Geithner Outlines Accomplishments, Future of Financial Reform

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told
the Financial Stability Oversight Council that the financial system is getting
stronger and safer and that much of the excess risk-taking and careless
financial practices that caused so much damage has been forced out.  However, he said, “These gains will erode
over time if we are not able to put our full reforms into place.”

He outlined the basic framework has been
laid, with new global agreements to limit leverage, rules for managing the
failure of a large firm and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
up and running, and the majority of the new safeguards for derivatives markets proposed.  Geithner ticked off the major accomplishments
of reform.

First, banks now face much
tougher limits on risk which are critical to reducing the risk of large
financial failures and limiting the damage such failures can cause.  The focus in 2012 will be “on defining the
new liquidity standards and on making sure that capital risk-weights are
applied consistently.”

 The new rules are tougher on
the largest banks that pose the greatest risk and are being complemented by
other limits on risk-taking such as the Volcker Rules and limits on the size of
firms and concentration of the financial systems.  These will not apply only to banks but to
other large financial institutions that could pose a threat to financial system
stability and this year the Risk Council will make the first of these
designations.

Second, the derivatives market will,
for the first time, be required to meet a comprehensive set of transparency
requirements, margin rules and other safeguards.  These reforms are designed to move
standardized contracts to clearing houses and trading platforms and will be
complemented with more conservative safeguards for the more complex and
specialized products less amenable to central clearing and electronic
trading.  These reforms, the balance of
which will be outlined this year, will lower costs for those who use the
products, allow parties to hedge against risk, but limit the potential for
abuse, the Secretary said. 

Third, is a carefully designed set
of safeguards against risk outside the banking system and enhanced protections
for the basic infrastructure of the financial markets: 

  • Money market funds will have new
    requirements designed to limit “runs.”
  • Important funding markets like the
    tri-party repo market are now more conservatively structured.
  • International trade repositories are
    being developed for derivatives, including credit default swaps.
  • Designated financial market utilities
    will have oversight and requirements for stronger financial reserves;

Fourth; there will be a stronger set
of protections in place against “too big to fail” institutions.  The key elements are:

  • Capital and liquidity rules with
    tough limits on leverage to both reduce the probability of failure and prevent
    a domino effect;
  • New protections for derivatives,
    funding markets, and for the market infrastructure to limit contagion across
    the financial system;
  • Tougher limits on institutional size;
  • A bankruptcy-type framework to
    manage the failure of large financial firms.
    This “resolution authority” will prohibit bailouts for private
    investors, protect taxpayers, and force the financial system to bear the costs
    of future crisis.

Fifth, significantly stronger
protections for investors and consumers are being put in place including the
CFPB which is working to improve disclosures for mortgages and credit cards and
developing new standards for qualified mortgages.  New authorities are being used to strengthen protections
for investors and to give shareholders greater voice on issues like executive
compensation.

Geithner pointed to the failure of
account segregation rules to protect customers in the MF Global disaster as proof
of the need for more protections and said that the Council will work with the
SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Council on this problem.   

Moving forward, reforms must be
structured to endure as the market evolves and to work not just in isolation
but to interact appropriately with each other and the broader economy.  “We
want to be careful to get the balance right-building a more stable financial
system, with better protections for consumers and investors, that allows for
financial innovation in support of economic growth.” 

First, he said, we have to make sure
we have a level playing field at home; that financial firms engaged in similar
activity and financial instruments that have similar characteristics are
treated roughly the same because small differences can have powerful effects in
shifting risk to where the rules are softer. 
A level field globally is also important, particularly with reforms that
toughen rules on capital, margin, liquidity, and leverage, as well as in the
global derivatives markets.  “In these areas we are working to discourage
other nations from applying softer rules to their institutions and to try to
attract financial activity away from the U.S. market and U.S. institutions.” 

It is necessary to align the
developing derivatives regimes around the world; preventing attempts to soften
application of capital rules, limiting the discretion available to supervisors
in enforcing rules on risk-weights for capital and designing rules for
resolution of large global institutions.  Also, because some U.S. reforms are different
or tougher from rules in other markets, there needs to be a sensible way to
apply those rules to the foreign operations of U.S. firms and the U.S.
operation of foreign firms.

 The U.S. also needs to move
forward with reforms to the mortgage market including a path to winding down
the government sponsored enterprises (GSEs.) 
The Administration has already outlined a broad strategy, Geithner said,
and expects to lay out more detail in the spring.  The immediate concern is to repair the damage
to homeowners, the housing market, and neighborhoods.  The President spoke this week about the range
of tools he plans to use.  Our ultimate goals
are to wind down the GSEs, bring private capital back into the market, reduce
the government’s direct role, and better target support toward first-time
homebuyers and low- and moderate-income Americans.

