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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

America’s Housing Finance System in the Pandemic: Ten Stress Points to Watch

The coronavirus pandemic, as this is being written, is still on the upswing in the number of reported cases, but has quickly caused a financial and economic crisis. And while the housing finance system is not a central cause of today’s crisis, as it was in 2008, it is rapidly becoming clear that many longstanding stress points in the country’s mortgage system are nevertheless becoming highly problematic, even on a systemic-risk scale.

Here, in rough chronological order of when they may appear, is my list of ten stress points to watch in the mortgage system, some of which the government has already begun to face (with new announcements every day), and some of which are just beginning to emerge. If these stresses are not adequately addressed, the impact on the mortgage markets could be severe, making housing finance more expensive and more scarce, and making the mortgage system a continuing source of financial instability.

1. Agency MBS mREITs – Does their business model fail?

Many REITs (real estate investment trusts) specialize in mortgage-related assets (called mREITs), ranging all the way from highly liquid agency MBS (mortgage-backed securities) to much less liquid commercial MBS and other real estate debt instruments. They are hedge funds in most respects, relying on high leverage (secured by their assets) to produce good returns, but leaving them with tremendous liquidity exposure because they need to keep rolling their debt as they invest in long-term assets while financing them with short-term liabilities. That imbalance, especially for mREITs that are in the more illiquid assets, is being stressed right now, as lenders (mostly Wall Street firms) back away under the tremendous flight to quality and liquidity underway globally (more on that below). Rumors of imminent failures were circulating last week. This stress is also moving into mREITs which focus on agency MBS (which I will call “MBS mREITS”). These have leverage and funding keyed to the extremely high historic liquidity of agency MBS, and since the flight to quality and liquidity is so strong that even agency MBS is trading with far less than its usual liquidity, those mREITs are under funding roll-over pressure too. It was announced on Monday that the two GSEs (Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae) would help finance such inventories (i.e. lend money to the mREITs using agency MBS as collateral), which definitely contributes to a solution. The Federal Reserve’s market support programs, of which quite a few have been announced, should also help.

It is unclear, however, what can be done in the longer run. MBS mREITs play a major role in the agency MBS markets, and allowing too large a share to be so highly leveraged with such high liquidity exposure is probably not consistent with being crisis-resistant and resilient.

2. MBS – Watching for an agency MBS “accident”

The financial stresses today stem from an extreme global flight to safety and liquidity, resulting in an ultra-high demand for cash and “Treasuries” (securities from the US Treasury), and severe downward pressures on other securities, even including the agency MBS market, which has dramatically declined in terms of its usual ultra-high liquidity. Although agency MBS is government-supported, there is a high spread between the yield on MBS and the equivalent maturity Treasuries. The agency MBS market has long been regarded as second in size and liquidity only to the market for Treasuries themselves, and so agency MBS investors are rattled.

As one market analyst put it, this is setting up the conditions for an “accident” (an unusual word to use in this situation): something that might cause the MBS market to seize up, or lead to an inability of mortgages to be financed by agency MBS in ordinary course, or perhaps for MBS investors to lose their funding. With $7 trillion outstanding of such bonds, this would be a major transmitter of even more market stress. The government is all over this, especially via the Federal Reserve. The question is how long it will take the Fed’s actions to help the market return to more normal conditions.

3. FHLBs – Will their funding “crack”?

The 11 Federal Home Loan Banks (FHLBs) together borrow about $1 trillion from the capital markets, backed by the implicit guarantee of the US government. In the 2008 financial crisis, the market confidence in that type of unwritten guarantee evaporated for the GSEs, and they fell into conservatorship; for the FHLBs, market confidence was also shaken, but was ultimately maintained by the government explicitly showing its support by putting in place a special credit facility.

There is a risk, hopefully small, of a repeat in today’s stressed markets for the FHLBs. If this happens, it will show up quickly. In the long run, there should be no implicit (and, as such, unpaid for) guarantee – it should be made explicit and paid for, just as is being designed into the GSE system for when the companies exit conservatorship.

