Six Questions on Obama’s Mortgage Refinance Proposal

Reuters

President Barack Obama said Tuesday night in his State of the Union address that he would send a plan to Congress to allow all homeowners who are current on their mortgages to refinance. Here’s a quick look at the proposal:

How is this program different from the refinance initiative that was announced three months ago?

In October, the White House said it would change an existing program that allows homeowners with mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to refinance. That program has been up and running for years, and the White House was able to make the changes administratively, meaning they didn’t have to go to Congress for approval.

The latest initiative will not be limited to borrowers with Fannie and Freddie backed mortgages, though the full details of what loans will be eligible have yet to be released. It isn’t clear, for example, whether loans that don’t meet the criteria for the existing Home Affordable Refinance Program would be eligible for this new plan.

When will borrowers be able to refinance?

Unlike some previous efforts, this program will require Congress to pass legislation, and that’s a tall order given the current gridlock in Washington. Senior Obama administration officials said they believe there could be bipartisan votes for such a measure, but recent comments from some Republicans about the prospect for any major legislative proposals this year suggest otherwise.

How would refinancing work under this program?

Details haven’t been announced, but the most likely venue for such refinancing is the Federal Housing Administration. The latest idea would allow any borrower that has been current on their mortgage to refinance, regardless of whether they owe much more than their home is worth or whether their income has fallen since the last time they refinanced. To refinance those borrowers through FHA will require Congress to change the current requirement that borrowers have at least a 3.5% down payment.

Haven’t similar programs been tried before?

Yes. But those programs put in place a series of rules designed to ensure that government entities weren’t taking on more risk by allowing investors and financial bank to offload risky mortgages onto the government.

In 2010, for example, the Obama administration rolled out a program to let underwater borrowers refinance through the FHA, but that program required banks to first write down loan balances so that borrowers could qualify under existing rules. Fewer than 1,000 loans have refinanced through the program. Congress approved a more complicated version of this idea in spring 2008 called Hope for Homeowners, but it also resulted in just a few hundred refinances. The latest incarnation of this program seeks to vastly streamline the refinance process by eliminating many of the wrinkles that policy makers and banks enacted in previous versions.

How much would such a program cost?

President Obama said the cost of his plan would be covered by a tax on the largest financial institutions that he initially proposed in 2010 but that didn’t pass through a Democratic-controlled Congress. These fees on financial institutions would presumably offset the cost that government-guaranteed mortgages would default.

Some analysts have called for “automatic” refinancing of borrowers—is that what this is?

No. Borrowers under this plan would still have to apply to refinance and pay the normal upfront fees.

Check the Developments blog for future updates on this program.

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Congress Hears Different Views on Appraisal Regulation

Among those testifying at a hearing of the House Committee on Financial Oversight’s subcommittee on
Insurance, Housing, and Community Opportunity were William B.
Shear
, director, Financial Markets and Community Investment, Government
Accountability Office (GAO) and Sara
W. Stephens, president of the Appraisal Institute.  Shear restated GAO’s earlier recommendations
that federal regulators set minimum standards for registering Appraisal
Management Companies (AMC)
before a hearing on
Thursday while Stephens countered
that non-congressionally mandated regulations are threatening to hamstring and jeopardize the real estate appraisal
profession altogether.

Shear presented results of a GAO
study on appraisal oversight which confirmed that appraisals remain the most
popular form of property valuation used by Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae (the GSEs) and
major lenders.  While other valuation
methods such as broker opinions and automatic valuation models (AVM) are
quicker and less expensive, they are also considered less reliable and are not
generally used for loan originations.   While GAO did not capture data on the
prevalence of approaches used to perform appraisals, the sales comparison
approach is required by the GSEs and FHA and is reportedly used in nearly all
appraisals.

Charges of conflict of interest have
changed the ways in which appraisers are selected and raised concerns about the
oversight of AMCs which often manage appraisals for lenders, GAO said.  The Dodd-Frank Act reinforced earlier
requirements and guidance about selecting appraisers and prohibiting coercion
and this has encouraged more lenders to turn to AMCs.  This in turn has raised questions about the
oversight of these firms and their impact on appraisal quality.

