Matrix Blog

Government, Politics, Regulations & Policy

Regulators Turn Focus on AMCs, Proposals Include Hiring “Competent” Appraisers

March 26, 2014 | 12:43 am | Milestones |

occheader

The OCC and an alphabet soup of 5 additional regulators: FDIC, CFPB, FHFA, NCUA and the Federal Reserve issued a joint press release that if adopted, takes a small step forward in the regulation of appraisal management companies, who are largely responsible for the collapse of valuation quality since the credit crunch began.

To many, this action is long overdue. Appraisal management companies control the vast majority all mortgage appraisals in the US, having been legitimized by HVCC back in May 2009. I’ve burned a lot of calories over the past several years pointing out the problems with the AMC industry so admittedly it is nice to see them getting attention. The fact that these institutions are not licensed to do business at a statewide level but the appraisers who provide the valuation expertise they manage is inconsistent at best.

Still, the recognition of this regulatory glitch probably won’t have a significant impact on appraisal quality provided by AMCs. As my friend Joe Palumbo maintains, is like fool’s gold.

I think proposal is at least a starting point.

A couple of highlights – regulators would:

  • Require that appraisals comply with the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (today we had a clerical AMC staffer tell us that writing out the math calculations on the floor plan was a requirement of USPAP).
  • Ensure selection of a competent and independent appraiser. (It is unbelievable to think this is necessary but it does make the legal exposure a little larger for AMCs.)

Housingwire has a good recap of the proposed regulations and so does the Wall Street Journal provides a nice overview (I gave them background for the piece).

The proposal by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Federal Reserve and other regulators mandates that appraisal-management companies hired by federally regulated banks use only state-licensed appraisers with “the requisite education, expertise, and experience necessary” to complete appraisals competently.

Moral hazard There is no significant financial incentive for lenders to stop accepting the generally poor quality appraisals the AMC industry presents them daily. The hope is that the additional regulatory largess the AMCs have to confront will force the issue with lenders simply because the AMCs will have to raise their fees. Without a real “value-add” to the banks other than cost control and fast turn times, the lack of quality for a large swath of AMCs may no longer be overlooked by banks. Yes I can dream.

Residential appraisers, mostly 1-2 person shops, have largely been left without a voice and the bigger financial institutions have lobbied financial reform overtop of us without the regulators truly understanding what our role should to be to protect the taxpayer from excessive risk.

Anumber of smart appraisers I know have created a petition whose sole purpose is the get the attention of the CSFB to address the issue of “customary and reasonable” fees. Our industry has no other way to reach the regulators or the ability to lobby our views in Washington. I hope they are listening.

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Online Petition To Get “Customary & Reasonable Fees” Issue In Front of CFPB

March 19, 2014 | 3:16 pm |

CFPBlogo

Within the current mortgage industry, predatory appraisal fees are driving experienced appraisers out of the field only to be replaced by an army of “form-fillers.” The appraiser today is being asked to pay for a bank’s compliance with financial reform directly out of their appraisal fee or go out of business. The practice is misleading to the consumer, exposes the taxpayer and the financial system to unnecessary risk and drives invaluable expertise out of the appraisal profession.

The folks over at AppraisalBuzz ask me to provide input into the petition. It is an essential read for all appraisers regarding the practice of predatory fees by AMCs: The Online Petition Every Appraiser Should Know About or you can go directly to the petition and signup if you agree – it takes about 30 seconds.

My hope is that this petition creates a public awareness of how serious and untenable this problem is and how much the reliability of the appraisal of collateral for mortgage lending purposes has deteriorated since the financial crisis began.

Appraisal Buzz post: The Online Petition Every Appraiser Should Know About

Sign the petition.

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[Infographic] New York City’s Aging Infrastructure

March 18, 2014 | 3:29 pm |

2014costsnycfuture
[click to expand]

The Center for an Urban Future, a NYC-based think tank, just published a sobering summary of New York City’s aging infrastructure. You can download the report. Here is the report author’s editorial in Time Magazine.