4. Non-Bank Servicers – Advances

Servicers of Ginnie Mae-related MBS have to advance cash, in lieu of missed payments from borrowers, for principal and interest to MBS investors in order to insulate those investors from credit risk. For GSE-related MBS, interest payment replacement similarly comes from the servicers while principal replacement (much the smaller of the two) comes from the GSEs themselves. Servicers also have to advance property taxes and insurance when due. The non-bank servicers, which account for half of the $7 trillion agency MBS servicing market and with limited access to sources of cash, are being squeezed in two ways by this requirement in today’s crisis. First, the announced forbearance programs mean that servicers have to advance cash for the missed payments in likely much larger size than ever experienced before. Second, actual delinquencies outside or beyond the forbearance programs look set to rise, creating more demand for such cash advances – especially for Ginnie Mae MBS, where the servicers are obligated to keep MBS investors cashflow-whole until final credit resolution (e.g. foreclosure), which could be years away. For GSE MBS, this obligation only lasts 120 days.

The industry and government are on top of this issue, but it needs resolution quickly because the impact will hit servicers hard in a matter of weeks, and will grow quickly in the coming months. Without help, the non-bank servicers are likely to fail in large numbers, disrupting the MBS marketplace.

Longer term, this system of “advances” is unsustainable, and has been a known market stability problem for some time. It needs to be fixed, likely with MBS investors (especially Ginnie Mae-related ones) absorbing some of the risk related to late principal and interest cashflows, while ultimately being protected from credit losses.

5. Non-Bank Servicers – Mortgage servicing rights (MSRs) and accounting

The current system of servicer compensation – a flat fee, usually 0.25 percent of loan principal – worked fine until GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) required MSRs be put on the balance sheet of the servicer at an always-changing fair value. This introduced structural instability in the net worth of all servicers, where large declines in interest rates generate massive reductions in MSR value and thus servicer net worth. The servicers are suffering from just such a decline right now, especially given the unprecedented drop in interest rates engineered by the Federal Reserve as part of its attack on the crisis conditions in the markets. For those servicers that are not part of much larger organizations, their solvency is at risk. As some servicers also finance their MSRs (i.e. borrow against their value), this can lead to liquidity strains too. (Hedging MSRs is done by some, but the risks behind MSR values are so complex that it is only possible to do so in relatively rough form.)

It is unclear what the government can do in the short run to alleviate the impact of this net worth issue. The most obvious solution is to move the riskiest servicing from standalone (usually non-bank) servicers to bank-affiliated ones (which are usually part of larger, broadly-diversified companies), although this takes time and can only be done in modest size in the immediate future. Longer term, changing the system of compensation for servicers – getting rid of the simple 0.25 percent fee and replacing it with a schedule of price per functional activity done – will eliminate the MSR asset and, therefore, its problematic accounting. This has been discussed for years, but never acted upon. It should be.

6. PMIs – Downgrades, ineligibility, or a hidden rescue?

There are six private mortgage insurance companies (PMIs) which the GSEs, according to their charters, must in all practicality use for their “high” (over 80 percent) LTV mortgage purchases. It is likely, given the economic impact of the pandemic, that the credit quality of the existing mortgages they have insured will deteriorate. Since PMIs do the riskier part of the riskiest loans for the GSEs, they will be disproportionately hit with credit losses. Their stock prices have already dropped by about half in anticipation of this.

The PMI firms going into this crisis were rated from the middle of investment grade down to the top of below-investment grade.  But downgrades inevitably will follow. Because the GSEs are unsecured creditors of the PMIs in large size, with no collateral to back up PMI promises to reimburse the GSEs for credit losses on insured mortgages, the two companies need the PMIs to be strong enough to back up their promises to pay. At some point, however, it is likely that one or more PMI firms may become ineligible to do new GSE business (the rules to be eligible were set by FHFA during conservatorship), because they will have deteriorated so much in creditworthiness. Because GSE business accounts for virtually 100 percent of PMI revenues, this would lead to an immediate collapse of such a company, which would then be placed by its state-level insurance regulator into run-off (i.e. orderly liquidation).

