Newsletter: August 2018

August 7, 2018

It’s been an action-packed summer for housing finance. The Washington Post reported on down payments being the chief hurdle for homebuyers across the country, citing USMI’s recent report on private mortgage insurance’s role in homeownership. There have also been substantive conversations about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s (the GSEs) footprint and future. American Enterprise Institute (AEI) held a conference on the GSEs’ market activities, while Politico published an in-depth article on their market expansion. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell also testified before Congress and both fielded questions on GSE-related matters. These GSE-related developments come as Fannie Mae CEO Timothy Mayopoulos announced his retirement by year’s end and, as National Mortgage News reported, when stakeholders and influencers are keenly focused on the Administration’s pick for the next Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) Director. In other news, the U.S. Senate held a nomination hearing for Michael Bright to become President of Ginnie Mae, and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) Commissioner Brian Montgomery discussed his priorities.

  • The Washington Post reports on the benefits of private mortgage insurance. Last week, The Washington Post featured an article focused on the difficulty for many Americans to save a 20 percent down payment to buy a home, and how private mortgage insurance (PMI) can help. In the piece, the author writes about the long wait time it can take Virginia, Maryland, and DC borrowers to save 20 percent down for a home, and cites USMI’s recently released state report. The article also highlights that in 2017, 56% of purchase loans with PMI went to first-time homebuyers. 
  • AEI hosts discussion on GSE mission creep. AEI hosted an event that discussed the GSEs’ footprint in the housing finance system and their history of mission creep into the primary market. Panelists at the event, which included an array of respected housing finance experts, cited examples of direct-to-consumer product marketing, lines of credit to non-bank servicers, dramatic expansions in the multifamily market, and opaque pilots that directly compete with traditional forms of loan-level credit enhancement. Panelists unanimously agreed that housing finance reform is necessary and it’s inappropriate for the GSEs to expand their footprint and market power while in conservatorship. Key observations include:
    • Michael Fratantoni (Mortgage Bankers Association): “There is constant concern that [the GSEs] are stretching beyond their defined role in the marketplace… In this conventional conforming there should be a bright line between what primary market entities do and what secondary market entities – like Fannie and Freddie – do.”
    • Michael Stegman (Milken Institute): “The lack of transparency in pricing, capital, and cross-subsidy have certainly complicated the conversation around housing finance reform and I would agree that we need a whole lot more transparency.”
    • Ed DeMarco (Housing Policy Council) referenced a February 2010 letter to Congress in which he stated: “After considering the statutory requirement and goals of conservatorship, I have concluded that permitting the Enterprises to engage in new products is inconsistent with the goals of conservatorship… In short, the Enterprises will be limited to continuing their existing core business activities and taking actions necessary to advance the goals of conservatorship.”
  • Politico reports on the GSEs’ market expansion. Earlier this week Politico featured an article that includes in-depth analysis of the Enterprises “quietly expanding their activities to fortify themselves against any efforts to rein them in,” and features observations from key housing experts. The article notes that recent activities and pilots have drawn scrutiny from members of Congress, with Rep. French Hill (R-AR) expressing concern about the GSEs’ mission creep to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, stating “The GSEs’ attempt to obtain expanded powers [is intended] to put them in an even more powerful position as reform proposals are considered by Congress.”
  • S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Fed Chair Jerome Powell call for GSE reform. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testified before the House Financial Services Committee. During the hearing, Mnuchin stated the country needs GSE reform, saying it is “something that I am determined, in the next Congress, should be a major focus of ours — hopefully on a bipartisan basis. But we can’t just leave these things sitting the way they are as they have been.” Mnuchin also responded to a question from Congressman French Hill (R-AR) about the GSEs focusing on their core mission of serving secondary mortgage market homeowners and not competing with the private sector, saying: “…I think they should stay to their core business.” Fed Chair Jerome Powell testified separately before the House Financial Services Committee and Senate Banking Committee. He stated that housing finance reform remains the most significant unfinished business from the financial crisis. Specifically, Powell said, “It is really important for the longer run that we get the housing finance system off the federal government’s balance sheet and, using market forces and some of the things that are already in place, carry forward with some kind of reform.” Powell added it “continues to be a good time to move forward on [housing finance reform] … It is unsustainable to effectively have the U.S. housing finance system on the government’s books for the long run and it is not healthy.” Powell has previously called for moving to a housing finance system that relies even more on private capital to stand between housing credit risk and taxpayers. These comments by Sec. Mnuchin and Chairman Powell come just as longtime Fannie Mae executive Timothy Mayopoulos — who has served as the GSE’s CEO since April 2012 — announced his retirement effective end of 2018.
  • Senate holds nomination hearing on Michael Bright to be Ginnie Mae President. The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a nomination hearing on Michael Bright, who was nominated by President Donald Trump in May 2018 to become the next President of Ginnie Mae. During the hearing, Bright was asked about a 2016 paper he co-wrote on housing finance reform, which proposed placing the GSEs in receivership and establishing Ginnie Mae as a standalone entity separate from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Bright said in the hearing, however, that he does not intend to advance those proposals as President of Ginnie Mae. It was also noted in the hearing that Bright helped write 2013 legislation to reform the GSEs as a former aide to Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). During discussion about his past work, Bright said “aspects of conservatorship have been more durable” than originally thought at the time the 2013 bill was drafted.
  • FHA Commissioner Brian Montgomery prioritizes technology upgrades as part of FHA reform. FHA Commissioner Brian Montgomery said that he wants to make sure FHA is around for “generations to come” and described the agency as being in “fix-it mode.” Commissioner Montgomery is specifically focused on prioritizing technology upgrades to replace mainframes currently in use at HUD and the FHA. According to April 2018 testimony from Dana Wade, General Deputy Assistant Secretary of FHA, “there were 73 outages of FHA’s origination systems during 2017, with durations lasting as long as five days.” There is universal agreement among housing finance stakeholders that the FHA’s 40+-year-old mainframe system is in dire need of updating and that the agency’s continued use and reliance on an obsolete programing language creates significant taxpayer risk.
  • National Mortgage News lists potential new FHFA Directors. Yesterday the mortgage news outlet released an article that puts forth seven possible contenders to run the FHFA after current Director Mel Watt’s term expires in January 2019. The list of potential successors includes federal policymakers and respected housing finance experts including Adolfo Marzol, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Mark Calabria, Michael Bright, Craig Phillips, Ed DeMarco, and Phillip Swagel. As the article notes, the Administration’s selection of the next FHFA Director will have significant implications for the GSEs, including what reforms might be pursued and achieved during the Trump Administration, as well as the broader housing finance market. The term of current FHFA Director Mel Watt ends January 6, 2019.