The Senate Banking Committee is scheduled next week to debate a bill to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprises that have single-handedly propped up the market for residential mortgages since the housing crash of 2008. The bill, known as Johnson-Crapo for the lead senators on the banking committee, faces an uncertain future. But even if it manages to emerge from the committee and ultimately become law, Johnson-Crapo won’t, on its own, guarantee the continuation of the U.S. housing recovery because the bill doesn’t address private investment in mortgage-backed securities.
The housing market needs private capital to share risk and keep interest rates affordable, as Pimco CEO Douglas Hodge wrote in an April 11 op-ed in Barrons. Yet as we all know from years of MBS litigation, investors in pre-crash MBS trusts believe they were badly deceived by issuers, originators and trustees, who then compounded their sins by refusing to make good on buy-back provisions in MBS contracts.
Even worse, in the eyes of MBS investors, banks that issued the securities and serviced the underlying mortgage loans shifted some of the burden of their own $25 billion settlement with the U.S. government onto investors. A report earlier this month from the Housing Finance Policy Center concluded that 24 percent of the mortgages that banks modified as part of the $25 billion settlement were owned by investors in MBS trusts, not by the banks themselves. Those modifications could be to investors’ benefit, if they result in revenue to MBS trusts from homeowners who might otherwise default, but as the Housing Finance report notes, there’s no transparency for investors, so they don’t know whether the banks acted reasonably or not.
Mistrust of the sell side, in other words, runs deep among MBS investors. So how can the securitization industry – the mortgage originators, issuers, rating agencies, lawyers and accountants who are counting on the revival of the mortgage finance market – woo back private capital?
I’ve got some ideas, based on interviews with several folks in the MBS business who are thinking about that question, especially as Congress considers legislation to reform government-backed securitizations. Pimco’s Hodge laid out one big proposal in his Barrons piece, urging Congress to enact legislation to tag MBS trustees and mortgage servicers with fiduciary duties to investors in private-label MBS trusts. (The Trust Indenture Act of 1939 did just that for bond investors after the bond market collapsed in the Great Depression.) Hodge argued that such a “simple – but powerful – reform …. would go a long way in bringing back investors, such as Pimco clients, to a marketplace that is (or may soon be) desperately in need of private capital.” (You may recall that Georgetown law professor Adam Levitin has made similar arguments about the role of MBS trustees, including in the litigation over Bank of America’s $8.5 billion breach-of-contract settlement with Pimco and other Countrywide MBS investors.)