Geithner said the new system must
foster affordable rentals options, have stronger, clearer consumer protections,
and create a level playing field for all institutions participating in the
system.  For this to happen without
hurting the broader economy and adding further damage to those areas that have
been hardest hit, banks and private investors must come back into the market on
a larger scale and they want more clarity on the rules that will apply. 

Credit availability is still a problem
and there is a broad array of programs in place to improve access to credit and
capital for small businesses.  As
conditions improve, it is important that we remain focused on making sure that
small businesses, a crucial engine of job growth, have continued access to
equity capital and credit.

Many Americans trying to buy a home
or refinance their mortgage are also finding it hard to access credit, even for
FHA- or GSE-backed mortgages.  The Administration has been working closely
with the FHA and FHFA to encourage them to take additional measures to remove
unnecessary barriers and they are making progress.  They will probably outline additional reforms
in the coming weeks.

Bank supervisors, in the normal
conduct of bank exams and supervision, as well as in the design of new rules to
limit risk taking and abuse, must be careful not to overdo it with actions that
cause undue damage to the availability of credit or liquidity to markets.

Geithner said the U.S. financial
system is getting stronger
, and is now significantly stronger than it was
before the crisis.  Among the achievements:

  • Banks have increased common equity
    by more than $350 billion since 2009.
  • Banks and other financial
    institutions with more than $5 trillion in assets at the end of 2007 have been
    shut down, acquired, or restructured.
  • The asset-backed commercial paper
    market has shrunk by 70 percent since its peak in 2007, and the tri-party repo
    market and prime money market funds have shrunk by 40 percent and 33 percent
    respectively since their 2008 peaks.
  • The financial assistance we provided
    to banks through TARP, for example, will result in taxpayer gains of
    approximately $20 billion.

The Secretary said the strength of
the banks is helping to support broader economic growth, including the more
than 3 million private sector jobs created over 22 straight months, and the 30
percent increase in private investment in equipment and software.  
Broadly, the cost of credit has fallen significantly since late 2008 and early
2009.  Banks are lending more, with commercial and industrial loans to
businesses up by an annual rate of more than 10 percent over the past six
months.  

He concluded by saying that no
financial system is invulnerable to crisis, and there is a lot of unfinished
business on the path of reform.  The reforms are tough where they need to
be tough.  “But they will leave our financial system safer, better able to
help businesses raise capital, and better able to help families finance safely
the purchase of a house or a car, to borrow to invest in a college education,
or to save for retirement.  And they will protect the taxpayer from having
to pay the price of future crisis.”

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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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White House Details Housing Plans

Saying that the housing crisis struck right at the
heart of what it means to be middle class, President Barack Obama has begun to
flesh out the housing-related proposals he made in his State of the Union
speech last Tuesday.  He spoke this
morning at Falls Church, Virginia about his housing plans, some pieces of which
have already been put into effect by the Departments of Justice (DOJ),
Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the eight days since they
were first announced. The President spoke only briefly and most of the
information about his proposals comes from a Fact Sheet released by the White
House just before his speech.

The most ambitious part of the Administration’s
housing plan is the expansion of several existing programs to streamline
refinancing for homeowners
with existing high interest rate government or
Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac mortgages. The President wants to extend these
opportunities to homeowners with standard conforming non-FHA, VA, or GSE
mortgages through a new program run through FHA.  To be eligible the homeowner would have meet
a few simple criteria:

  • Borrowers will need to have been
    current on their loan for the past 6 months and have missed no more than one
    payment in the 6 months prior.
  • Borrowers must have a current FICO
    score of 580 to be eligible, a requirement met by approximately 9 in 10 borrowers.
  • The loan
    they are refinancing is for a single family, owner-occupied principal residence.

A
streamlined application process will make it simpler and less expensive for
both borrowers and lenders.  Borrowers
will not be required to submit a new appraisal or tax return, merely verify
current employment.  Those who are not
employed may still be eligible if they meet the other requirements and present
limited credit risk, however, a lender will need to perform a full underwriting
of those borrowers.

