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On September 23, Department of Treasury Deputy Secretary Justin Muzinich delivered remarks at the 2019 Treasury Market Structure Conference. He discussed broadly the Department’s domestic and international finance priorities, including housing finance reform, digital taxation, cryptocurrency, and securities. Muzinich first addressed Treasury’s housing finance reform plan released September 5 (previously covered by InfoBytes here), stating that the “plan includes nearly 50 recommended legislative and administrative reforms that are incremental, realistic, and balanced, and aim to preserve widespread and affordable access to the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage.” With respect to digital taxation, Muzinich discussed the disproportionate effect of taxing digital businesses’ revenue on U.S. firms, and stated that the Department is actively seeking a multilateral solution. He next addressed several concerns regarding the use of cryptocurrency to evade existing legal frameworks, such as those governing taxation, anti-money laundering, and countering the financing of terrorism. Muzinich emphasized that the existing legal frameworks “apply to digital assets in no uncertain terms,” and referred to guidance released by the Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which clarified that U.S. sanctions compliance obligations are the same regardless of whether a transaction is denominated in digital currency or traditional fiat currency (previously covered by InfoBytes here.) Muzinich noted, however, that there still exist several concerns that the government must consider regarding the effect cryptocurrency has on financial stability, the monetary base, consumer protection and privacy. The Deputy Secretary noted that these issues are being discussed both internationally and domestically. Muzinich closed his remarks by discussing the securities market and announced, among other things, that the Department is working with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority to begin publicly releasing aggregated data on Treasury volumes, which will ensure that all market participants have access to the same comprehensive data.
On September 10, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a hearing entitled “Housing Finance Reform: Next Steps” to discuss the federal government’s plans for reforming and strengthening the mortgage market. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Department of Treasury and HUD released complementary proposals on September 5 discussing plans to end the conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (GSEs) and reform the housing finance system. The Committee heard from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, and FHFA Director Mark Calabria. Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) opened the hearing by stating a preference for comprehensive legislation to end the conservatorship of the GSEs but stressed that the agencies should “begin moving forward with incremental steps that move the system in the right direction.” Democratic members of the Committee stated their oppositions to the proposals, with Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) arguing that the Treasury’s plan “will make mortgages more expensive and harder to get,” make it more difficult for small lenders to compete, and roll back tools designed to help underserved families.
Treasury Secretary Mnuchin defended his agency’s proposal, and noted that while he prefers that Congress take the lead on ending the GSE conservatorships and plans to work with Congress on a bipartisan basis to enact comprehensive housing finance reform legislation, he also sees the need to concurrently develop administrative actions to protect taxpayers and foster competition. Among other things, Mnuchin discussed steps to remove the net worth sweep, which requires the GSEs to send nearly all their profits to the Treasury, arguing that ending the sweep will allow the GSEs to retain their earnings and build up capital.
FHFA Director Calabria emphasized that plans released by the Treasury and HUD are “broadly consistent” with his top priorities, which include developing capital standards for the GSEs to match their risk profiles that would “begin the process to end the [GSE] conservatorships,” as well as reforms to reduce the risks in the GSEs’ portfolios. All three witnesses agreed with Crapo’s assessment that the GSEs in their current form “are systemically important companies [and] that they continue to be too big to fail.” Calabria further emphasized that while he believes only Congress can reach a comprehensive solution, he believes the agencies can also make significant steps.
HUD Secretary Carson commented that a central principle of HUD’s housing finance plan is to improve coordination between HUD and FHFA to allow qualified borrowers access to responsible and affordable credit options, with HUD, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Agriculture acting as the sole sources of low-down-payment financing for borrowers outside of the conventional mortgage market. Carson further noted that reform will “reduce the Federal Government’s outsized role in housing finance.”
On June 11, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) issued its 2018 Report to Congress, which, in part, provides information regarding FHFA's oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the GSEs) and describes FHFA actions as conservator the GSEs.
Most notably, in his letter to Congress introducing the report, FHFA Director Mark Calabria urged Congress to act on housing finance reform, noting that the conservatorship over the GSEs was “established as a short-term measure to address instability” during the financial crisis and now is of “unprecedented duration and scope.” Calabria encouraged Congress to work with the FHFA and the Administration to enact housing finance reform to ensure the GSEs are “well-capitalized, well-regulated, and well-managed to withstand any future downturn in the economy.” Additionally, Calabria requested that Congress provide FHFA with chartering authority similar to that of the OCC to increase competition in the secondary mortgage market. (As previously covered by InfoBytes here and here, Calabria and the Administration have encouraged housing finance reform that would end the GSE conservatorships and increase private sector participation in the mortgage market.) Lastly, Calabria argued for strengthening FHFA’s powers, similar to that of other federal financial safety and soundness regulators, including by granting the agency the authority to oversee third parties that do business with the GSEs, such as nonbank mortgage servicers.