Federal regulators and the
enterprises said they hold lenders responsible for ensuring that AMCs’ policies
and practices meet their requirements but that they generally do not directly
examine AMCs’ operations.  Some industry
participants voiced concerns that some AMCs may prioritize low costs and speed
over quality and competence. The Dodd-Frank Act requires state appraiser
licensing boards to supervise AMCs and requires other federal regulators to
establish minimum standards for states to apply in registering them. Setting
minimum standards that address key functions AMCs perform on behalf of lenders
could provide greater assurance of the quality of the appraisals those AMCs
provide GAO said, but as of June 2012, federal regulators had not completed
rulemaking for such standards.

The Appraisal Subcommittee (ASC)
established in 1989 by the Title XI of the Financial Institutions Reform,
Recover, and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) has been monitoring the appraisal function
but its effectiveness has been limited by several weaknesses which include failing
to both define the criteria it uses to assess state compliance with Title XI and
the scope of its role in monitoring the appraisal requirements of federal
banking regulators.

ASC also lacks specific policies for
determining whether activities of the Appraisal Foundation (a private nonprofit
organization that sets criteria for appraisals and appraisers) that are funded
by ASC grants are Title XI-related. Not having appropriate policies and
procedures is inconsistent with federal internal control standards that are
designed to promote the effectiveness and efficiency of federal activities.

Appraisals and other types of real
estate valuations have come under increased scrutiny following the mortgage
crisis
and Dodd-Frank codified several requirements for the independence of
appraisers and expanded the role of ASC. 
It also directed GAO to conduct two studies which were the source of Shear’s
testimony before the committee.

GAO recommends that federal
regulators consider key AMC functions in rulemaking to set minimum standards
for registering AMCs, that ASC clarify the criteria it uses to assess states’
compliance with Title XI of FIRREA and develop specific policies and procedures
for monitoring the federal banking regulators and the Appraisal Foundation.  ASC and regulators are either taking steps to
implement these recommendations or considering doing so.

Although she was not speaking directly
to the GAO report, Stephens in a written statement told committee members that,
although appraising is the most heavily regulated activity within the mortgage
and real estate sectors
, regulatory agencies are planning to enact further
changes that would threaten to tie the hands of appraisers, curtail innovation
and increase regulatory burdens on appraisers and financial institutions.

Stephens was testifying directly
against The Appraisal Foundation’s creation of a new Appraisal Practices Board
delving into appraisal practice matters without Congressional authorization.
The Foundation does not have authority to codify appraisal methods and
techniques, she said, and called it a dangerous and unjustified move.  “The regulatory burden for appraisers is on
the cusp of being expanded exponentially.”

“Appraisal methods and techniques
require judgment by the appraiser. It is assumed that the appraiser has
been thoroughly trained to judge appropriate situations. The choice of methods
and techniques are the responsibility of the appraiser in the development of
his/her scope of work” she said. For instance, whether to use reproduction cost
or replacement cost or when and how to adjust for sales concessions are
dependent on the actions of the marketplace and should not be mandated by a
body such as the Appraisal Practices Board. Hard “rules of thumb” do not work
within valuation because there always is an exception to the rule, she said.

The Appraisal Institute offered a
long list of recommendations
to Congress including that they:

  • realign the appraisal regulatory
    structure with those of other industries in the real estate and mortgage
    sectors
  • Protect the independence of the
    appraisal standards-setting process and require that standards for federally
    related transactions be issued by an entity that does not develop or offer
    education for appraisers.
  • Establish limitations around the
    Appraisal Practices Board specifying that no tax dollars be used to fund the
    venture, voluntary guidance be truly voluntary, and meaningful oversight over
    the de facto regulatory action of the Foundation be established.
  • Reiterate that the Foundation does
    not have legislative authorization in the area of “methods and techniques” and
    “appraiser education.”
  • Authorize the GSEs and other agencies
    to halt purchase or guarantees of loans in states that maintain deficient
    appraiser regulatory regimes and ensure that ongoing federal support for the
    GSEs or any replacement maintains consistent appraisal rules.

