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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Investor Cash Adding Downward Pressure on Home Prices

Cash buyers, principally investors, may
be putting downward pressure on home prices according to the Campbell/Inside
Mortgage Finance Housing Pulse Tracking Survey released Monday.  The survey found that investors with cash in
hand are able to offer something that homeowners dependent on mortgage
financing cannot, a guaranteed sale with a quick closing timeline.  This seems to offset the desirability of a
higher bid with a mortgage contingency.   

The
Housing Pulse survey found that the trade-off between price and speed is
particularly true with offers on distressed properties because the lenders and
servicers liquidating the properties generally prefer transactions that can
settle within 30 days.  The Campbell
report states, “While investor bids may not be the
first offers accepted, they often end up winning properties after other
homebuyers are eliminated because of mortgage approval or timeline problems.
Appraisals below the contracted price are a common reason for mortgage denials.
Most mortgage financing timelines are now in excess of 30 days.”

The
survey reports that 33.2 percent of home buyers in December were cash buyers,
up from 29.6 percent in December 2010. 
However, 74 percent of investors came to the table with cash.  This is especially striking as the survey
found that investors accounted for 22.8 percent of home purchases in December,
changed only slightly from 22.2 percent in November.  But, Campbell says, “Despite their relatively
small share among homebuyers, investors have an outsize effect on home prices because
their bids bring down market prices.”

Real estate agents responding to the
survey commented on the low bids they are seeing from investors.  Campbell quoted anecdotal information from a
few agents indicating they are seeing investor bids 10-20 percent below list
prices, but with quick closings.

The total share of distressed properties
in the housing market in December continued at a three-month moving average of
47.2 percent, the 24th consecutive month that the HousePulse
Distressed Property Index (DPI) was over 40 percent.

The Campbell/Inside Mortgage Finance
HousingPulse Tracking Survey involves approximately 2,500 real estate agents
nationwide each month and provides up-to-date intelligence on home sales and
mortgage usage patterns.

…(read more)

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Momentum Seen for Home Improvement Spending

Spending
on home improvements and remodeling have shown signs of a rebound and the
Remodeling Futures Program at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies is
projecting that sector of the economy will end 2012 on a positive note.

The
Joint Center produces the Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity (LIRA) each
quarter.  It is designed to estimate
national homeowner spending on improvements for the current quarter and the
following three quarters.  The indicator, measured as an annual rate-of-change
of its components, provides a short-term outlook of homeowner remodeling
activity and is intended to help identify future turning points in the business
cycle of the home improvement industry.

The
figures from the most recent quarter, the fourth quarter of 2011, showed an
estimated four-quarter moving total of $112.4 billion in home improvement
spending compared to $113.8 billion in the third quarter.  This number is expected to dip further in the
first quarter of 2012, to $108.1 billion before starting to build at mid-year.

 “Sales of existing homes have been increasing
in recent months, offering more opportunities for home improvement projects,”
says Kermit Baker, director of the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint
Center.  “As lending institutions become less fearful of the real estate
sector, financing will become more readily available to owners looking to
undertake remodeling.”

…(read more)

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OIG Finds FHLBanks Corrected Foreign Credit Exposure, more Supervision Needed

The Office of the Inspector General
(OIG) of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) issued a report this morning
that was mildly critical of the FHFA’s oversight of Federal Home Loan Banks (FHLBanks)
granting of unsecured credit to European banks.   OIG said that extensions of unsecured credit
in general increased by the FHLBanks during the 2010-2011 period, even as the
risks for doing so were intensifying.

FHFA regulates the FHLBanks and has
critical responsibilities to ensure that they operate in a safe and sound
manner.  FHFA’s OIG initiated an
evaluation to assess the regulator’s oversight of the Banks unsecured credit
risk management practices.