On April 15, Mark Calabria was sworn in as the new Director of the FHFA and stressed the importance of mortgage finance reform in his first remarks in the role. Calabria warned that the current mortgage finance system remains “vulnerable,” noting that “[a]fter years of strong house price growth, too many remain locked out of housing, while others are dangerously leveraged. We must not let this opportunity for reform pass.” Calabria also acknowledged the March memo released by the White House, outlining the Administration’s plan for federal housing finance reform (covered by InfoBytes here) which, among other things, directs the Secretary of the Treasury to develop a plan to end the conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (GSEs). Calabria stated that he looks forward to working with the Administration on such reforms.
On April 2, House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) spoke before the American Bankers Association’s Washington Summit to discuss several priorities and emerging issues, including comprehensive housing reform, diversity in financial services, fintech regulation, cannabis banking, and Bank Secrecy Act/anti-money laundering (BSA/AML) reform.
- Housing finance reform. Waters discussed resolving the long-term status of GSEs and several core principles underlying housing finance reform including, among other things, (i) maintaining access to the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage; (ii) ensuring sufficient private capital is available to protect taxpayers; (iii) requiring transparency and standardization that ensures a level-playing field for all financial institutions especially community banks and credit unions; (iv) maintaining credit access for all qualified borrowers; and (v) ensuring access to affordable rental housing. “Many of the proposals for housing finance reform exclude small financial institutions from being able to access the secondary mortgage market. I believe that the inclusion of small financial institutions must be a critical part of any conversations about GSE reform,” Waters stated.
- Diversity in financial services. Waters discussed the newly formed Diversity and Inclusion Subcommittee (previously covered by InfoBytes here) when noting that minority representation in financial services management positions remains underrepresented. The new subcommittee will examine diversity trends to promote inclusion. “Diverse representation in these institutions, and particularly at the management level, is essential to ensure that all consumers have fair access to credit, capital, and banking and financial services,” Waters stated.
- Fintech regulation. Waters commented that fintech regulation is a committee priority. Waters stated that it is important “we encourage responsible innovation with the appropriate safeguards in place to protect consumers and without displacing community banks.”
- Cannabis banking. Waters highlighted her committee's work last month in advancing HR 1595, which would create protections for financial institutions that provide services to state-sanctioned cannabis-related businesses. The bill would create a safe harbor for depository institutions that would bar federal banking regulators from terminating banks’ deposit insurance or otherwise penalize them if they provide services to a cannabis-related legitimate business or service provider.
- BSA/AML reform. Waters discussed a hearing that was held to look at “common sense” improvements that could be made to the current BSA/AML framework. She further stated that the committee is considering beneficial ownership legislation, in addition to exploring ways to work with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network regarding BSA/AML reporting.
On March 27, the White House released a Memorandum on Federal Housing Finance Reform, which directs the Secretary of the Treasury to develop a plan to end the conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (GSEs). Specifically, the memo states that the U.S. housing finance system is “in urgent need of reform,” as taxpayers are “potentially exposed to future bailouts” and programs at HUD have outdated operations and are “potentially overexposed to risk.” The President directs the Treasury and HUD to create specific plans addressing a number of reforms “as soon as practical.” Among other things, the directives include:
- Treasury to reform GSEs. With the ultimate goal of ending the conservatorships, the memo directs Treasury to develop proposals to, among other things, (i) preserve access to 30 year fix-rate mortgages for qualified homebuyers; (ii) establish appropriate capital and liquidity requirements for the GSEs; (iii) increase private sector participation in the mortgage market; (iv) evaluate the “QM Patch” with the HUD Secretary and CFPB Director; and (v) set conditions necessary to end conservatorships.
- HUD to reform programs. In addition to outlining specific objectives, the memo directs HUD to achieve three goals: (i) ensure that the FHA and the Government National Mortgage Association (GNMA) assume the primary responsibility for providing housing finance support for low income or underserved families; (ii) improve risk management, program, and product design to reduce taxpayer exposure; and (iii) modernize the operations of the FHA and GNMA.
Similarly, on March 26 and 27, the Senate Banking Committee held a two-part hearing (here and here) on housing finance reform. The hearing reviewed the legislative plan released by Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) in February. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the plan would, among other things, end the GSEs conservatorships, make the GSEs private guarantors, and allow other nonbank private guarantors to enter the market. Additionally, the plan would (i) restructure FHFA as a bipartisan board of directors, which would charter, regulate, and supervise all private guarantors; (ii) place a percentage cap on all outstanding mortgages for guarantors; and (iii) replace current housing goals and duty-to-serve requirements with a fund intended to address housing needs of underserved communities. In his opening statement at the hearing, Crapo said that, “approximately 70 percent of all mortgages originated in this country are in some way touched by the federal government” and “the status quo is not a viable option” for the housing finance market. Ranking Member Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) emphasized that “any changes we consider must strengthen, not weaken, our ability to address the housing challenges facing our nation and make the housing market work better for families.”
