Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hope for Homeowners Act of 2008

I have reviewed portions of the Committee Print of the proposed GSE bill (the “Bill”) that came out of The U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs (the “Senate Banking Committee”)as announced by the Senate Banking Committee on May 19, 2008. In particular, I have read Secs. 401-403 of the Bill titled “Hope For Homeowners Act of 2008.” I believe this Bill is a recipe for disaster and likely the next big target of fraud against taxpayers. First, I will attempt to summarize how this plan works, and then I will comment on it based on my interpretations and opinions.

How it works (if passed as is):
This plan authorizes FHA to provide guarantees for mortgages up to an aggregate of $300 billion. These mortgages get packaged and sold through the Government National Mortgage Association, or GNMA, and the securities sold by GNMA are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States (and that means the taxpayers).

Who can borrow under the plan:
These loans will only be made to borrowers who “provide a certification to the Secretary [of FHA] that the mortgagor has not intentionally defaulted on the eligible mortgage” and the current borrower debt to income ratio must be GREATER THAN 31 percent! So, we are talking about people who cannot pay their mortgages because they have too much mortgage debt relative to their income (I note that the Bill states “mortgage debt to income” as the ratio, but I am assuming it means to say “mortgage debt service to income” as a total mortgage debt to income ratio of 31% would make no sense in this context). Bill Sec. 402(e) The penalty for falsely stating that you did not intentionally default on your mortgage can be steep, including fines and prison time (how one proves this and what it means is beyond me – if one intentionally buys food instead of paying the mortgage is this an intentional default?)

How is this a bailout for investors?
Once a borrower is qualified, they can borrow up to 90% of the appraised value of the home to refinance their existing mortgage, assuming the mortgage holders (including the holders of the first mortgage and all subordinate loans) agree(s) to a full satisfaction of all of the borrowers obligations from the proceeds of the new loan. So if this is a better deal for the mortgage investor than foreclosing on the property and realizing larger losses, the investor should buy into the refinance. That’s where the bailout comes in – investors would be liquidating their positions at favorable recoveries based on taxpayer guarantees. In order to protect taxpayers, the Bill provides that the appraisal must not be influenced by an interested party (curiously there are no stated penalties for a breach of this requirement and no absolute limitation on using related parties). There is also an insurance fund to back these loans before taxpayers would be on the hook.

The insurance is provided through a new insurance fund, the Home Ownership Preservation Entity Fund, to be used by FHA to carry out its mission that states, in part, “to allow homeowners to avoid foreclosure by reducing the principal balance outstanding, and interest rate charged, on their mortgages…” Bill Sec. 402(b)(2) The fund is funded through an initial payment of 3% of each loan amount, paid from the proceeds of the loan, plus an annual premium of 1.5% of the remaining principal balance of each loan. Bill Sec. 402(i) Now I admit that I am not a mathematician and have not constructed a detailed quantitative model to figure out the risk that this fund will be insufficient to cover losses. I do, however, have serious doubts that this fund will support losses from these loans and I believe it is likely taxpayers will eventually be on the hook.

I wonder how the premium rate of 3% plus an annual 1.5% of non-defaulted loans plus a share of a share of future equity appreciation compares to default rates on refinanced defaulted loans? I don’t think the data exists to make this calculation, but I could be wrong about that. Even if they do, however, I wonder how any assumptions regarding default rates hold up when this plan is full of incentives for abuse by almost everyone involved:

1) FHA - FHA wants to show results and will actively try to guaranty a lot of loans. Unfortunately, as discussed in this Congressional testimony, there is already serious concern about FHA’s ability to manage its existing portfolio, let alone a huge new program like this one. That means quantity over quality – a recipe for trouble in any lending business. One other point I would like to mention is that back in December I wrote about a plan to reform the FHA. In that piece I linked to the website of the Senate Banking Committee for a copy of congressional testimony by Basil Petrou from Federal Financial Analytics that discussed many weaknesses of the plan and the FHA. That link has been taken down, and I have had to replace it with a link to the Federal Financial Analytics website. Curious. If you are interested you can now find that testimony here.

2) INVESTORS - Existing lenders want out of their bad loans and that provides incentive to push borrowers into this program thereby limiting their losses. Again we have the quantity over quality problem.

3) APPRAISERS – Appraisers are under pressure from their clients, lenders, because they appraised so many properties for too high a value. These appraisers have a strong incentive to help the lenders exit these loans at the highest possible recovery, and that means highest appraisal.

4) HOMEOWNERS - Homeowners love this even if they don’t plan to stay in the house. If you are a homeowner with two mortgages, default notices, foreclosure threats, and all of your other personal assets at risk because you are under water, would you love to get one of these loans and make all of those problems go away? The trade-off for making it all go away is being obligated for one loan that’s guaranteed by the taxpayers. Sounds like a nice value proposition for the homeowner to me. In furtherance of this perverted incentive structure, the Bill provides that any equity in the home that is realized through a later refinance or sale is shared between the homeowner and the FHA (a portion of which, if applicable, is for distribution to any subordinated mortgage holder who took a loss). If the home is sold or refinanced in the first year any appreciation goes to FHA, in the second year 90%, third year 80%, and so on to 50% after five years and forever thereafter. So, refinance with FHA at no cost or very little cost, get all of the lenders off your back, then walk away from one loan guaranteed by the taxpayers leaving them with the problem.

Lets review. What the Bill proposes is to find mortgage borrowers who cannot afford their mortgage payments and are in default. Then, an appraisal is secured through an appraiser (the same group that got values completely wrong the last time around and are likely conflicted because of their relationships with lenders). The FHA then guarantees a loan to refinance the existing mortgages up to 90% of the appraised value. All parties have incentives to do these transactions that are unrelated to the resulting credit quality. In fact, the worse the credit quality is the greater the incentive for the investor/appraiser and the homeowner to participate. Then, once the FHA is on the hook, the homeowner is given the disincentive to remain in the house because under the best of circumstances they will realize only 50% of any future equity appreciation in the home. Under these circumstances is 3% plus a share of a share of future appreciation plus 1.5% per year (on loans that do not default) enough to cover the losses on this impending portfolio? I, for one, am not convinced that it is. Of course I could be wrong and this plan could turn out to be a great idea, but I see too many conflicts and perverse incentives in the current draft to believe this plan will actually work to the benefit of taxpayers. Instead, I see too much opportunity and incentive for quick transfers of bad loans from investors to taxpayers under the inadequate supervision of FHA and, as a taxpayer, that concerns me.

[There are other issues with the Bill that, for the most part, are left to FHA to figure out. For example, does a home improvement add to the homeowner’s equity or is the value added by improvements shared as future equity? The Bill also describes future equity in a very strange way: “any equity created as a direct result of such sale or refinance”. I suppose you can consider a sale the creation of equity although that is arguable. I certainly do not see how equity is “created” through a refinance. Another issue is that the Bill provides for refinancing up to an amount not exceeding 132 percent of the old conforming loan amount – in other words jumbo loans.]

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Michael Nugent said...

Wow that was a great analysis of that bill. I just wish the government would let the housing market alone and let the market forces correct the situation. I guess since they created this mess they feel the need to fix it. Or more likely they want voters in the fall to think they did something to fix it.

Palermo's Blog said...

I agree - the housing market will correct and there will be winners and losers. All of this politicking is simply altering the win/loss landscape in favor of those who took excessive risk and didn't do their due diligence. The regulators have, in my opinion, made it all much worse.

For a very interesting book about markets and the state of regulation check out "Fooling Some Of The People All Of The Time" by David Einhorn. Amazing story. Iplan to make it required reading in my graduate markets course in the Fall.