigation.” I don’t make this stuff up.

Last week I received a legal question about buybacks. “I was asked by a former customer of a major investor’s correspondent lending group about how others are handling repurchase/make-whole requests on older vintage loans.  His experience has been that the investor will ask to be reimbursed for losses associated with loans that have been foreclosed and disposed of without being given an opportunity to refute the alleged rep and warrant deficiency.  He has had to hire a law firm to argue each of these requests and the major investor has backed off each time. Normally, when a correspondent is still active, there is obviously leverage against the correspondent under an implied or actual threat of being terminated as a customer if a make-whole is not made, and when an investor is no longer in the correspondent business, I’ve heard rumors of it being more inclined to back down but sometimes taking a former customer to court or ‘saber rattling’. Needless to say, it is expensive to have a lawyer prepare a rebuttal to a make-whole request, just to have the investor ultimately back-off – what to do?”

I turned this over to attorney Brian Levy, who wrote, “Your question about investor willingness to sue originators over repurchase claims is difficult to answer with specificity.  My clients have been able to settle and/or avoid litigation in every engagement that I have undertaken in this area. That does not mean, however, that the threat of investor repurchase litigation over individual loans is not real or that litigation is not occurring, but it has been my experience that these disputes can be resolved (or dismissed) through extensive and detailed settlement negotiations and information exchange.  Litigation over individual repurchase claims may be fairly unusual now, but so were repurchase claims entirely prior to 2007-2008. Due to the unique nature of each originator’s position and the facts around applicable repurchase claim(s), however, it would be reckless to assume one will not be sued on specific claims based on what is generally occurring in the industry or based on what may have been past investor appetite for litigation (although these are important elements to consider in one’s strategy).”

Brian goes on. “For example, much depends on the facts and circumstances of the loan(s) in question, whether there are any other relationships between the parties that can be leveraged (loans in the pipeline, warehouse lines etc.) the overall quality, stability and reputation of the originator and, significantly, the parties’ tolerance for risk, availability or need for reserves and the desire for finality.  Moreover, investor and originator appetite for lawsuits may change over time as strategies can change in organizations and as the few cases that have been filed begin to yield decisions that are more or less favorable to one side or another. Even the tenor of discussions or lack of attention to the matter can impact a party’s willingness to file a lawsuit. All of these issues should be explored with legal counsel as part of an originator’s comprehensive repurchase management strategy.” (If you’d like to reach Brian Levy with Katten & Temple, LLP, write to him at blevy@kattentemple.com.)

Here are some somewhat recent conference & investor updates, providing a flavor for the environment. They just don’t stop. As always, it is best to read the actual bulletin.

Down in California, it is time again for the CMBA’s Western Secondary conference. (I’ve been wandering around that San Francisco conference since 1986 – if those halls could talk…) The CMBA has presentations on “QM, QRM, the CFPB, Agency Direct Delivery – Reviving the Lost Art of Servicing Retained Execution, Compliance issues Facing State Licensed Mortgage Banks Today and How Regulatory Change will Impact Your Business and the Secondary Market, Manufacturing Quality – Steps to Produce a Quality Loan (Operation Focus),” and several other topics. Check it out.

In light of the increasing number of non-conforming transactions where the departure residence is retained by the borrower and is in a negative equity position, Wells Fargo issued a reminder that underwriters must weigh any and all risk factors evident in the loan file.  Each case should be weighed individually, as there are only so many situations underwriting guidelines can predict.  The Wells Seller Guide now states that, in a case where the departure residence won’t be sold at the time of closing and is in a negative equity position, paying down the lien or using additional reserves to cover the negative equity may be required to reduce overall risk.

Wells has issued another reminder that a signed Borrower Appraisal Acknowledgement is required for all loans.  The Acknowledgment, whether it’s the Wells-issued form or a custom document, must include the property address, complete lender name, borrower name, borrower signature, and borrower signature date.  If the form has checkboxes where the borrower can make a choice, these boxes must be ticked.

Due to changes to FHA Single Family Annual Mortgage Insurance and Up-Front Mortgage Insurance Premiums announced by HUD back in March, one of which requires lenders to determine the endorsement/insured date of the FHA loan as part of a Streamline Refinance transaction, Refinance Authorization results will need to be submitted to Wells with the closed loan package.  These results are necessary to ensure that the accurate MIP was applied.  This applies to all FHA Streamline Refinances with case numbers assigned on or after June 11, 2012, while loans purchased through Pass-Thru Express are excepted.

Wells’ government pricing adjusters are set to change on July 2nd.  For VA loans with scores between 620 and 639, the adjuster will go from -0.750 to -1.500.  The adjuster for loans with scores between 640 and 679, currently at -0.250, will change to -0.500.  This affects Best Effort registrations, Best Effort locks, Mandatory Commitments, Assignments of Trade, and Loan Specified Bulk Commitments.

