Geithner Outlines Accomplishments, Future of Financial Reform

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told
the Financial Stability Oversight Council that the financial system is getting
stronger and safer and that much of the excess risk-taking and careless
financial practices that caused so much damage has been forced out.  However, he said, “These gains will erode
over time if we are not able to put our full reforms into place.”

He outlined the basic framework has been
laid, with new global agreements to limit leverage, rules for managing the
failure of a large firm and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
up and running, and the majority of the new safeguards for derivatives markets proposed.  Geithner ticked off the major accomplishments
of reform.

First, banks now face much
tougher limits on risk which are critical to reducing the risk of large
financial failures and limiting the damage such failures can cause.  The focus in 2012 will be “on defining the
new liquidity standards and on making sure that capital risk-weights are
applied consistently.”

 The new rules are tougher on
the largest banks that pose the greatest risk and are being complemented by
other limits on risk-taking such as the Volcker Rules and limits on the size of
firms and concentration of the financial systems.  These will not apply only to banks but to
other large financial institutions that could pose a threat to financial system
stability and this year the Risk Council will make the first of these
designations.

Second, the derivatives market will,
for the first time, be required to meet a comprehensive set of transparency
requirements, margin rules and other safeguards.  These reforms are designed to move
standardized contracts to clearing houses and trading platforms and will be
complemented with more conservative safeguards for the more complex and
specialized products less amenable to central clearing and electronic
trading.  These reforms, the balance of
which will be outlined this year, will lower costs for those who use the
products, allow parties to hedge against risk, but limit the potential for
abuse, the Secretary said. 

Third, is a carefully designed set
of safeguards against risk outside the banking system and enhanced protections
for the basic infrastructure of the financial markets: 

  • Money market funds will have new
    requirements designed to limit “runs.”
  • Important funding markets like the
    tri-party repo market are now more conservatively structured.
  • International trade repositories are
    being developed for derivatives, including credit default swaps.
  • Designated financial market utilities
    will have oversight and requirements for stronger financial reserves;

Fourth; there will be a stronger set
of protections in place against “too big to fail” institutions.  The key elements are:

  • Capital and liquidity rules with
    tough limits on leverage to both reduce the probability of failure and prevent
    a domino effect;
  • New protections for derivatives,
    funding markets, and for the market infrastructure to limit contagion across
    the financial system;
  • Tougher limits on institutional size;
  • A bankruptcy-type framework to
    manage the failure of large financial firms.
    This “resolution authority” will prohibit bailouts for private
    investors, protect taxpayers, and force the financial system to bear the costs
    of future crisis.

Fifth, significantly stronger
protections for investors and consumers are being put in place including the
CFPB which is working to improve disclosures for mortgages and credit cards and
developing new standards for qualified mortgages.  New authorities are being used to strengthen protections
for investors and to give shareholders greater voice on issues like executive
compensation.

Geithner pointed to the failure of
account segregation rules to protect customers in the MF Global disaster as proof
of the need for more protections and said that the Council will work with the
SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Council on this problem.   

Moving forward, reforms must be
structured to endure as the market evolves and to work not just in isolation
but to interact appropriately with each other and the broader economy.  “We
want to be careful to get the balance right-building a more stable financial
system, with better protections for consumers and investors, that allows for
financial innovation in support of economic growth.” 

First, he said, we have to make sure
we have a level playing field at home; that financial firms engaged in similar
activity and financial instruments that have similar characteristics are
treated roughly the same because small differences can have powerful effects in
shifting risk to where the rules are softer. 
A level field globally is also important, particularly with reforms that
toughen rules on capital, margin, liquidity, and leverage, as well as in the
global derivatives markets.  “In these areas we are working to discourage
other nations from applying softer rules to their institutions and to try to
attract financial activity away from the U.S. market and U.S. institutions.” 

It is necessary to align the
developing derivatives regimes around the world; preventing attempts to soften
application of capital rules, limiting the discretion available to supervisors
in enforcing rules on risk-weights for capital and designing rules for
resolution of large global institutions.  Also, because some U.S. reforms are different
or tougher from rules in other markets, there needs to be a sensible way to
apply those rules to the foreign operations of U.S. firms and the U.S.
operation of foreign firms.

 The U.S. also needs to move
forward with reforms to the mortgage market including a path to winding down
the government sponsored enterprises (GSEs.) 
The Administration has already outlined a broad strategy, Geithner said,
and expects to lay out more detail in the spring.  The immediate concern is to repair the damage
to homeowners, the housing market, and neighborhoods.  The President spoke this week about the range
of tools he plans to use.  Our ultimate goals
are to wind down the GSEs, bring private capital back into the market, reduce
the government’s direct role, and better target support toward first-time
homebuyers and low- and moderate-income Americans.

