Mandating Mortgage Taxes

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) is the regulator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. On top of that, it has controlled them as their Conservator since 2008, amazingly for nearly 15 years, since reform of Fannie and Freddie has proved politically impossible. As Conservator, FHFA can exercise the power of their boards of directors. It is therefore not only the regulator, but also the boss of both of these giant providers of mortgage finance. Fannie and Freddie together represent more than $7 trillion in mortgage credit and dominate the mortgage market. FHFA also regulates the $1.6 trillion Federal Home Loan Bank System. Thus, the FHFA has impressive centralized power over the huge US mortgage market, although most people have probably never heard of it.

Housing finance is always political, and a housing finance regulator is always sailing in strong political winds, in addition to the cyclical storms of housing finance crises. The American housing finance system has collapsed twice in the last 40 years, in the decades of the 1980s and the 2000s, with corresponding regulatory reorganizations. The FHFA is a second-generation successor to the unlamented Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB), the cheerleader-regulator of the savings and loan industry. It presided over the 1980s savings and loan industry collapse, a collapse which also caused the government’s Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation to go broke. The FHLBB was abolished by Congress in 1989 and replaced by the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) to regulate savings and loans and the Federal Housing Finance Board (FHLB) to regulate the Federal Home Loan Banks.

Beginning in the 1990s, the federal government made the disastrous mistake of promoting and increasing the amount of risky mortgage loans in the pursuit of increasing home ownership, notably requiring Fannie and Freddie to buy more and more such loans. The riskier loans were promoted as “innovative” mortgages by the Clinton administration. That push was a major contributor first to the housing bubble and then to the housing finance collapse of 2007–09. The homeownership percentage temporarily went up and then fell back to where it had been before. After the crisis, Congress abolished OTS. FHFB was also abolished, with its operations merged into the newly created FHFA. Less than two months after its creation in 2008, FHFA became the Conservator of Fannie and Freddie, which it remarkably remains to this day.

The housing politics and the enjoyment of its power seem to have gone to the FHFA’s head. Now, carrying out instructions from the White House, one imagines, or at a minimum with White House approval, it is trying once again to encourage riskier mortgage loans in Fannie and Freddie. Moreover, it proposes to act as if it were the Congress, trying by its own rule to mandate what are effectively taxes on mortgage borrowers with good credit, in order to provide subsidies to riskier borrowers with poor credit. The FHFA is thus de facto legislating to create in the nationwide mortgage market a welfare and income transfer operation through mortgage pricing. However misguided an idea this is, it could be done by the power of Congress, but the last time we checked, the FHFA wasn’t the Congress. Its project here is remarkable bureaucratic overreach.

In this case, the FHFA wants to politically manipulate Fannie and Freddie’s Loan-Level Price Adjustments (LLPAs). The LLPAs are meant to be credit risk-based adjustments, which reflect fundamental factors in the credit risk of a mortgage loan, to the price of getting Fannie or Freddie to bear the credit risk of the loan. They are an adjustment to the cost of the loan to the borrower, supposed to be based on objective measures of risk. As one mortgage guide says:

A loan-level price adjustment is a risk-based fee assessed to mortgage borrowers … [and] adjustments vary by borrower, based on loan traits such as loan-to-value (LTV), credit score, loan purpose, occupancy, and number of units in a home. Borrowers often pay LLPAs in the form of higher mortgage rates. … Similar to an auto insurance policy, a person loaded with risk will typically pay a higher premium.

Considering the key risks of smaller down payments (higher LTVs) and lower credit scores, there is no doubt that these factors statistically result over time in higher delinquencies, more defaults, and greater credit losses. Simply put, they are riskier loans. The AEI Housing Center has shown that default rates in times of stress differ dramatically based on these factors. For mortgage loans acquired by Fannie and Freddie in 2006–07, for example, the subsequent credit experience was “among borrowers with 20% down payments and credit scores between 720 and 769, the default rate was between 4.2% and 8.8%. Among borrowers with less than 4% down payments and credit scores between 620 and 639, the default rate was between 39.3% and 56.2%.”

In short, “You shouldn’t be punished for having done the right thing.” This seems incontrovertible.

Many commentators have pointed out that the FHFA project to manipulate the LLPAs for a political purpose is a distinctly bad idea. It is an “Upside Down Mortgage Policy … against every rational economic model, while encouraging housing market dysfunction and putting taxpayers at risk”; it signals to well-qualified borrowers, “Your credit score is excellent, so prepare to be penalized”; it is income redistribution by bureaucratic fiat; it will encourage the growth of riskier loans in Fannie and Freddie, just as the government disastrously did leading up to the great housing bust of 2007–09; it reduces the incentives to make significant down payments and for establishing a good credit rating—a notably dumb housing credit policy. This is the kind of thing Ed Pinto and I predicted in 2021 that a Biden administration FHFA would do, anticipating “the increased credit risk that Fannie and Freddie, under orders from the FHFA, will be generating.”

The rule is also ethically challenged. As Jeff Jacoby wrote in the Boston Globe, the policy is not only backwards credit logic: “First and foremost, it is egregiously unfair to creditworthy borrowers. … The new mortgage fees amount to a tax on responsible behavior.” In short, “You shouldn’t be punished for having done the right thing.” This seems incontrovertible.

The Congress long ago set up by law a very large, specialized government agency to enable subprime mortgage loans, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). FHA mortgage loans outstanding total about $1.4 trillion. The FHA provides subsidized mortgage credit, allowing mortgage loans with down payments of as little as 3.5%. The FHA and its sister organization, Ginnie Mae, which guarantees securitized FHA loans, both operate with explicit government support and with direct risk to the taxpayers. The FHFA should not be trying to compete with the FHA for subprime mortgage financing.

The FHFA’s political initiative on loan-level adjustments is a bad idea on the merits, but there is an even more fundamental issue: the creation of a tax and mortgage subsidy program which increases risk to the taxpayers is a question for the Congress to decide—it is not the purview of the FHFA.

Very belatedly, FHFA announced it would issue a “Request for Input” from the public, which would include consideration of LLPAs. This announcement, however, did not alter FHFA’s egregious LLPA changes, which are being imposed long before the “input” will be received.

If the FHFA wanted to pursue its initiative in a constitutional way, it would withdraw its new rule and bring its proposal to Congress, requesting that a bill be introduced to authorize charging those with good credit more on their mortgage loans in order to subsidize those with riskier credit. I imagine that such a bill would not make much progress among the elected representatives of the People.