Op-Ed: GSEs need greater taxpayer protection upfront
By Lindsey Johnson
Eight years after taxpayers provided them with $187 billion, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two of the largest backers of mortgages, remain under government control. While these government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) are healthier today thanks to new safeguards that have improved the stability of the mortgage finance system, the goal is to put the GSEs on a stable footing for the long term.
Efforts to reduce government, and therefore taxpayers’, risk exposure by positioning more private capital in a so-called “first loss” position ahead of the GSEs are widely supported. Several approaches are being tested through an initiative called credit risk transfer (CRT). The vast majority of CRT today occurs after the loans have already been purchased by the GSEs where they hold the risk for some time before selling a portion of it “on the back end” to a third party—primarily asset managers and hedge funds. While it’s positive to see the GSEs seek to shift risk, how this transfer occurs is a question currently vexing policymakers. And, how it is done will have significant implications for the future of housing finance.
The GSEs’ regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), recently sought input on CRT, looking specifically at front-end approaches where the risk is transferred to a third party before it reaches the GSEs’ balance sheets. While this may seem novel, there’s a highly effective form of front-end risk transfer that has existed for six decades: private mortgage insurance (MI). MI is a good answer to policymakers’ question of how to further protect taxpayers while ensuring first-time buyers have access to home financing.
Typically, on conventional GSE loans with down payments less than 20 percent, MI covers the first losses before it ever reaches the GSEs. This front-end risk protection has paid off. Since the GSEs were placed into conservatorship, MIs have covered more than $50 billion in claims to the GSEs—risk that taxpayers didn’t need to cover. MI not only protects taxpayers, it helps creditworthy families without large down payments qualify for a mortgage. In the past year, MI has helped more than 795,000 Americans purchase or refinance their home—nearly half were first-time homebuyers and more than 40 percent had incomes below $75,000.
Private MI works—today it covers up to 35 percent of the value of a loan, and because it transfers credit risk at the loan’s origination, it’s a pure form of front-end risk share. The question being considered by FHFA now relates to the expansion of the current levels of private MI. This deeper level of MI can be done in a way that is fair for lenders of all sizes, achieves the objective of reducing taxpayer exposure, and offers pricing transparency, so if there is a savings to the consumer, it can be realized.
Here are some things FHFA and the GSEs should consider for CRT:
First, the housing finance market is cyclical. Therefore, FHFA needs to make sure all CRT structures will be available in the next downturn. Through the financial crisis mortgage insurers continued to pay claims and insure new home loans. The structure of mortgage insurers contributes to economic stability for a number of reasons, including that MI companies engage in countercyclical reserving. This means they reserve premiums collected during favorable economic times so they can pay increased claims during downturns. Mortgage insurers provide credit loss protection exclusively on residential mortgages and, unlike other forms of CRT, won’t exit should the market experience volatility or stress.
Second, new GSE requirements established robust standards for the industry’s capital levels, business activities, risk management, underwriting practices, quality control, lender approval, and monitoring activities. All of this makes MI different from other capital market structures, which disappeared during the crisis and have yet to return in any meaningful volume.
Third, the mortgage finance system cannot return to being controlled by, and benefitting only a few. Unlike other forms of CRT, deeper MI coverage can be made available to lenders without any biases or advantages based on size or volume. It’s simple to implement too, as it is operationally consistent for lenders to use as current mortgage insurance. MI also doesn’t require the posting of collateral, a challenge for some smaller lenders.
Finally, transparency is fundamental to better inform market participants, to make clear if there’s any borrower benefit among the different transaction types, and to enable the formation of a deep market for these transactions. MI pricing is transparent. Rate cards are standardized and published and other reports, including securities and state insurance filings, are publicly available to lenders and borrowers.
Until Congress determines the future of housing finance, FHFA is right to explore ways to transfer more risk away from taxpayers. However, not all risk sharing programs are equally effective. Deeper MI can help our nation build a stronger, more stable housing finance system that protects taxpayers and facilitates the homeownership for millions of Americans.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Hill on October 20, 2016.