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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FHFA: House Prices Rose 1% in November

The Federal Housing Finance Agency’s (FHFA)
Home Price Index (HPI) rose 1.0 percent from October to November reflecting an
increase in U.S. housing prices on a seasonally adjusted basis. As can be seen
in the figure below, the there is little difference between seasonally adjusted
and unadjusted FHFA figures.  The estimated
figure for October was revised down from a -0.2 change as first reported to -0.7.
 The current index is 183.8 a drop of 1.8
percent from November 2010 when the index was at 187.3. 

The current HPI is 18.8 percent below
the peak it reached in April 2007 and indicates that prices have returned to
roughly the same range as existed in February 2004.

The HPI is calculated using purchase
prices of houses with mortgages that have been sold to or guaranteed by Freddie
Mac or Fannie Mac.  The index is based on
100 representing prices for homes in the first quarter of 1991.

The HPI rose for all regions
except the Middle Atlantic division (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania) which
fell 0.2 percent.  The biggest increase
was in the West South Central Division (Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana)
which rose 2.1 percent.  West South
Central and West North Central (North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota,
Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri) were the only regions to increase on a
year-over-year basis.

…(read more)

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Mr. President, it’s Time for a National Housing Policy

Please Mr. President, enough with the one-off responses, it’s time for a National Housing Policy.

The only thing more predictable than the fact that the President will deliver to Congress a State of the Union Address each year is the speculation that precedes it regarding what “Big” announcements the President’s speech will contain.

This year is no different, and a great deal of current speculation surrounds the topic of housing and whether the President’s speech will include some grand proposal intended to relieve those American homeowners who continue to suffer under the weight of a housing economy that remains stuck in neutral.

One plan getting a great deal of attention would involve the government granting debt forgiveness to borrowers whose mortgages are underwater, meaning that the amount currently owed by them on their mortgage exceeds the current value of their home.

To date, the Federal Finance Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) – the primary regulator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – has resisted calls from Congress to approve principal forgiveness. In a report circulating today, we now understand why. According to that report, the cost of such a plan to Fannie and Freddie could well exceed $100 Billion! That $100 Billion would be in addition to the $151 Billion already owed by the two enterprises to the US Treasury. And to be clear, that means owed to US taxpayers.

Hopefully, current speculation is wrong and the President’s address includes no such proposal. Its not that we don’t sympathize with underwater homeowners, we most certainly do. We too look forward to the day when the American housing economy is once again growing and functioning well – and by extension, when the challenges facing homeowners are far less. When that day arrives, that will be a sure sign that the American economy generally has returned to a healthy condition.

Our objection is broader and goes to the fact that since 2009 the policy response to the housing crisis by the Administration has involved one tactical reaction after another – or as we have said before … “a series of one-off reactions …” and, unfortunately, little more.

And while certain tactical reactions were appropriate and even required in 2009 and even into 2010, the time is long passed for the development and introduction of a comprehensive National Housing Policy. Such a policy would lay out in clear terms the goals to be achieved through the Nation’s support of housing; the economic costs and benefits of such a policy; as well as the anticipated intangible benefits of such a policy. Finally, such a plan would identify the likely costs and risks of the failure to implement such a plan.

With such a plan in place (or at least proposed), the uncertainty that today plagues this industry would begin to lift and Congressional policy makers, regulators and business leaders alike would be better equipped to address the important considerations that must still be resolved if we hope to develop an enduring solution to the Nation’s housing crisis.

And for those who would ask, “Why should a housing policy be a priority?”, consider the following written in 2003 – perhaps the last time we had a legitimate National Housing Policy in this great Nation – by the Millennial Housing Commission:

“… housing matters. It represents the single largest expenditure for most American families and the single largest source of wealth for most homeowners. The development of housing has a major impact on the national economy and the economic growth and health of regions and communities. Housing is inextricably linked to access to jobs and healthy communities and the social behavior of the families who occupy it. The failure to achieve adequate housing leads to significant societal costs.”

Until these sort of deliberations and debate occur and a National Housing Policy is in place, it is impossible to know what we as taxpayers get (and give up) for another $100 Billion spent in this manner in support of the housing crisis.

It seems to us, that the time to answer the important question: “What do we get?” … before we give more … is long overdue.

…(read more)

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