The President’s plan includes
additional steps to reduce program costs, including working with Congress to establish
risk-mitigation measures including requiring lenders interested in refinancing
deeply underwater loans to write down the balance of these loans before they
qualify.   There would be a separate fund created for the program to help
the FHA track and manage the risk involved and ensure that it has no effect on
the operation of the existing Mutual Mortgage Insurance (MMI) fund.  The estimated $5 to $10 billion cost of the program would be paid by a fee on the
largest financial institutions based on their size and the riskiness of their
activities

There were
also some changes suggested for GSE refinancing programs.  President Obama said he believed the steps he
proposes are within the existing authority of the FHFA but the GSEs have not
acted so he is calling on Congress to:

  • Eliminate appraisal costs for all borrowers by using mark-to-market
    accounting or other alternatives to manual appraisals where Automated Valuation
    Models cannot be used to determine loan-to-value ratios.
  • Direct the GSEs to require the same
    streamlined underwriting for new servicers as they do for current servicers to
    unlock competition and lower borrowing costs.
  • Extend streamlined refinancing to
    all GSE borrowers including those with significant equity in their home.

There are also proposals to streamline refinancing for
borrowers in the USDA and FHA housing programs but the White House noted that
the current FHA-to-FHA streamlined refinancing program has met with some
resistance from lenders who are afraid to make loans that might compromise their
FHA approved lender status.  FHA is
removing these loans from their “Compare Ratio” process which should open the program
up to more borrowers.

Borrowers utilizing either the Home
Affordable Refinancing Program (HARP) or the new FHA-based program would be
given an alternative to allow them to rebuild the equity in their home.  This option would require refinancing into a
20 year mortgage and the homeowner would continue to make the old mortgage
payment.  The excess money would be
applied directly to principal that, along with the shorter term would allow the
homeowner to quickly rebuild equity.  To
encourage borrowers to make this choice (which also reduces lender risk) the
administration is proposing legislation to provide for the GSEs and FHA to
cover the loans’ closing costs.

A
Homeowner Bill of Rights proposed by the Administration would apply to the mortgage
servicing system which the White House said “is badly broken and would benefit
from a single set of strong federal standards.” 
Among the items proposed for this Bill of Rights are:

  • Simple,
    Easy to Understand Mortgage Forms
  • Disclosure of all known fees and
    penalties
  • No conflicts of interest between
    servicers and investors or servicers and junior lien holders.
  • Assistance
    for at-risk homeowners to include early intervention, continuity of contact,
    and time and options to avoid foreclosure.
  • Safeguards
    against inappropriate foreclosure including the right of appeal, certification
    of proper process.

The President plans to include $15 billion in his Budget for
a national effort to hire construction workers to rehabilitate hundreds of
thousands of vacant and foreclosed homes and businesses
.  Similar to the Neighborhood Stabilization
Program, Project Rebuild will enlist expertise and capital from the private
sector, focus on property improvements, and expand property solutions like land
banks.  The Budget will also provide $1
billion in funding for the Housing Trust Fund to finance the development of
affordable housing for extremely low income families while providing jobs in
the construction industry.  

Other initiatives which the
President talked about this morning or which were covered in the White House
Fact Sheet have already been launched in the last few days including a joint
investigation
with the states into mortgage origination and servicing abuses, expansion
of eligibility criteria for HAMP and increased incentives for lenders in the
program to reduce principal balances, and a pilot sale announced to transition
foreclosed properties into rental housing in certain highly distressed
communities which was announced by HUD this morning

The White
House said that, while the government cannot fix the
housing market on its own, the President believes that responsible homeowners
should not have to sit and wait for the market to hit bottom to get relief when
there are measures at hand that can make a meaningful difference, including
allowing these homeowners to save thousands of dollars by refinancing at
today’s low interest rates.

Conventional wisdom holds that the
President’s proposals will be “dead on arrival” when they reach Congress and,
in fact the reaction of Speaker
of the House John Boehner to the speech was, “How many times are we going to do
this?  How many times are we going to
suggest programs to help people who can’t make payments on their
mortgages?  The programs don’t work.”

A
kinder assessment was released in a statement from David H. Stevens, President
and CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association. 
Stevens commented specifically on the Homeowner Bill of Rights saying
the Association agrees that a single national set of standards “can help
provide confidence and certainty in the real estate market for borrowers,
lenders, and servicers alike.”

He
also commended the administration for “recognizing that more can be done to get
our housing market on track.  The programs announced today will give lenders and other
stakeholders additional tools to help borrowers and foster a renewed confidence
in our real estate finance system.” 
 

Video Included

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Cost of Trade Center Tower Rises

The price tag for One World Trade Center, the signature skyscraper under construction at Ground Zero in New York, has risen to more than $3.8 billion, making it by far the world’s most expensive new office tower.

Cost for World-Trade Tower Rises to $3.8 Billion

The price tag for One World Trade Center, the signature skyscraper under construction at Ground Zero in New York, has risen to more than $3.8 billion, making it by far the world’s most expensive new office tower.