Geithner said the new system must
foster affordable rentals options, have stronger, clearer consumer protections,
and create a level playing field for all institutions participating in the
system.  For this to happen without
hurting the broader economy and adding further damage to those areas that have
been hardest hit, banks and private investors must come back into the market on
a larger scale and they want more clarity on the rules that will apply. 

Credit availability is still a problem
and there is a broad array of programs in place to improve access to credit and
capital for small businesses.  As
conditions improve, it is important that we remain focused on making sure that
small businesses, a crucial engine of job growth, have continued access to
equity capital and credit.

Many Americans trying to buy a home
or refinance their mortgage are also finding it hard to access credit, even for
FHA- or GSE-backed mortgages.  The Administration has been working closely
with the FHA and FHFA to encourage them to take additional measures to remove
unnecessary barriers and they are making progress.  They will probably outline additional reforms
in the coming weeks.

Bank supervisors, in the normal
conduct of bank exams and supervision, as well as in the design of new rules to
limit risk taking and abuse, must be careful not to overdo it with actions that
cause undue damage to the availability of credit or liquidity to markets.

Geithner said the U.S. financial
system is getting stronger
, and is now significantly stronger than it was
before the crisis.  Among the achievements:

  • Banks have increased common equity
    by more than $350 billion since 2009.
  • Banks and other financial
    institutions with more than $5 trillion in assets at the end of 2007 have been
    shut down, acquired, or restructured.
  • The asset-backed commercial paper
    market has shrunk by 70 percent since its peak in 2007, and the tri-party repo
    market and prime money market funds have shrunk by 40 percent and 33 percent
    respectively since their 2008 peaks.
  • The financial assistance we provided
    to banks through TARP, for example, will result in taxpayer gains of
    approximately $20 billion.

The Secretary said the strength of
the banks is helping to support broader economic growth, including the more
than 3 million private sector jobs created over 22 straight months, and the 30
percent increase in private investment in equipment and software.  
Broadly, the cost of credit has fallen significantly since late 2008 and early
2009.  Banks are lending more, with commercial and industrial loans to
businesses up by an annual rate of more than 10 percent over the past six
months.  

He concluded by saying that no
financial system is invulnerable to crisis, and there is a lot of unfinished
business on the path of reform.  The reforms are tough where they need to
be tough.  “But they will leave our financial system safer, better able to
help businesses raise capital, and better able to help families finance safely
the purchase of a house or a car, to borrow to invest in a college education,
or to save for retirement.  And they will protect the taxpayer from having
to pay the price of future crisis.”

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Homeowners Continue Shift Away from Cash-Out Refinancing

Homeowners who refinanced their homes during the fourth
quarter of 2011
either refinanced for about the same amount or actually brought
cash to the table according Freddie Mac. 
Fewer than 15 percent of those who refinanced during the quarter
increased their loan amount by 5 percent or more.  This is the lowest percentage of “cash-out”
borrowers in the 26 years that Freddie has been tracking the statistics.  During those 26 years covering 1985 to 2010
the average percentage of cash-out borrowers was 46 percent.

Thirty-seven percent of refinancing homeowners took out new
loans of approximately the same size as the old loan but nearly half (49
percent) actually brought cash to the table, reducing the amount of the new
loan to a median ratio of .74 of the old loan. 
The percentage of “cash-in” borrowers is also a 26-year record.

The fourth quarter figures are a stark contrast to the
pattern of refinancing during the last years of the housing boom.   During
eight consecutive quarters (Q4 of 2005 to Q3 of 2007) cash-out loans exceeded
80 percent of all refinancing and in none of those quarters did more than 8
percent of homeowners reduce the size of their mortgages when refinancing.

Borrowers who refinanced achieved a new interest rate about
1.4 percentage points lower than their old mortgage, a 26 percent improvement.  These borrowers will save a median of $2,700
during the first year if they have a $200,000 loan.

The 15 percent who did cash out took an estimated $5.5
billion in net equity out of their homes, representing 3.0 percent of the total
refinanced.  This was down from $5.6
billion and 3.7 percent in the third quarter. 
Adjusted for inflation this was the lowest level since the third quarter
of 1995.  During the peak period for
cash-out refinancing, the second quarter of 2006, homeowners cashed out $83.7
billion through refinancing, 31.1 percent of the total value of all transactions.   