How sensitive are our markets to European news? Sure, instead of buying our 10-yr yielding 1.65% you could buy a Spanish 10-yr yielding 6.74%. But there is instability, evidenced by this note from an MBS trader yesterday: “News of Merkel stating Europe would not have shared liability for debt ‘as long as she lives’ caused Treasuries to immediately surge higher, only to be met by better real money selling of 7s.  While the selling did help to stall the rally, the true relief didn’t come until Reuters posted a correction to its initial release, re-quoting Merkel as having said Europe would not have ‘total shared’ liability for debt as long as she lives.  The amendment took Treasuries off the highs ahead of the 2yr auction…”

Say all you want about the market, bond prices and yields are not doing a whole heckuva lot. Tuesday the 10-yr closed at 1.63%, very close to where it’s been all week, although there was some intra-day volatility blamed on Europe. (European problems will be with us for years, and paying attention to intra-day swings can become wearisome after years…) For agency mortgage-backed securities, volume has been around “average” all week, with the usual buyers (the Fed, hedge funds, money managers, overseas parties) absorbing it. Up one day, down another – yesterday was down/worse by about .250, which was about the same as the 10-yr T-note. We could have been helped by the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence index which dropped for a fourth straight month, to 62 from a revised 64.4 in the prior month, but nope.

No one is getting any younger… (Part 1 of 2)
I very quietly confided to my best friend that I was having an affair. She turned to me and asked, “Are you having it catered?” And that, my friend, is the definition of ‘OLD’!

Just before the funeral services, the undertaker came up to the very elderly widow and asked, “How old was your husband?”
“98,” she replied. “Two years older than me.”
“So you’re 96,” the undertaker commented.
She responded, “Hardly worth going home, is it?”

Reporters interviewing a 104-year-old woman:
“And what do you think is the best thing about being 104?” the reporter asked.
She simply replied, “No peer pressure.”

I feel like my body has gotten totally out of shape, so I got my doctor’s permission to join a fitness club and start exercising.  I decided to take an aerobics class for seniors. I bent, twisted, gyrated, jumped up and down, and perspired for an hour. But, by the time I got my leotards on, the class was over.

…(read more)

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Potential Broad-Based Refi Plan Aims To Level Playing Field; Increase Home Prices

This is the second of two parts (Part 1: Prelude to HARP 3.0 as Donovan Testifies at Senate Hearing) of a summary of a hearing of the Senate Banking Committee held Tuesday during which Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Shawn Donovan spoke on a range of housing issues but particularly on efforts to streamline and remove barriers to refinancing.  In addition to addressing the issue of “fundamental fairness” for borrowers, the plan also seeks to level the playing field among servicers and originators, as well as stimulate home-price appreciation, among other things.

Jeff Merkely (D-OR) asked Donovan what it would take, a regulatory or statutory fix, to address the limit on FHA loans to a 115 percent loan-to-value (LTV) ratio.  Donovan said it was actually an even lower ratio in practice but the proposal is for a broad-based refi to allow up to 140 percent with the clear view that any loan deeply underwater would have to be written down to those parameters.  That, he said, along with creating a separate fund from the FHA MMI insurance fund to protect that fund would be the key legislative changes required.

Merkley asked if an insurance fee for borrowers who are refinancing would be the strategy for financing the separate fund and Donovan said another suggestion is a broad-based financial sector fee of some sort but he was also looking at a risk transfer fee as a voluntary opt-in for companies that hold these underwater mortgages.  “And in laying this out over — over 40 years, if you have basically a spread, because of the federal government guarantee funds between a 2 percent and, say, a 5 percent mortgage, and you throw in the risk transfer fee, you end up with solvency under kind of reasonably conservative assumptions. But it’s not zero risk because dramatic things can happen. And that’s where the federal government guarantee through FHA becomes essential, or an extension of the federal government guarantee to utilize for the Federal Home Loan Bank system.”

Donovan said there is no question that by refinancing loans into FHA loans the government would be taking on some additional risk but the question is how to minimize that risk and by both focusing on current loans that meet additional underwriting criteria, lowering the cost of these already safe loans and being able to fully pay for it, they are hoping to offset any expected losses.

Most importantly, he said, there is enormous up-side potential.  “If we can just move house prices a few percentage points through this broad-based refinancing, the benefits to the taxpayers through improvements in the performance of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, FHA, and the broader lift that the economy would have are all potentially enormous.”