Unsecured credit extensions to European
institutions
and others grew from $66 billion at the end of 2008 to more than
$120 billion by early 2011 before declining to $57 billion by the end of that
year as the European sovereign debt crisis intensified.  During this period extensions of unsecured
credit to domestic borrowers remained relatively static but extensions to
foreign financial institutions fluctuated in a pattern that mirrored the
FHLBanks’ total unsecured lending.  That
is, it more than doubled from about $48 billion at the end of 2008 to $101
billion as of April 2011 before falling by 59 percent to slightly more than $41
billion by the end of 2011.

FHFA OIG also found that certain
FHLBanks had large exposures to particular financial institutions and the
increasing credit and other risks associated with such lending.   For example, one FHLBank extended more than
$1 billion to a European bank despite the fact that the bank’s credit rating
was downgraded and it later suffered a multibillion dollar loss.

During the time period in question OIG
found there was an inverse relationship between the trends in lending to
foreign financial institutions and the Banks advances to their own members.  Since mid-2011 the extensions to foreign
institutions have declined sharply but the advances have continued their
longstanding decline.  OIG said it
appears that some FHLBanks extended the unsecured credit to foreign
institutions to offset the decline in advance demand and that they curtailed
those unsecured extensions as they began to fully appreciate the associated
risks.

At the peak of the unsecured lending,
about 70 percent of the FHLBank System’s $101 billion in unsecured credit to
foreign borrowers was made to European financial institutions and 44 percent
were to institutions within the Eurozone. 
About 8 percent of unsecured debt ($6 billion) was to institutions in
Spain, considered by S&P to be even riskier than the Eurozone as a whole.

Some banks within the FHL System had
extremely high levels of unsecured credit extended to foreign borrowers.  The Seattle Bank’s exposure to foreign
borrowers as a percentage of its regulatory capital was more than 340 percent
in March 2011; Boston was at 300 percent, and Topeka 360 percent.  All three had declined substantially by the
end of 2011 but Seattle and Topeka remained above 100 percent.

OIG said that the vast majority of the
Banks’ extensions of unsecured credit appeared to be within current regulatory
limits (although OIG said these limits may be outdated and overly permissive),
some banks did exceed the limits and OIG found the three banks (which for some
reason it treated anonymously) definitely did so and blamed that on a lack of
adequate controls of systems to ensure compliance.

OIG reviewed a variety of FHFA internal
documents during the 2010-2011 period during which it found the Agency had
expressed growing concern about the Banks’ unsecured exposures to foreign
financial institutions.  But, even though
FHFA identified the unsecured credit extensions as an increasing risk in early
2010, it did not prioritize it in its examination process due to its focus on
greater financial risks then facing the FHLBank system especially their private
label mortgage-backed securities portfolios. 
In 2011, however, FHFA initiated a range of oversight measures focusing
on and prioritizing the credit extensions in the supervisory process and
increasing the frequency with which the Banks had to report on that part of
their portfolios.

OIG believes that FHFA’s recent initiatives
contributed to the significant decline in the amount of unsecured credit being
extended by the end of 2011.

The final findings issued by OIG in its
report are:

  1. Although
    FHFA did not initially prioritize FHLBank unsecured credit risks, it has
    recently developed an increasingly proactive approach to oversight in this
    area.
  2. FHFA
    did not actively pursue evidence of potential FHLBank violations of the limits
    on unsecured exposures contained in its regulations.
  3. FHFA’s
    current regulations governing unsecured lending may be outdated and overly
    permissive.

To correct
these deficiencies, OIG recommends that the Agency:

  • Follow up on any potential evidence of violations of
    the existing regulatory limits and take action as warranted;
  • Determine the extent to which inadequate systems and
    controls may compromise the Banks’ capacity to comply with regulatory limits;
  • Strengthen the regulatory framework by establishing
    maximum exposure limits; lowering existing individual counterparty limits; and
    ensuring that the unsecured exposure limits are consistent with the System’s
    housing mission.

…(read more)

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