The question then is how much high LTV lending is going to be crimped, and what losses might be passed onto the GSEs themselves? In the 2008 financial crisis, when three PMI firms failed, the government engineered a covert rescue of the four other firms by eliminating the requirement that they have a strong (specifically, AA) credit rating. This kept high LTV lending going in the interest of countering a major recession. In the short run, then, watch the credit ratings of the PMI firms, and watch whether FHFA engineers another covert rescue by materially loosening the criteria under which they can still insure new loans sold to the GSEs and, if so, on what terms? In the long run, the structure of PMI needs to be revamped so that the GSEs are no longer unsecured creditors of companies without the very strongest credit ratings, such as the AA rating that was required prior to 2008.

7. GSEs – CRT, existing and new

In 2013, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae began to do credit risk transfer (CRT) on their single-family mortgages, which put private capital at risk of losses. They have done a large volume of CRT since then, but the program is only designed to partially lay off such credit risk. The current crisis will be a robust stress test of the CRT program in two ways:

  • Will completed CRT transactions already on the books of the GSEs perform as expected? This will take time to work through, as loans impaired by the economic downturn can take years to be fully resolved and their losses known. And this might get beyond economics if perhaps CRT investors sue, claiming fraud perhaps, or otherwise maneuver to get out of their obligation, and would such a suit prove successful?
  • What damage does the disrupted credit market cause the GSEs? While CRT transactions were being done through mid-March, the overall fixed income market is now in enough distress that no such transactions could be issued today. Watch to see if this causes any permanent damage to the GSEs or the mortgage market. Will the GSEs stop purchasing more mortgages? Or raise g-fees? It may not do any overt damage at all, except for the GSEs needing to fully carry the credit risk of new mortgage purchases until the markets open up again. Since they previously kept 100 percent of the credit risk for the full 30-year life of mortgages, this should be an easy lift for them, especially while in conservatorship.

8. GSE Losses

The GSEs between them have about a $5 trillion book of credit guarantees, mostly in single-family mortgage, as well as securities investments. They lost large amounts on both in the 2008 financial crisis, but claim to have since eliminated most of the major sources of those losses: (1) the investment portfolios are much reduced, with almost no high-risk mortgage securities; (2) they claim to have laid off significant credit risk via CRT; (3) they claim to have a well-balanced “credit box” (i.e. credit risk appetite) that is neither too tight nor too loose and which avoids riskier mortgage products (as defined by the Qualified Mortgage rule); and (4) they even claim their affordable lending is done prudently. We shall see how this all works out in the coming quarters, as higher credit loss reserves are generated by the current economic downturn. Ideally, their credit reserves should rise – they are, after all, supposed to take appropriate credit risk – but not anything like in the last crisis. The manner in which GAAP accounting works, however, means that this will only be substantively revealed, with all the disclosed analysis of what caused it, through the second half of 2020, as second and third quarter earnings are released, and perhaps into 2021. (Some investment-related and interest rate hedging-related losses could occur very much up-front, by comparison. We will find out about that when first quarter earnings are released during the second quarter.)

In addition, the forbearance programs being offered to people in distress will cause a spike in delinquencies. And while delinquencies will apparently not be reported to consumer credit agencies, they will definitely impact the GAAP-compliant credit reserves required – perhaps not as much as a straight delinquency would, but certainly by a material amount.

Finally, if credit losses are far higher than believed to be consistent with a properly underwritten credit box, the ongoing market for CRT will be impacted, either becoming noticeably more expensive (in which case it won’t be used a lot) or much smaller as investors exit after feeling they have been “burned.” Watch for CRT volume and pricing when the credit markets open up again – are they reasonable or not for market conditions at that time?

9. FHA/VA Credit Losses

The FHA and VA take the credit risk on riskier mortgages than do the GSEs – that’s their function, and why the two agencies are directly on the books of the government, with no stockholders or credit ratings to worry about. For years, there has been industry discussion about how poor the credit risk profile of their books of business really are. Most in the industry, based upon my interactions over several years, believe the VA book has adequate credit quality, but the larger FHA one does not. Additionally, while the FHA grew its book of business strongly in the 2008 financial crisis (which was a good thing in terms of being a countercyclical provider of credit), it never really cycled back down to its traditionally smaller market share, despite the mortgage market being robust since 2012. That means the FHA book of business is both large and reputed to be of poor credit quality – a possibly toxic combination.

