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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The State of the Mortgage Industry According to MBA

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) provided its annual
assessment of The State of the Mortgage Industry in a press conference Wednesday
afternoon.  Michael Young, MBA Chairman
said that the states that have been hardest hit by the housing crisis are and
will continue to deal with the aftermath but there are signs that in much of
the nation 2012 will bring a recovering market.

One bright spot, Young said, is that the turmoil in the
single family market has actually helped the multi-family sector; the rental
market has tightened and more lenders have moved into the sector, especially
life insurance companies.  In the
residential market, he said, the one topic that is discussed everywhere is the
lack of financing and what can be done about it.

David H. Stevens, MBA President and CEO said that lack of
financing
can be traced to a single factor, market uncertainty.  Part of it is uncertainty about international
markets and how they might ultimately impact the domestic situation but there
is also a tremendous amount of uncertainty about regulation.  Dodd-Frank, he said, has 300 regulations that
have yet to be fully promulgated and the new Consumer Financial Protection
Bureau (CFPB) and other regulators all have or are considering regulations
about how loans can be provided and serviced. 
There is uncertainty surrounding repurchases as well and while MBA
believes lenders should be held accountable for their mistakes, they should not
be held accountable for the loans performance if it failed solely due to
changing economic circumstances.  For
that reason MBA supports a time limit on the repurchase obligation.

Addressing three areas in particular, he said, would
decrease a lot of the insecurity.  New
regulations regarding Qualified Mortgages (QM) and Qualified Residential
Mortgages (QRM) are eminent and QM will in effect, define what loans get
made.  Mortgages which do not meet QM as
laid out by CRPB will simply not get made because lenders will feel there is
too much liability involved.   MBA supports certain parts of the QM such as
the requirement for full documentation but other parts such as the point and
fee cap lack flexibility and will disproportionately affect the pricing of small
loans.  

Most of all, he said, the proposed regulations are too general.  There needs to be specificity in the
underwriting standards such as in the definition of what constitutions “ability
to repay.”  Without a bright line in the
regulations that enable a safe harbor for lenders, he said, any lending is
going to be restricted on the margins and any loans that fall into the gap
between QM and QRM will see significant price adjustments to reflect the
liability.

While MBA also supports risk retention and much of the
intent of the QRM such as eliminating no-docs and interest only and other
exotic loans, regulators are going beyond the intent of Congress by adding debt
to income and loan-to-value ratios.  The
requirement for a 20 percent down payment will create a dual class system under
QRM, with lower income borrowers, unable to amass the down payment; forced into
FHA loans while there will be a private market for upper income borrowers.  Stevens said MBA will be “very aggressive” in
making sure these changes to QRM are pulled back.

Another area of uncertainty is the 50-state settlement with
servicers
.  Borrowers don’t care about
their servicers until they get into trouble with their mortgages but then the
multiple state and federal laws that govern servicing cause stress for the
borrowers and for servicers and investors as well.  The settlement may provide a framework for
national standards which would remove some of the uncertainty in this area.  In the same vein, Stevens said that President
Obama’s new fraud task force must be careful to avoid redundancy with other
investigations and carefully measure how it impacts borrowers or it could
create trepidation among lenders and further reluctance to lend.  

The present structure of the mortgage market with 90 percent
of lending having some government involvement through the GSEs or FHA is simply
unsustainable, Stevens said.  The private
sector must be brought back into the market and the major players in the
industry are close to agreement on what the future of the secondary market
should look like.  This is very close to
a model proposed by MBA some years ago which would have the following
characteristics:

  • Transactions would be funded with private
    capital from a broad range of sources.
  • The federal government should have a role in
    promoting stability and liquidity in the core mortgage market. This role should be in the form of an
    explicit credit guarantee on a class of mortgage-backed securities and the
    guarantee would be paid for by risk-based fees.
  • Taxpayers and the system itself should be
    protected through limits on the mortgage products covered, the types of
    activities undertaken, strong risk-based capital requirement, and actuarially
    fair payments into a federal insurance fund.

In answer to a reporter’s question about the chances of
President Obama’s streamlined refinancing program being approved, Stevens said
it would be an uphill climb.  FHA is
legislatively limited to loans with a maximum LTV of 97.5 percent so to go as
high as 140 percent which Steven’s said he expected the legislation to attempt
will require full approval of Congress.

Jay Brinkmann, Senior Vice President and Chief Economists said
he expects jobs to be created at about a 150,000 per month pace in 2012 but
this will be uneven by location and dependent on an individual’s education.  The length of unemployment hit a record high
in November and persons with a high school education or less are remaining
unemployed longer than those with a college degree.

According to Brinkmann, mortgage originations will drop from
$1.26 trillion in 2011 to $992 billion in 2012 with most of the loss coming in
refinancing.  The purchase market will be
largely unchanged or will rise slightly. 
This does not, however, reflect any changes that might be made in the
HARP program or any unforeseen outside events.

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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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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.

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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.

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