Regulator: Freddie Ceased Mortgage Transactions ‘On Its Own’

Bloomberg News
Edward DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency

By Alan Zibel and Nick Timiraos

Freddie Mac stopped investing in certain mortgage derivatives last spring amid a weak market for such transactions, the firm’s federal regulator said on Friday, as an uproar continued on Capitol Hill about the investments.

The obscure investments known as inverse floaters caused a flurry of angry statements from lawmakers this week after NPR News and nonprofit investigative news outlet ProPublica reported that the mortgage giant’s investments in certain mortgage derivatives created conflicts of interest that amounted to bets against homeowners’ ability to refinance.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency said in a statement that Freddie Mac made the initial decision to suspend the investment strategy in spring 2011.

“Freddie Mac, on its own, ceased structured financing that produced inverse floaters, as there was limited market demand for these structured products,” said Corinne Russell, a spokeswoman for the FHFA. She said there was “no connection” between Freddie Mac’s mortgage financing structures and its refinancing policies.

The “underlying premise” that Freddie had sought to bet against homeowners by holding the investments “is simply incorrect,” said the agency’s acting director, Edward DeMarco, in a letter on Tuesday.

The mortgage-related investments receive a certain piece of the cash flow from interest payments on mortgages. They would be worth less if borrowers refinanced their home loans and paid off loans that carry higher interest rates.

The NPR-ProPublica report said there was no specific evidence that Freddie’s decision to retain exposures to those investments was tied to its decisions to tighten credit policies that made refinancing more difficult.

Freddie Mac says that its portfolio management operations are “walled off” from other parts of the business. In an interview with NPR on Friday, Mr. DeMarco said he was “completely puzzled by the notion that there was something immoral that went on here.”

Mr. DeMarco said in a letter to Sen. Robert Casey (D., Pa.) that regulators had raised their own concerns about over the firm’s ability to manage the risks associated with the complex investments after Freddie Mac ceased retaining the mortgage investments.

“The risk associated with these transactions is inconsistent with FHFA’s goal of having Freddie Mac reduce its risk profile and avoid unnecessary complexity that requires specialized risk management practices,” wrote Mr. DeMarco. Mr. Casey pressed Mr. DeMarco for more detailed answers in a separate letter Friday. He asked Mr. DeMarco to explain Freddie’s rationale for retaining more of those investments in 2010 and 2011 and to clarify FHFA’s oversight of those investments.

Freddie Mac, which buys up mortgages and packages them into securities, has a $650 billion mortgage portfolio. It holds about $5 billion of the derivatives in question.

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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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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McCain Pushes Ban on Fannie, Freddie Bonuses

Reuters
Sen. John McCain wants to ban executive bonuses at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac while the companies remain under federal control.

An effort to bar bonuses for executives at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could move forward in the U.S. Senate this week.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), a long-standing critic of the mortgage giants, said Tuesday he would try to advance a measure that would bar senior executives at Fannie and Freddie from receiving bonuses while the companies remain under federal control. (Video.)

Mr. McCain and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.) sought to attach the restriction on pay to a bill prohibiting members of Congress from trading on inside information about government activities that could impact stocks. That bill easily cleared a 60-vote procedural hurdle on Monday and could pass by the end of this week.

Lawmakers became outraged last fall over nearly $13 million in bonus and incentive pay for Fannie’s and Freddie’s top executives granted last year.

“I find it hard to believe that we can’t find talented people with the skills necessary to manage Fannie and Freddie for good money…without the incentive of multi-million dollar bonuses,” Mr. McCain said on the Senate floor on Tuesday. “There are many examples of intelligent, well-qualified, patriotic individuals working in our federal government who make significantly less than the top executives at Fannie and Freddie with just as much responsibility.”

Representatives for Fannie and Freddie declined to comment. Their regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, didn’t immediately comment.

The FHFA has defended the current pay packages as appropriate given the technical expertise needed to oversee two companies that guarantee $5 trillion in mortgages and the fact the executives couldn’t be paid in the companies’ stock, which essentially is worthless.

Taxpayers, who have put about $151 billion into Fannie and Freddie since their takeover in fall 2008, “would not be better off if we provoke a rapid turnover of senior management by further slashing compensation,” said Edward DeMarco, the FHFA’s acting director, at a November hearing.

Fannie CEO Michael Williams announced in mid-January his plans to step down as soon as the Fannie board finds a successor. His counterpart at Freddie Mac, Charles E. Haldeman Jr., said last fall that he would leave sometime in 2012. Both executives took their jobs in 2009, less than a year after the government put the companies under federal control.

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.

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