We’ll now find out if this is true. If so, because both FHA and VA are just part of the federal government and its budget, there will not be immediate overt signs of distress – like credit rating downgrades or liquidity problems. The FHA does not need to adhere to GAAP accounting, and so it may take an extended time for the credit performance of its book to become clear.  But watch for it – and if it does lose large amounts, will Congress take a hand in revising the business model of the two organizations, especially FHA, to avoid a repeat?

10. GSE Capital Proposal – A helpful stress test?

FHFA has outstanding a capital rule proposal to apply to the GSEs when they exit conservatorship. Such a rule is the very core of financial institutions being safe and sound, and able to resist collapse in the next market crisis. It was put out for comment under the previous FHFA director and the current director, Mark Calabria, withdrew it for revision, with the latest date for its re-publication (which begins a minimum 60-day comment period) being in the back half of the second quarter of this year. Observers believe the revision will be targeted at certain items only (such as its procyclical nature) but otherwise take the basic approach of the withdrawn proposal. However, we’re going through just the kind of stressed markets where such capital requirements either stand up to that stress, or prove defective in some manner. To that end, FHFA and the industry more broadly should watch how the proposed capital rule would work in the current stress environment to understand its dynamics and see if it passes muster or not. FHFA, while being in a rush related to its desire to keep the exit from conservatorship moving along, should seriously consider holding the finalization up until the current distressed market works itself out. As that will take a while to play out (the last one started in roughly 2006-07 and did not really end until 2011-12), it makes sense for FHFA to wait until at least early 2021 to reach a conclusion.

A Stress Point to NOT Watch

The GSEs, of course, remain in conservatorship. Each is supported by a written legal agreement by which the US Treasury gives it access to support in the form of being able to draw down on funds to be invested in its equity. And the amounts are huge – over $100 billion each. As a result, the marketplace treats the two companies as being virtually treasury-equivalent risk (i.e. almost none). So, in this crisis, watching for stresses to the solvency or liquidity of Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae is very much not on my list. In that sense, the two companies still being in conservatorship has proved an island of stability in the current market stresses. As described above, they are even being used to help others.  It’s an unanticipated benefit of the conservatorship taking so long, but a welcome one right now, nevertheless.

Conclusion: Let’s have a proper post-mortem

After the 2008 financial crisis, the government (Congress, the administration, and independent regulators) did lots of comprehensive post-mortem analysis of what did and did not work in the financial system and what changes needed to be made. But this analysis focused heavily on banks and Wall Street, in part because it was politically easy to do so. It did not focus comprehensively on the housing finance system, which is immense – roughly $12 trillion in size – and exists mostly outside the traditional banking system. Many of the stresses being revealed today – like the need for non-bank mortgage servicers to make large advances in distressed markets, that so much agency MBS is owned by highly-leveraged mREITS, and that the FHLBs rely on funding supported by an implied guarantee mechanism which proved weak back in 2008 – have been long known in the housing finance industry and policy community.

And while there have been hit or miss efforts to fix these sources of systemic weakness and stress amplification, hit or miss is proving not good enough right now. No single regulator is in charge, and lobbying has proven effective at blocking or watering down many proposed changes because they hurt someone’s bottom line or might make mortgage credit a bit more expensive.

One industry observer recently referenced “our Frankenstein’s monster of a mortgage finance system.” In many ways it is, and has the longstanding weaknesses now bedeviling it to prove its monster nature. After the crisis subsides, it will be time for a proper, comprehensive review of housing finance to improve its liquidity, capitalization, and the many operational mechanisms that do not do well in a stressed environment. There should be no exceptions to this comprehensiveness – no exclusion of the PMIs because they are state-regulated, no exclusion of the non-bank mortgage servicers because they are not banks, and so on. In fact, one could argue a major conclusion of such a comprehensive review would be to put a single regulatory agency in charge of the safety and soundness of the entire housing finance system. Such an agency could be responsible and accountable for making the housing finance system stronger, more resilient, and a source of strength to the financial system rather than one of the first components to seize up and amplify problems.