The NYC real estate economy is dependent on the quality of services offered by the city. One of the unsung reason for NYC’s active NYC housing market began in the early 1990s when the “broken windows theory” was widely adopted as a policy strategy. It worked. I lived through it and saw the city transition.

Now we have bigger windows to fix.

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The Bi-Partisan Fannie and Freddie Solution That Isn’t A Fix

March 16, 2014 | 11:35 am | wsjlogo |

fanniefreddieredone
[Source: WSJ, click to expand]

Roughly 90% of the residential market has passed through Fannie and Freddie since the onset of the financial crisis. Reliance on these institutions was only around 50% before the crisis – and are they making a lot of money for the federal government right now. I’ll leave out the part where FHA stepped in to pick up the high risk slack. The private secondary mortgage market was obliterated by the credit crunch/housing crash and in the half decade that has passed, investors are just now dipping their toes in the water.

There is a great summary piece by Nick Timiraos at WSJ: “What Can Take the Place of Fannie and Freddie” on the proposed Fannie and Freddie “overhaul.”

Big Dumb Banks
As my friend Barry Ritholtz over at Big Picture once told me that the former GSEs are merely “Big Dumb Banks.” In other words, they do as they were told.

Swapping them with another alphabet soup named agency doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, I contend that replacing Fannie and Freddie completely would likely create more problems since little if anything has been done to reduce the systemic risks that nearly brought down the financial system – and whose impact are still being felt by most Americans today.

If we can agree that Fannie and Freddie created a stable mortgage market environment for decades (Fannie since the Depression and Freddie since the 1960s) and then blew up in the recent decade or more (problems began back in late 1990s), there are clearly other issues in play. I’ve always seen Fannie and Freddie as the symptom not the cause of our current economic problems.

Fixing the symptom may make some feel better, but it does nothing to reduce the probability of a systemic credit collapse. The bailout of the GSEs was a result of policy from Washington – the congress, the executive branch and both political parties who in various ways encouraged proactive neutering of regulatory powers, allowed the revolving doors of regulators with Wall Street, allowing Wall Street to compete directly with commercial banks with mind boggling leverage, limited separation of competing interests (ie rating agencies and investment banks) and incentivizing a shifting culture to serve the shareholders over the taxpayers.

I suspect that last point is the impetus for this bi-partisan proposal – reduce the risk exposure to the taxpayer by getting the private market to take over. Congress clearly has an image problem that it is trying to fix as of late (until mid-terms).

Setting Standards to Follow
One of the under appreciated functions of Fannie Mae and to a lesser degree Freddie Mac, was to serve as the leader to the private mortgage market. When Fannie Mae adopted a standard or policy, the private market (ie jumbo mortgage investors), followed their lead. With Fannie and Freddie floating in limbo with a potential looming overhaul, it’s hard to imagine a robust private market developing anytime soon. This would be a completely new institution that would replace and reinvent the former GSEs, you simply invite anywhere from chaos to uncertainty into the financial system and instability to the housing market, a key economic engine for the economy.

The whole plumbing of the mortgage market runs through these companies. You can’t just take these things away without having a very clear and specific view about what’s going to replace them,” said Daniel Mudd, Fannie’s former chief executive, in an interview last year.

No real alternative to the system has been proposed that I’m aware of and this is really window dressing to show bi-partisanship in Washington. There is no time frame proposed and very little details to reinvent the secondary mortgage market have been brought forward.

Here’s a great podcast from WNYC called “Money Talking” featuring Heidi Moore and Joe Nocera covering the proposal.

Key Issues to Fix
The WSJ piece summarizes the key issues that need to be address quite succinctly:

  • Make the “implied” guarantee explicit and require any successors to Fannie and Freddie to pay a fee for that guarantee.
  • Get rid of those investment portfolios, or shrink them to the point where they don’t create systemic risks.
  • Require more capital and tighter regulation, since too little of both is what got Fannie and Freddie into trouble.

