Will the Republican-Controlled Congress Advance GSE Reform?










Will government-sponsored enterprise reform be affected by Republicans taking back control of the Senate? The first reactions from the industry and punditry indicate there are three possibilities: yes, no, and we can’t be sure.

Chris Whalen, senior managing partner of Kroll Bond Rating Agency in New York, is squarely in the “no” camp. “I don’t think it’s going to affect it one way or another. There’s no catalyst for change,” he said.

The quagmire continues to be the Senate leaning toward “recreating the GSEs in a slightly different form,” while in the House, “they don’t think the government should be involved in mortgages,” Whalen said, adding that mortgage production would likely plummet if the House approach (as proposed by Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling in July 2013) prevails.

The Johnson-Crapo GSE reform bill — which received bipartisan approval in the Senate Banking Committee but lacked enough support from Democrats to advance — will not move forward in the 114th Congress, Whalen added. The only legislative move he can foresee as a possibility is perhaps, if mortgage volumes fall next year, some tweaks to the Dodd-Frank Act.

Jonathan Corr, president and chief operating officer of technology vendor Ellie Mae, agreed with Whalen that any movement on reform would involve Dodd-Frank or restructuring the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, rather than Johnson-Crapo. “There could be a real push,” he said about the CFPB, with many Republicans feeling the bureau has “too much centralized power and not enough Congressional oversight.”

John Dalton, president of the Housing Policy Council at the Washington-based Financial Services Roundtable, also tabbed “reasonable adjustments” to Dodd-Frank as being possibly “the first priority in the financial services area,” rather than Congress picking Johnson-Crapo or its predecessor, the Corker-Warner bill, back up.

“The Johnson-Crapo and Corker-Warner bills laid a solid foundation. We think Congress should build off of those. While it may not happen immediately, we think Congress will look at revisiting the issue,” Dalton said.

“At the same time, the parallel track has to be efforts at the Federal Housing Finance Agency and the GSEs to move forward on single security, centralized securitization platform and risk sharing. These are steps to strengthen current system and to prepare for a new system through legislation,” he added.

But others see the Republican-controlled Congress boding well for advancing GSE reform.

“Republicans will have a much bigger hand in GSE reform and the infrastructure for the housing market going forward. At the margin, this means less subsidies, or in other words, higher priced mortgage insurance and maybe slightly higher rates,” commented Brent Nyitray, director of capital markets for San Diego-based iServe Residential Lending, in a blog post following the election. “There will be a lot of partisan posturing and a lot of ideological collisions as the housing reform sausage gets made.”

Still, other industry observers expect more of the same gridlock and believe that GSE reform “will likely fly under the radar.”

At a Nov. 5 housing finance symposium in Washington, presented by the Urban Institute and CoreLogic, former U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., Gene Sperling, a former chief economic advisor to President Obama, agreed that “Neither side should be happy with the [housing finance] status quo,” Sperling was quoted as saying in an Urban Institute blog post on the event.

“With a newer, more conservative Congress, will the consensus forged in recent years on GSE reform dissolve? Again, Sperling and Lazio agreed: generally, they said, we just can’t say for sure,” the Urban Institute wrote.

Yet another reaction could be classified as a “no reaction.” The Mortgage Bankers Association would not comment specifically on the prospects for GSE reform, but issued a post-election statement from president and CEO Dave Stevens: “We still believe there needs to be a comprehensive legislative solution that protects consumers and ensures a full housing recovery.”

Alex Pollock, resident fellow at American Enterprise Institute in Washington, and a former president of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, isn’t as pessimistic as some about the chances the GSE reform logjam will break.

“I think it’s a good opportunity to do something,” he said. “The possibility of something happening just went up a bit.”

But he would prefer it to be something other than the Johnson-Crapo bill. “I’d scrap Johnson-Crapo as a nice try,” he said. “Take out a clean sheet of paper and start over.”

Pollock would prefer his own “Plan C,” in which Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae would be “treated exactly the same as every other big bank,” and given status as “too big to fail” and “systemically important financial institutions.”

Of course, the desire to tackle GSE reform must come from within the Congressional ranks, and Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, thought by many to be the presumptive new chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, might have the urge to push the GSE issue.

Shelby was a key player in negotiations leading up to the 2008 housing law that created the Federal Housing Finance Agency as the new regulator for the government-sponsored enterprises, and some observers said overhauling Fannie and Freddie remains a key priority for him, sister publication American Banker recently reported.

“He’s never been a fan of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and he’s certainly not a fan of government intervention in the private sector,” said Brian Gardner, a policy analyst at Keefe, Bruyette Woods. “He’s going to confront a situation where the mortgage finance system is effectively nationalized, and I think that’s anathema to everything he believes.”

Pollock agreed that if Shelby resumed chairing the Senate Banking Committee there’s “a very good chance” he would move on GSE reform. “He’s done it before,” Pollock said. “He’d want to put his own personal stamp on it.”

Given all the uncertainty, Ellie Mae’s Corr probably best summed up the situation.

“Anything’s possible.”

Mark Fogarty, Editor at Large at National Mortgage News, brings more than 30 years of experience to his analyses of the mortgage market.

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