Freddie Mac said that the mortgages refinanced had been in
place for a median of four years and the underlying collateral had decreased in
value by a median of 4 percent during that time.  The Freddie Mac House Price Index shows about
a 23 percent decline in its U.S. series during that four year period.  Thus, Freddie Mac says, “Borrowers who refinanced in
the fourth quarter owned homes that had held their value better than the
average home, or may reflect value-enhancing improvements that owners had made
to their homes during the intervening years.” 
This statement does not seem to recognize the possibility these
borrowers had been able to refinance solely because their homes had held value
and thus self-selected their loans for analysis.   

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The Latest on Mortgage Rates: Still Low

By Mia Lamar

Average mortgage rates in the U.S. dropped to new record lows over the past week after data on the nation’s economic growth fell short of market forecasts, according to Freddie Mac’s weekly survey of mortgage rates.

A report from the Commerce Department last week showed U.S. gross domestic product—the value of all goods and services produced—grew at an annual rate of 2.8% in the October-to-December period. The data showed the U.S. economy expanded at the fastest pace since the second quarter of 2010, yet fell short of the expected 3% rate.

For the week ended Thursday, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.87%, down from 3.98% the previous week and 4.81% a year ago. Rates on 15-year fixed-rate mortgages averaged 3.14%, down from 3.24% last week and 4.08% a year earlier.

Five-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARM, averaged 2.8%, below the 2.85% rate averaged last week and 3.69% a year ago. One-year Treasury-indexed ARM rates averaged 2.76%, down from 2.74% and 3.26%, respectively.

To obtain the rates, 30-year and 15-year fixed-rate mortgages required an average 0.8 percentage point payment. 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.

Despite the low mortgage rates, housing markets across the country continue to struggle. CoreLogic reported Thursday that U.S. home prices, including distressed sales, fell 4.7% in December compared with December 2010, the fifth consecutive year of price drops. Excluding distressed sales, CoreLogic’s home-price index fell .9% in December, which shows how much foreclosures and short sales are weighing down prices in some markets.

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

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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Refinancing Continues to Drive Application Volume

The
Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey
reported that mortgage applications as measured by its Market Composite Index
were down 2.9 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis during the week ended
January 27 but increased 9.0 percent from the previous week on an unadjusted
basis.

The
seasonally adjusted Purchase Index was down 1.7 percent while it increased 17.1
percent on an unadjusted basis from the week ended January 20 and was 4.3
percent lower than during the same week in 2011.  The Refinance Index decreased 3.6 percent
from the previous week.

All
of the four week moving averages were higher for the week.  The seasonally adjusted Market Index rose
4.11 percent, the seasonally adjusted Purchase Index was up 2.48 percent and
the Refinance Index increased 4.22 percent.

Applications for
refinancing represented 80.0 percent of all applications, down from 81.3
percent the previous week.  Applications
for adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) had a 5.6 percent market share compared to
5.3 percent a week earlier.

Refinancing
applications in December increased in every U.S. state according to MBA and,
despite multiple holidays only 12 states had fewer purchase applications than
in November.  In Connecticut refinancing
applications increased 80.1 percent from November and Maine saw a 30.8 percent
increase in applications for home purchase mortgages.

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

Rates fell for all
fixed rate mortgages (FRM) compared to the previous week.  The average contract interest rate for
30-year conforming FRM (balances under $417,500) decreased to 4.09 percent with
0.41 point from 4.11 with 0.47 point. Rates for jumbo mortgages (those with
balances over $417,500) decreased from 4.39 percent to 4.33 percent while
points increased from 0.40 to 0.41.  This
is the lowest rate for the 30-year jumbo mortgages since MBA started tracking
them one year ago. 

FHA backed 30-year
FRM rates decreased one basis point to 3.96 percent with points increasing to
0.61 from 0.57.  Rates for the 15-year
FRM were down from 3.40 percent with 0.40 point to 3.36 percent with 0.41
point.  The effective rate of all of the
mortgage products listed above also decreased.

The sole rate increase was for the 5/1 ARM which increased on average to 2.94 percent with 0.39 point
from 2.91 percent with 0.41 point.  The
effective rate also increased. 

Follow what drives changes in mortgage rate each day with Mortgage Rate Watch from MND.

All rates quoted
are for 80 percent loan to value loans and points include the origination fee.

Michael
Fratantoni, MBA’s Vice President of Research and Economics said of the week’s
results, “The Federal Reserve surprised the market last week by indicating
that short-term rates were likely to stay at their current low-levels until the
end of 2014.  Longer-term treasury rates dropped in response, and mortgage
rates for the week were down slightly as a result.  Although total application volume dropped on
an adjusted basis relative to last week, refinance volume remains high, with
survey participants reporting that the expanded Home Affordable Refinance
Program (HARP) contributed to roughly 10 percent of their refinance
activity.”

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

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