The trouble is, the solution to over-reliance on Fannie and Freddie is too complex for Congress to solve in this era of gridlock. Record revenue being generated by the former GSEs make long term solutions unobtainable for now. I don’t see how any major changes can be inserted into the financial systems for a long time.

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It’s time to debunk the debunking of the 3 biggest myths about your AMC

March 9, 2014 | 10:00 pm | Favorites |

aeron-chair

I saw an opinion piece written about appraisal management companies over at HousingWire that made me just about fall out of my chair – and my office chair is a sturdy Herman Miller Aeron so it was quite an unsettling piece. I’ve written about AMCs quite a bit since HVCC came into effect on May 1, 2009 and my last big piece: “Appraising for AMCs Can Be Like Delivering Pizza” prompted a senior executive at one of the largest US AMCs – who we don’t work for – to call me after he read it and say, “all of what you wrote is true – how do we change it?” He sounded very reasonable and earnest and got his Chief Appraiser to reach out to me to explore what to do. That person ended up providing me with robotic and defensive feedback before I even asked any questions – making it clear it was all about keeping his job, not improving the industry. Sad.

Make no mistake – I am not against the concept of AMCs and there are some reasonable ones to deal with – but the majority of them are poorly managed and therefore can only attract appraisers with the “form-filler” mentality.

This HousingWire editorial was called “It’s time to debunk the 3 biggest myths about your AMC” by the CEO of an appraisal management company. We don’t work with them and I don’t know of them or the author. It’s a corporate sounding piece so I’m guessing that it was pitched and written by their PR firm as a way to sell the virtues of a good appraisal management company.

What threw me for a loop was the omission of any discussion about the actual providers of valuation expertise. AMCs do not provide value opinions to banks. AMCs manage appraisers who provide value opinions to banks. My guess is they or the AMC industry in general are receiving more pressure from banks for the rising cost of the appraisal process – not because the appraisal fees are rising – but because the AMC appraisal quality is so poor that relative to the cost, the value-add of an AMC really isn’t really there.

We have started to observe national lenders push back against the poor quality of AMC appraisals and some lender personnel are now bypassing AMCs on complex or luxury properties because they don’t trust the expertise coming out of the AMC. Amazing.

Here are the 3 “myths” presented in this AMC PR piece. I restate each point being made to reflect the reality of the appraisal process:

From the Housingwire guest editorial:

THEIR Myth 1: Appraisal Management Companies add costs to the lender’s business.

So, yes, the costs of putting a solid value on a piece of real estate have gone up. But this is not due to the fact that an AMC has been added to the equation. It’s due to the fact that it costs more to do it right, to employ the technology, to manage the fee panels, to quality-check the results. Like most myths, this one has at its core the ugly truth that the price of an appraisal has gone up between $80 and $200, depending upon the circumstances.

MY Opinion of Myth 1: The rise in costs is NOT because appraisers are arbitrarily raising their fees. It is because the appraisal management industry takes half of the appraisers fee paid by the borrower at application to cover their costs and ended up driving most good appraisers out of retail bank appraisal work – now dominated by AMCs. The rising costs are being born by the AMCs who try to checklist away the poor quality. Here’s how: Imagine making a modest salary for a job well done and then one day (May 1, 2009) you get your pay cut in half. The middleman between the bank and the appraisers (the AMCs) got to keep the other half of the appraiser’s fee/salary. In reality, this 50% pay cut was the appraiser paying for bank compliance with HVCC by hiring the AMC. Would you quit your job if you got a 50% pay cut? Most would say yes. Who would replace you at 50% of an already modest wage? A lower caliber, lesser experienced person who was able to cut corners – like eliminate research – and essentially be willing to be a form filler rather than a valuation expert – quality evaporates not matter how much “review” is put in place. AMCs have been grappling with poor quality and probably have had to increase oversight as more banks push back against the poor quality. I think the additional compliance issues being touted throughout this opinion piece in this “Myth” are probably more of a scare or fogging tactic than a real reason for higher costs. The higher cost that is being represented by the AMC is more likely from the fact that AMCs are being forced to find better appraisers in certain markets and those appraisers are less willing to subsidize bank compliance with HVCC out of their own hide. We doing more and more AMC work now and we are paid a full fee and are given a fairly reasonable turnaround time. Why? Because that AMC’s panel quality was poor and their bank clients basically told the AMC to use firms like mine or the bank will go to another AMC who will use a higher caliber of appraiser.

