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.

…(read more)

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HAMP Changes: Treasury Increases Incentives for Principal Reduction

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

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

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

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

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

In its press release FHFA said of the
Treasury proposal

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

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

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

…(read more)

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Mortgage Rates Rise on Stronger Housing Reports

By Mia Lamar

Rates for fixed mortgages moved higher over the past week amid positive signals from the long-suffering U.S. housing market, according to Freddie Mac’s weekly survey of mortgage rates.

“Fixed mortgage rates ticked up this week as the housing market ended 2011 on a high note,” said Freddie Mac Chief Economist Frank Nothaft, noting encouraging data like a report that existing home sales rose 5% at the end of the year to 4.61 million houses, the largest amount since May 2010.

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.98% for the week ended Thursday, up from 3.88% the previous week, though below 4.8% a year ago. Rates on 15-year fixed-rate mortgages averaged 3.24%, up from 3.17% last week and below 4.09% a year earlier.

Five-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARM, averaged 2.85%, up from 2.82% last week and below 3.7% a year ago. One-year Treasury-indexed ARM rates averaged 2.74%, matching the prior week and below 3.26% last year.

To obtain the rates, 30-year and 15-year fixed-rate mortgages required an average 0.7 percentage point and 0.8 percentage point payment, respectively. Five-year and one-year adjustable rate mortgages required an average 0.7 percentage point and 0.6 percentage point payment, respectively. A point is 1% of the mortgage amount, charged as prepaid interest.

Write to Mia Lamar at mia.lamar@dowjones.com

Housing Industry Reacts to State of the Union

Housing featured prominently in
President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night.  The President made two specific proposals,
one to deal with the ghosts of housing past, the other to provide expanded
credit to homeowners.

In contrast to the settlement with banks
that Obama was widely rumored to announce
at the State of the Union, he instead directed Attorney General Eric Holder to
create a new office on Mortgage Origination and Securitization Abuses.  The President said, “The American people
deserve a robust and comprehensive investigation into the global financial meltdown
to ensure nothing like it ever happens again.”

According to the Huffington Post, the new
office will take a three-pronged approach to the issue, holding financial
institutions accountable for abuses, compensating victims, and providing relief
for homeowners, and will operate as part of the existing Financial Fraud
Enforcement Task Force.  On Wednesday several
news outlets were reporting that the unit will be chaired by State Attorney
General Eric Schneiderman, who has been regarded as among the toughest of state
law enforcement officers with Lanny Breuer, an assistant attorney general in
the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) as co-chair.  Others reported to be in the group are Robert
Khuzami, director of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission,
U.S. Attorney for Colorado John Walsh and Tony West, assistant AG, DOJ. 

The President’s second and more
broad-reaching proposal was for a massive refinancing of mortgage loans that
would reach beyond the current government initiates such as the Home Affordable
Refinance Program (HARP).  While few
details are available, the President said that his proposed initiative would
cut red tape and could save homeowners about $3,000 a year on their mortgage
payments because of the current historically low rates.  Unlike HARP, the program would apply to all
borrowers whether or not their current mortgages are government-backed and
would be paid for by a small fee on the largest financial institutions. Obama
did not mention principal reduction in his proposal.

Bloomberg is reporting that the program is
Obama’s response to a call by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in a paper sent to Congress
earlier this month for the administration to offer more aid for housing.   While largely dealing with the need to
convert excess housing inventory to rental property, the paper also touched on
the benefits of easing refinancing beyond the HARP program.

Bloomberg also outlined some of the
tradeoffs of a super-refinancing program saying it may damage investors in
government-backed securities by more quickly paying off those with high coupons
and limited default risk while aiding holders of other home-loan securities and
banks.  Word that such a proposal might be
forthcoming in the President’s speech, Bloomberg said, “Roiled the market for
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac securities according to a note to clients by Bank of
America Corp.”

The Associated Press quoted Stan
Humphries, chief economist at Zillow as saying the refinancing could allow 10
million more homeowners to refinance and, by preventing foreclosures and
freeing up money for Americans to spend, could give the economy a $40 to $75
billion jolt.  The Federal Reserve, the
AP said, was more cautious, estimating that 2.5 million additional homeowners
might be able to refinance.

The refinancing initiative would require
approval by Congress, however the day after the speech the focus was on other issues
such as tax reform and we could not find any reaction from members of Congress
specific to the refinancing issue.  Even the
Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) issued a statement from its president David
H. Stevens which did not mention the refinancing program, obliquely addressing
instead the creation of the mortgage fraud office.    

“Like the
President, we believe it is time to move forward with rebuilding this nation’s
housing market and that lenders and borrowers alike contributed to the housing
crisis we are currently in.  Let there also be no mistake, those who
committed illegal acts ought to face the consequences, if they haven’t already.”

Stevens
then called for a clear national housing policy “that establishes certainty for
lenders and borrowers alike.”  This,
according to MBA, requires finalizing the Risk Retention/Qualified Residential
Mortgage (QRM) rule “in a way that ensures access to credit for all qualified
borrowers,” establishing working national servicing standards, developing a
legal safe-harbor for Dodd-Frank QRM/Ability to Repay requirements, and “Move(ing)
quickly to determine the proper role of the federal government in the mortgage market
in order to ensure sufficient mortgage liquidity through all markets, good and
bad.

Creation
of the fraud office generated substantial comment, much of which was
unfavorable.  A lot of the criticism
focused on the lack of prosecutions that have emerged from the existing fraud
task force and there was a strong suspicion voiced by the liberal blogosphere
that the new office was merely a cover for pushing the DOJ/50-state attorneys
general settlement with major banks.  However,
one analysis, written by Shahien Nasiripour in U.S. Politics and Policies pointed out the wider powers of
enforcement available to attorneys general in some states such as New York’s
Martin Act and how the states and federal government might use the new office
to pool their powers and responsibilities to the benefit of each.  

The new
office will not lure California Attorney General Kamala Harris back into the
fold.  Harris and Schneiderman both
withdrew from the national foreclosure settlement last year, feeling that it
did not represent the interest of their respective states.  Despite the appointment of Schneiderman to
head the new office, Harris announced on Wednesday that she would not be
rejoining her fellow AGs
in their negotiations saying that the latest
settlement proposal was inadequate for California.  A spokesman for her office said, “Our
state has been clear about what any multistate settlement must contain:
transparency, relief going to the most distressed homeowners, and meaningful
enforcement that ensures accountability. At this point, this deal does not
suffice for California.”

Here’s the video of the speech beginning at the point discussing housing related issues…

…(read more)

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