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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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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Applications Fall 5% during Holiday Shortened Week

Mortgage applications were down during
the week ended January 20 according to the Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey
conducted by the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA).  The Market Composite Index, a measure of
application volume fell 5 percent on a basis that was adjusted seasonally and
to account for the week shortened by the Martin Luther King holiday.  On a non-seasonally adjusted basis the
Composite fell 13.8 percent from the previous week which ended January 13.

The
seasonally adjusted Purchase Index was down 5.4 percent and the unadjusted
Purchase Index 9.7 percent.  The latter
was 6.5 percent lower than during the same week in 2011.  The index measuring applications for
refinancing was down 5.2 percent. 

The
four week moving averages for all indices remained positive.  The Composite Index was up 4.12 percent, the
Refinance Index increased 4.85 percent and the seasonally adjusted Purchase Index
rose 0.47 percent.

Refinancing
continued to represent the majority of mortgage activity, falling slightly from
82.2 percent of all applications the previous week to 81.3 percent.  Applications for adjustable rate mortgages
were at a 5.3 percent level compared to 5.6 percent a week earlier. 

Looking
back at the month of December, MBA found that refinancing borrowers applied for
30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRM) in 56.6 percent of cases and 24.3 percent of
applications were for a 15-year FRM.   ARMs represented 5.3 percent of applications in
December.  The
share of refinance applications for “other” fixed-rate mortgages with
amortization schedules other than a 15 or a 30-year term was 13.8 percent of
all refinance applications.

Purchase Index vs 30 Yr Fixed

Click Here to View the Purchase Applications Chart

Refinance Index vs 30 Yr Fixed

Click Here to View the Refinance Applications Chart

The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with
conforming loan balances of $417,500 or less increased to 4.11 percent from
4.06 percent with points down one basis point to 0.47 point.  The effective rate increased from the
previous week.  The rate for jumbo
30-year FRM with balances over $417,500 decreased from 4.40 percent with 0.37
point to 4.39 percent with 0.40 point. 
The effective rate also decreased. 
The rate for FHA-backed 30-year FRM rose to 3.97 percent from 3.91
percent while points were down from 0.59 to 0.57 point.  The effective rate increased.

The
average rate for 15-year FRM increased to 3.40 percent from 3.33
percent, with points increasing to 0.40
from 0.39 and the effective rate increased as well. The rate for the 5/1 hybrid ARM was
up one basis point to 2.91 percent with points decreasing to 0.41l from
0.45.  The effective rate increased.

All
rates quoted are for 80 percent loan-to-value mortgages and points include the
application fee.

 The
MBA survey covers over 75 percent of all U.S. retail residential mortgage
applications, and has been conducted weekly since 1990.  Respondents
include mortgage bankers, commercial banks and thrifts.  Base period and
value for all indexes is March 16, 1990=100.

…(read more)

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A Times Square Tune-Up

Sometimes, the renovation costs almost as much as the purchase itself.

Refinance Applications Surge 26.4% as Rates Set New Lows

Mortgage applications jumped 23.1
percent on a seasonally adjusted basis during the week ended January 13,
2012.  The increase in the Market
Composite Index, a measure of loan application volume maintained by the
Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reflected improvements in both the purchase
and refinance business following the traditionally slow Christmas and New Year
holiday period.  On an unadjusted basis
the index increased 38.1 percent.

The Refinance Index increased 26.4
percent
from the week ended January 6 to its highest point since August 8,
2011.  The seasonally adjusted Purchase
Index rose 10.3 percent, returning to pre-holiday levels.  The unadjusted Purchase Index was up 28.4
percent from the previous week and was 2.2 percent higher than during the same
week in 2011.

The four-week moving average for each
index also increased; the Composite Index increased by 5.99 percent, the
seasonally adjusted Purchase Index by 1.96 percent and the Refinance Index by
7.0 percent.

Refinancing took an 82.2 percent share
of all application activity, up from 80.8 percent the previous week and the
highest share since October 22, 2010.  Applications
for adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) constituted represented a 5.6 percent
share of applications, up two basis points from the previous week.

Purchase Index vs 30 Yr Fixed

Click Here to View the Purchase Applications Chart

Refinance Index vs 30 Yr Fixed

Click Here to View the Refinance Applications Chart

 “Interest
rates
dropped last week due to continuing anxieties regarding the fragile
economic situation in Europe,” said Michael Fratantoni, MBA’s Vice
President of Research and Economics.  “With mortgage rates reaching
new lows, refinance volume jumped and MBA’s refinance index reached its highest
level in the last six months.  Purchase activity also increased as buyers
returned to the market after the holiday season.”

With
the exception of jumbo loans (with balances over $417,500) interest rates continued
their downward trend. Three of the rates, in fact, hit the lowest level in the
history of the MBA applications survey.  The
jumbo rate – for 30-year fixed-rate (FRM) loans – increased to 4.40 percent
from 4.34 percent with points decreasing to 0.37 from 0.47 point.  The effective rate also increased.

Thirty-year
FRM with conforming (under $417,500) balances hit a new low, decreasing to 4.06
percent with 0.48 point from 4.11 percent with 0.41 point. The effective rate
also decreased.

Rates
for FHA guaranteed 30-year FRM were
at 3.91 percent with 0.59 point, the lowest FHA
rate in the history of MBA’s application survey, down from 3.96 percent with 0.72 point.  The effective rate also decreased from the previous week.

The
third all-time low is the 3.33 percent rate with 0.39 point for the 15-year FRM. 
This was a drop from 3.40 percent with 0.37 point rate the previous week.  The effective rate also decreased.

The
average contract interest rate for 5/1
ARMs was unchanged at the record low 2.90 percent established the previous
week.  Points decreased to 0.45 from 0.49.   The
effective rate also decreased from last week.

All
rates quoted are for 80 percent loan-to-value originations and points include
the application fee.

 MBA’s covers
over 75 percent of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications, and has
been conducted weekly since 1990.  Respondents include mortgage bankers,
commercial banks and thrifts.  Base period and value for all indexes is
March 16, 1990=100.

…(read more)

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