Donovan said there are two major changes to FHA enforcement powers they have been seeking.  One is the ability to hold lenders accountable through indemnification but there are some loans and lenders for which there is no clear authority to enforce standards.  The second is a somewhat perverse provision that allows FHA to go after lenders only for regional or local violations based on their track records compared to other lenders in that area.  That it is not possible to disqualify an entire company nationally through current standards makes no sense. 

Donovan said that there is a real urgency to get the refinancing programs on the right track because interest rates today are at the lowest level they’ve ever been for a 30-year mortgage. Low interest rates are typically one of the most beneficial things to boost the economy and the nation isn’t seeing the full benefit of record low rates that it should be seeing.  “And the quickest, most effective, and I think the most bipartisan way that we can increase the boost to the economy of these record low interest rates is to quickly get these — these proposals enacted and — and that’s something that I think hopefully we can all agree on and move with real speed in getting these done. But as the economy continues to improve, I think all expectations are that this window of record-low interest rates may not last a significant period of time. And therefore, it is particularly urgent that we take advantage of this.”

Shelby returned to the issue of second mortgages and the impact of first lien modifications on those junior liens and vice versa.  Donovan said that while they have been able to insert some requirements for dealing with junior liens into HAMP guidelines and into the settlement agreement the lack of general rules for dealing with lien priority has been a problem.  There are no rules, he said, except when you get to a foreclosure.  No rules for what happens in a modification, especially if the second lien is current.  The department has tried to get around this by putting rules in place, but it would be better to do that within the context of a universal refinancing proposal.

In answer to another question by Shelby as to the number of additional homeowners, above those participating in HARP 2.0, might be helped by the Menendez-Boxer legislation Donovan said he would have to answer as a range with Christopher Mayer estimate of 12 million at the high end.  He said his department’s expectations are significantly lower than that but not as low as the one million projected by some. 

Even with all the benefits that would accrue to them, there are two things that are stopping some borrowers from refinancing.  Some simply cannot do it – they may be above water on their first lien but have a second lien that make refinancing impossible.  The second barrier is high costs – they need an appraisal or there is a monopoly in effect where their current servicer can charge them high fees, in one estimate as much as $15,000, because of the lack of competition between servicers.

Merkley underlined the urgency of taking advantage of low interest rates, recounting a program he had been involved in which was effectively killed because of rapidly escalating home prices but said to him a more critical issue is how to help homeowners who do not have GSE guaranteed loans.  When he talks to constituents about their loans they generally do not know who holds it.   Then he looks and finds that some are not GSE-backed and he has no help to offer them. It seems like a lottery, he said, when a family who is doing the right things can’t get help simply because their loan isn’t the right type.  Donovan said it was correct that this is about fundamental fairness and that is one of the important issues here. 

Merkley said his staff had looked at whether a fund could remain solvent and what the risks factors are and they think that the risk factors are greatest during the first few years after refinancing when a loan is still substantially underwater and the family either defaults strategically or runs into financial problems.  The federal guarantee has been extended and it is the government that is picking up the losses.  Maybe it is offsetting them through a risk transfer fee, insurance, or some other mechanism, but the assumptions about how to do that are critical.  Then there is the question about restrictions on a homeowner in the first few years.  Do you put place a rule as part of the mortgage that says you cannot walk away from this, Merkley asked, make it a legal requirement?  The issue of recourse is usually determined on the state level, but has there been a discussion about rules related to recourse or whether we should have a federal overlay on this?

Merkley asked about the prospects for addressing increased risk factors inherent in the first few years after refinancing when a loan is underwater and the family defaults.  Donovan effectively said that this was not the topic at hand, and that the issues mentioned by Merkley arise when a family is delinquent or where there is significant principal reduction happening.  Rather, what is being discussed here are borrowers who are current, “so, we didn’t see a need to go beyond that, given that these families are responsible, have been doing the right things and paying, and are not getting substantial principal reduction, at least below the 140 LTV, to — to be able to stay”.

It is appropriate in those cases to give them an incentive to be responsible in reducing their principal balance.  That is why there are incentives for them to use their savings to shorten their term rather than lower their payments and thus build equity faster.  “They’re really giving themselves a light at the end of the tunnel that makes it less likely that they’ll default in future years. And so that’s something I think you’re exactly right in your legislation to encourage.”

On the investor side, Donovan said, there is some concern whether loans are going to be in place for a significant period of time.  Investors have been generally supportive of HARP and other efforts but what they are concerned about is whether we will see a continuous cycle of refinancing.  “So what we have been clear on is that once you refinance to this record low level, you’re not going to see a refinance in that loan quickly.  And that’s a protection for investors that we do think is important in HARP and that we certainly have been open to doing in this broad-based refinancing.”  In other words, expect any changes to eligibility dates to be hard-fought. 

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