FHA, Lawmakers Dither Over Reform Efforts

Changes are certain but their form is in question. Image: Fotolia.

The Federal Housing Administration is certain to be the target of major reform efforts by Congress, but it remains to be seen whether the agency will face an overhaul or will get away with some tweaks at the margins to restore it to financial health.

The FHA faces a projected $16.3 billion shortfall thanks to massive defaults on loans made during the height of the financial crisis, which includes $2.8 billion of losses on a popular reverse mortgage product for seniors. To shore up its finances, the FHA has asked Congress for more authority to help it avoid a bailout from the Treasury Department in September 2013.

Illustrating the urgency, Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., last week introduced a bill that aims to stabilize the agency's finances. The FHA Emergency Fiscal Solvency Act would allow the FHA to raise the ceiling for annual insurance premiums, terminate poor-performing lenders from originating FHA loans, and require lenders to repay FHA for losses if they are found to have violated the FHA's guidelines.

To help gain support for the bill and her own bid to head the agency, the FHA's acting commissioner, Carol Galante, said this week that the agency would adopt a series of new changes aimed at bolstering its finances, including eliminating one reverse mortgage product and raising down payment requirements on large loans.

Galante's proposal appeased one key lawmaker, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who said it was a good first step toward broader reform. Corker also said he would support Galante's appointment as commissioner, which has been held up in the Senate since she was nominated nearly 18 months ago.

Complicating matters, however, is the glacial pace of the housing recovery. Even as some members of Congress, particularly Republicans, rail against the FHA for digging itself into a hole and call for an agency overhaul, they have been reluctant to give it the authority to raise fees or take other steps to shore up its finances out of fear that it could reduce home sales.

Ed Pinto, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Fannie Mae executive, says the FHA and Congress are standing in the way of substantive reform because they do not want to eliminate what he calls "marginal homebuyers," those with low down payments and low credit scores that result in high levels of default.

"This is too little too late, and while it shows the FHA is trying to do something, it's not enough, it's not fundamental reform," Pinto says.

He said the recent changes by Galante will not have much impact. Requiring a maximum debt-to-income ratio of 43% for borrowers with credit scores below 620 would affect just 3% of FHA-insured loans, he says. Meanwhile, raising the down-payment requirement to 5% from 3.5% for borrowers with loans above $625,500 would apply to less than 5% of FHA-insured loans.

"The changes being made are totally on the margins, it's really nothing," Pinto argues. "They need to stop making bad loans in the first place not deal with it after the fact."

Pinto has argued that FHA's business model is flawed because 70% of FHA-insured loans are given to borrowers with credit scores between 620 and 660 or those who have a debt-to-income ratio of 50% or higher. Since the FHA only requires a minimum 3.5% down payment, the layering of risks means most borrowers have very little "skin in the game," and are at a higher risk of defaulting.

Sarah Rosen Wartell, president at the Urban Institute and a former deputy assistant for economic policy in the Clinton administration, says it would be "irresponsible" of Congress to not pass the FHA reform bill, which has 17 provisions. A House version earlier this year received overwhelming support.

"Many of the measures in the Johnson bill are tools to help the FHA control the risk in its portfolio and achieve stability," Wartell says. "I would argue that over the next few months we can have a more extensive discussion about reforms to FHA to help it better protect the taxpayer against losses. But measures that would shut FHA off…would have the effect of exposing all of us to much more dramatic swings in the economy."

Isaac Boltansky, a policy analyst at Compass Point Research and Trading, has been handicapping the reform effort and expects the legislation will pass. "There is a very good chance that FHA will be able to stave off a bailout with incremental legislative measures," he says.

But, he adds, "there also is little doubt that there will be more legislative scrutiny of FHA in 2013."

Indeed, some Republicans in Congress are loath to use quick-fix solutions and are likely to press for broader reforms that would curtail the FHA's reach. The agency is widely credited with rescuing the housing market by insuring loans that otherwise would never have been made, but critics say it has been too lax in its underwriting and would like to see it slash key programs—including reverse mortgages—and significantly tighten its credit standards to eliminate certain low-income borrowers.

They are particularly frustrated because the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the FHA, painted a far rosier picture of its financial health this summer. At that time HUD had expected the FHA to end fiscal 2012 with $3 billion in reserves, down from nearly $5 billion last year, but still in positive territory.

HUD and FHA officials have tried to defend the agency after an independent audit in November found the FHA's capital reserve ratio fell into negative territory of negative-1.44% at Sept. 30, with a $16.3 billion shortfall. Though the FHA has $30.4 billion in its Mutual Mortgage Insurance Fund to cover projected losses, it is required to maintain at least a 2% capital buffer.

HUD says the actuarial report did not take into account improving economic conditions including the cash flow from newly originated loans—estimated to account for $11 billion in economic value—that will put the FHA on firmer financial ground.