The Institute said states should be restricted from
codifying voluntary guidance into state law or regulation and the Appraisal
Standards Board prohibited from specifically
referencing its works within the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal
Practice and laws should be established to empower state boards to investigate
and prosecute complaints involving appraisers.

…(read more)

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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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Think Tank Measures FHA Progress

The American Enterprise Institute’s
(AEI) FHA Watch, a monthly on-line
publication tracking operations of the housing agency, just released its sixth
edition which makes clear the agenda of the conservative think tank.

Watch starts out by
quoting a Federal Reserve estimate that about one-third of the 11.1 million
underwater mortgages in the U.S. are FHA insured, a number which would account
for nearly half of FHA’s 7.4 million outstanding loans.  The Institute concludes that, since about 72
percent of outstanding FHA loans are of post 2009 vintage, about 1.5 million
recent loans must be underwater. 

“This comes as no surprise,” Watch
says, “since the FHA continues to combine minimal down payments (average of 4
percent) with slowly amortizing thirty-year loan terms. As a result, earned
homeowner equity (the combination of down payment and scheduled loan amortization)
amounts to less than 10 percent after four years, or about enough to sell a
home at the break-even point if home prices stay steady. However, prices have
declined nationally about 7 percent since mid-2009, with lower-priced homes
declining even more. When combined with borrowers’ low FICO scores and high
debt-to-income (DTI) ratios, the result is a continuation of the FHA’s
destructive lending-lending that has resulted in 20-25 percent of recent
borrowers facing a 10 percent or greater likelihood of foreclosure.”

In addition to the opening statement, Watch spotlights the following topics:

  • Insolvency: FHA’s Position Worsened in May, with an
    Estimated Current Net Worth of $22.11 Billion and a Capital Shortfall of $41-61
    Billion.
  • Delinquency: Total Delinquency Rate Increased in May to
    16.23 Percent Because of Increase in Both Thirty- and Sixty-Day Delinquencies;
    Serious Delinquency Rate Ticked Up to 9.43 Percent.
  • Underwater
    Loans: FHA Is Responsible for 1.5
    Million New Underwater Loans.
  • Best Price Execution:
    The Government Mortgage Complex’s Ginnie Brands Demonstrate Continued
    Pricing Dominance over Fannie Mae.
  • The Road Map to FHA Reform: Specific Steps to Reform and the Status
    of Each

The last category sets forth AEI’s goals
for program reform and fiscal reform, steps for accomplishing each, and a
report card on the progress made by FHA and Congress toward the goals.  AEI’s goals for Program Reform are:

  1. Stepping back from markets that the private
    sector can serve to gradually return to a “traditional”10 percent home purchase
    market share.
  2. Stop
    knowingly lending to people who cannot repay their loans.
  3. Help
    homeowners establish meaningful equity.
  4. Concentrate
    on homebuyers who truly need help purchasing their first home.

The only recent improvement acknowledged
by AEI in this area occurred in February with a proposed rule that limits
seller concessions to the greater of 3 percent of the loan or $6,000.  More than a dozen other steps have not been
acted on by the agency.

The Institute has set the following
goals for FHA to achieve in the area of fiscal reform:

  1. Utilize generally accepted accounting
    principles and set rigorous disclosure standards;
  2. Establish and maintain loan loss and unearned
    premium reserves;
  3. Establish and maintain a minimum capital
    requirement of 4 percent of amortized risk in force;
  4. Fund a countercyclical premium reserve.

AEI found that FHA had made a small
amount of progress in this area by requiring application of SEC disclosure
standards to the FHA’s insurance programs and funds and by taking steps toward
retaining an independent third party to conduct a safety and soundness review
under generally accepted accounting standards. 
There was no acceptable progress on the six remaining steps.

…(read more)

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