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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New-home sales hit a wall

New-home sales fell 2.2% in December, compared with a month earlier, to an annual rate of 307,000, the government said Thursday.

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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DeMarco Outlines Justification against GSE Principal Reduction

Acting Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)
Director Edward J. DeMarco responded Friday to a request from 16 House
Democrats to explain the statutory authority that DeMarco has claimed prohibits
FHFA from offering principal reduction as part of loan modifications on loans
it owns or guarantees.  The request was
made last November after DeMarco told the House Committee on Oversight and
Government Reform that his agency had concluded that “the use of principal reduction within the context of a loan
modification is not going to be the least-cost approach for the taxpayer.”  When a committee member pointed out that several
banks are already implementing principal reduction programs in an attempt to
help delinquent or underwater homeowners and citing specific examples, DeMarco said “I believe that the decisions that we’ve made with regard
to principal forgiveness are consistent with our statutory mandate,” and committed
to providing documentation of that statutory authority to the Committee.

In
a letter sent to the Committee’s ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) DeMarco laid
out the statutory requirements as originating in three congressional mandates;
first FHFA’s role as conservator and regulator of the government sponsored
enterprises (GSEs) which requires it to preserve and conserve the assets and
properties of the GSEs; second, maintaining the GSE’s pre-conservatorship missions
and obligations to maintain liquidity in the housing market; and third, under
the Emergency Economic  Stabilization Act
of 2008 (EESA), FHFAs statutory responsibility to maximize assistance to
homeowners to minimize foreclosure while considering the net present value
(NPV) of any action to prevent foreclosures.

The focus of the letter, however, is not
the statutory framework but rather why FHFA has decided that principal
forgiveness does not meet its core responsibility within that framework to
preserve and conserve the assets of the GSEs.

DeMarco’s rationale relies on an internal
analysis provided to him in December 2010 and updated in June 2011 which shows
that the use of principal reduction as a loss mitigation measure for GSE loans
under with the Making Home Affordable (HAMP) program or the FHA Short Refi
program would cost the Enterprises more than the benefits derived and
recommended that, instead the GSEs should more aggressively pursue propriety
loan modifications
that reduce the interest rate, extend the mortgage term, and
provide for substantial principal forbearance and promote HARP refinance
transactions for borrowers who are current on their mortgages but underwater in
respect to their equity. 

The GSEs collectively guarantee or hold
about 30 million loans and, using the FHFA Home Price Index to estimate home
values it appears that less than two million of these loans are secured by
properties valued at less than the outstanding debt; i.e. underwater.  Of these loans, more than half are performing
and about one-half million are severely delinquent or in foreclosure.  The table below clearly shows that high LTV
loans are only a small proportion of the GSE’s loans and that most of the loans
are either current or severely delinquent.

Using the Treasury HAMP NPV model the
FHFA study team compared the economic effectiveness of forgiving principal down
to a mark-to-market LTV (MTMLTV) level of 115 percent versus forbearance of the
same amount of principal for all loans with a MTMLTV greater than 115 percent.  The model suggested no better result from principal
reduction than from forbearance and showed the latter as slightly more
effective in reducing GSE losses.  The
team also evaluated the accounting and operational implications of the
principal reduction to measure those costs against benefits to borrowers.  The costs were found to include, in addition
to the immediate losses, the costs of modifying technology, providing training
to servicers, and the opportunity cost of diverting attention away from other
loss mitigation activities.

Principal forbearance, in
contrast, requires no systems changes and is a common approach in government
credit programs, including FHA. The borrower is offered changes to the loan
term and rate as well as a deferral of principal, which has the same effect on
the borrower’s monthly payment as principal reduction, but provides the investor
with potential recovery. The forborne principal is paid in full or part upon
sale of the property or payoff of the loan. This traditional approach would
minimize the Enterprise losses and treat GSE borrowers in a manner that is
consistent with other government programs.

Given the large portion of the
high LTV borrowers that are current on their mortgages, a principal reduction
program for this segment, such as the FHA Short Refi program, simply transfers
performing GSE borrowers over to FHA, at a cost to the GSEs. A less costly
approach for the Enterprises to assist these borrowers is to provide a GSE
refinance alternative, such as HARP. Clearly, the HARP program has been
underutilized to date, suggesting that the program features should be revisited
to remove barriers to entry wherever possible.

…(read more)

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SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS LEAD WHITE HOUSE FORUM ON SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITIES

WASHINGTON – The Obama Administration today convened a meeting with more than 50 local government and business leaders to discuss the role of sustainability in economic development and job creation. The gathering coincided with the third anniversary of the creation of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a landmark collaboration between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).