Over the two days, the Senators and witnesses discussed the positive objectives of Crapo’s plan while recognizing hurdles that exist in implementing housing finance reform. While many Senators and witnesses expressed support for a requirement that private guarantors serve a national market, others suggested that regionalized or specialized guarantors could have advantages, including reaching underserved markets. Many Democrats stressed the importance of keeping a catastrophic government guarantee in place, while Republicans emphasized the need for legislative reforms to be implemented as soon as possible. With respect to equal access for small lenders, Senators discussed the concern over credit unions being able to sell loans in a multiple guarantor market.
On February 1, Chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, Mike Crapo (R-ID) released an outline for a sweeping legislative overhaul of the U.S. housing finance system. Most notably, the plan would end the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (GSEs) conservatorships, making the GSEs private guarantors while also allowing other nonbank private guarantors to enter the market. Highlights of the proposal include:
- Guarantors. The GSEs would be private companies, competing against other nonbanks for mortgages, subject to a percentage cap. The multifamily arms of the GSEs would be sold and operated as independent guarantors. Consistent with current GSE policy, the eligible mortgages would, among other things, be subject to loan limits set by FHFA and would be required to have an LTV of no more than 80 percent unless the borrower obtains private mortgage insurance.
- Regulation of Guarantors. FHFA, structured as a bi-partisan board of directors, would charter, regulate, and supervise all private guarantors, including the former GSEs. FHFA would be required to create prudential standards that include (i) leverage requirements; (ii) if appropriate, risk-based capital requirements; (iii) liquidity requirements; (iv) overall risk management requirements; (v) resolution plan requirements; (vi) concentration limits; and (vii) stress tests. Guarantors would be allowed to fail.
- Ginnie Mae. Ginnie Mae would operate the mortgage securitization platform and a mortgage insurance fund. Additionally, Ginnie Mae would provide a catastrophic government guarantee to cover tail-end risk, backed by the full-faith and credit of the U.S.
- Transition. In addition to a cap on the percent of all outstanding eligible mortgages, the legislation would require guarantors to be fully capitalized within an unspecified number of years after enactment.
- Affordable housing. Current housing goals and duty-to-serve requirements would be eliminated and replaced with a “Market Access Fund,” which is intended to address the homeownership and rental needs of underserved and low-income communities.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, on January 29, Chairman Crapo released the Senate Banking Committee’s agenda, which also prioritizes housing finance reform.
On May 13, FHFA Director Mel Watt presented a new strategic plan for the FHFA under his direction, which will focus on fulfilling the FHFA’s obligations under current law, and will shift away from efforts to position the agency—and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—for a potential future role in a reformed secondary market. Mr. Watt discussed the representation and warranty framework changes announced by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (see Byte below), and also announced that (i) for loans with DTI above 43%, the FHFA will continue to permit the use of compensating factors in each company’s underwriting standards; (ii) the FHFA will not alter loan limits, as proposed under prior leadership; (iii) the FHFA will not expand HARP but will “retarget” the program to capture already qualified borrowers; and (iv) the FHFA will launch a new modification pilot program. Mr. Watt’s remarks did not cover principal reduction or servicing rights transfers, but during a question and answer session he indicated both issues are on the FHFA’s agenda for further consideration. Further, Mr. Watt explained that under his leadership the FHFA will not seek to affirmatively reduce Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s footprint, though the FHFA will continue to work to increase the role of private capital, and soon will issue a request for comment on potential guarantee fee changes. The FHFA also will focus on private mortgage insurance counterparties, including by strengthening master policies and eligibility standards for private mortgage insurers. Finally, the FHFA will continue to build a common single-family securitization platform and transition Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to a single common security, but the FHFA is taking steps to “de-risk” the securitization platform project, including by emphasizing that the agency’s top objective for the common platform is to ensure that it works for the benefit of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and their current securitization operations.
On May 15, the Senate Banking Committee voted 13-9 to approve S. 1217, the Housing Finance Reform and Taxpayer Protection Act. A draft version of the bill, which generally would end the government’s conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and reform the housing finance system, was first released in March. That draft built off of legislation introduced last year by several committee members. The draft was subsequently amended in advance of the committee vote, and during the committee’s session, a package of additional amendments was approved. Committee members indicated they will engage in further efforts to build support for the bill and a potential vote by the full Senate, though at this time such a vote is unlikely.
House Republicans Urge FHFA Not To Direct GSEs To Start Contributing To Affordable Housing Funds Established By HERA
On April 2, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), joined by Congressmen Scott Garrett (R-NJ) and Ed Royce (R-CA), urged FHFA Director Mel Watt to continue the FHFA’s five-year-old policy of suspending contributions to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund. These two funds were established in the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA) to direct a percentage of GSE profits into affordable housing using a mechanism that would be off-budget and thus not subject to the Congressional appropriations process. In January, more than 30 Democratic Senators pressed Mr. Watt to change course and lift the suspension. Given that the federal government owns $189 billion in outstanding senior preferred shares, the Republican House members believe that lifting the suspension would divert money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that could be used to compensate taxpayers. They added that funding the affordable housing programs would violate the “letter and spirit of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act,” and would be premature given ongoing congressional deliberations over broader housing finance reform.
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