THEIR Myth 2: AMCs deliver poor turnaround times that can’t compare to internal teams

Anyone who buys into this myth must live in a world without Service Level Agreements (SLAs) that spell out exactly what a vendor will provide to a lender. It sets the terms of the engagement and specifies penalties that the vendor will suffer should it fail to live up to the promises the document holds. Turnaround times are always part of the SLA between an AMC and a lender…Now, here’s the grain of truth at the center of this ridiculous myth: lenders are working to incorporate so many new compliance rules into their processes that the collateral valuation process is simply taking longer for many of them than it has in the past. Part of this comes from the fact that compliance checking takes time. Part of this comes from unnecessary processes within the lender’s shop that exist out of some executive’s fear of possible compliance problems. The appraisal process is taking longer in many cases, but it’s not due to the AMC. It’s just part of the new business environment we’re working in.

MY Opinion of Myth 2: This is simply a reframing of the conversation between lenders and AMCs. The biggest problem with most AMCs today is they demand an unreasonable turn around time – some require 48 hours (more with complex properties), about 1/3 the minimum average time needed to do a reasonably competent job. Because the AMC bank appraisal quality is generally poor, AMCs have to insert more and more checklists into the QC process to appease their lender clients. The lender clients require more service level agreements BECAUSE THEY DON’T TRUST THE QUALITY OF THE PRODUCT, NOT BECAUSE OF MORE FEDERAL COMPLIANCE ISSUES. In turn, the appraiser gets a gum chewing 19 year old who calls them every day to fill out a checklist. Banks were fine, pre-HVCC, with the turn times of their in-house and outside fee panel staff and it NEVER was as fast as the typical AMC requires today. Today, most AMCs have to differentiate themselves from other AMCs by cost and turn around standards. With the poor quality of the typical AMC bank appraisal, the AMC gets squeezed financially as banks and appraisers are beginning to push back with more requirements and costs. An appraisal is NOT a commodity – it is a professional service. If the AMC doesn’t respect the bank appraisal industry and pays them poorly, all the AMC can ever hope to receive in return is a poor quality product that can’t be check listed away.

THEIR Myth 3: The lender relinquishes control when they outsource to an AMC

The lender is in complete control at all times and federal regulators have made it crystal clear that the lender is the responsible party anytime they outsource to a third-party vendor. No lender will relinquish control to a third party when it knows the CFPB will come back to its front door in the event of a problem. There are some aspects of the collateral valuation process that the government has said must be removed from the control of the loan officers originating the loan and the managers who oversee them. Federal regulators do not want the lender to control the outcome of the appraisal process and so they have made it clear in the regulations that it must be moved away from the origination department. The uncomfortable truth is that the federal government wants the lending institution to lose a bit of control here, for the good of the consumer and the financial institution. But handing responsibility for a few aspects of one process to a third-party outsourcer is not the same thing as giving away control. No lender we know and no good AMC executive would equate these two.

MY Opinion of Myth 3: One of the biggest myths furthered by many AMCs is to fog lenders with the idea that HVCC requires banks to use them to be compliant. The statement “The uncomfortable truth is that the federal government wants the lending institution to lose a bit of control here” is very misleading. All the government wants is a separation between the sales function and the quality function of a bank – a firewall – which is an AMCs major selling point. The irony here is that large AMCs are just as susceptible to lender pressure as the individual appraisers, but on a much larger scale.

I am not anti-AMC. However I am against bank appraisers paying for a bank’s compliance with HVCC and being marginalized as a result. The appraiser is the expert developing the value opinion for the bank, not the AMC.

In my experience to date, the majority of AMC bank appraisals that I have seen are very poor. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If the lender paid the market rate for an appraisal and an additional fee for the AMC to administer the process, the quality would improve. Borrowers today generally don’t realize that the bank appraisers is paid a fraction of the “appraisal fee.” Today’s bank appraiser is paying for the bank’s compliance with HVCC and this has largely destroyed many of the quality firms in the appraisal industry. It doesn’t help that the residential appraisal industry has no real representation in Washington.

But I do like my chair.

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Is Gentrification a Four Letter Word?

March 5, 2014 | 11:00 am | nytlogo |

dieyuppiescum

Back in mid 1980′s the front door of a new condo conversion at One Tompkins Square Park was spray painted with words “Die Yuppie Scum” and it became the battle cry for protests against gentrification of the East Village. With the eastward push of new residential development in the 1980s from the West and Central Village, residents and local businesses worried about being priced out and losing the intangibles that made the neighborhood unique – and that they would disappear along with it.

I remember appraising apartments to the east of Tompkins Square Park, seeing squatters inhabit derelict buildings, observing a burned out school bus on blocks in front of a newly converted walk-up and the self-described “Anarchists” in the park. All that is gone.

Recent discussions about gentrification have been more visible of late – and so have the discussions of the benefits of gentrification.

Merriam-Webster defines gentrification as:

the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents

Philadelphia is one of the first cities to tackle the issue in an attempt to keep the long time residents there and in doing so, helping to minimize the loss of the character of the neighborhood. It is fascinating and encouraging to see city governments be proactive on the issue since it costs money in the short term.

The initiatives, planned or underway in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh and other cities, are centered on reducing or freezing property taxes for such homeowners in an effort to promote neighborhood stability, preserve character and provide a dividend of sorts to those who have stayed through years of high crime, population loss and declining property values, officials say.

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Housing Starts Drop: Whether the Weather or New Trend?

February 20, 2014 | 12:21 pm | Videos |

Yesterday I did a quick interview for CNBC at 30 Rock (right next to the new Tonight Show/Jimmy Fallon set which was all abuzz). We were talking about housing starts before they were released. While predicting this stuff is a fool’s errand, I think the bigger question was whether the recent weakening of housing metrics was a new trend or a pause caused by the harsh weather creating havoc across the US.

NAHBconf2-14

The NAHB homebuilder sentiment index (1 family) posted its largest one month drop in history – severe weather, cost of labor, materials and land with given as reasons but those really aren’t new issues other than the severe weather.

While weather played a role and probably amounts to more of a short term blip, I think the larger concern is the outlook over the next 6 months with reduced affordability (higher rates but still historically low) and the bottoming of existing home inventory in 2013 providing additional listing competition in some markets.

December housing starts
• 999k annualized and seasonally adjusted rate in December, declining 9.8% but exceeding forecasts. More weakness in multi-family starts than 1-family • +18.3% 2013 over 2012

Why I thought January Housing Starts would fall (luckily I was right with the announcement of a record 16% drop) • Same factors in place as last month: Weather, Labor and Material Costs and Land Costs. • Record m-o-m drop in NAFB confidence – looking out over the coming months – suggests a larger impact by weather. • Mortgage rates slipped from last month but still nearly a point higher than a year ago, expectation of flat or edging higher in 2014. • Implementation of Dodd-Frank Qualified Mortgage (QM) may also drag viewing traffic. • Permits already fell over last 2 months which suggests lower starts (contracts versus closed sales analogy).

Actual January housing starts release after my interview
880K annualized rate in January, dropping 16% from December 2013. • January 2014 y-o-y dropped 2%. • Permits fell for 3rd consecutive month, down 5.4% from prior month (seasonally adjusted).

STILL – the question REALLY is whether the recent construction slowdown is the beginning of a trend or a temporary set back that will clear over the next few months as the weather improves and the economy shows some improvement. Right now it feels more like the market is losing momentum and the weather is only making it worse.

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[Bloomberg TV] Second Avenue Subway Nears Completion, Influences Housing

February 2, 2014 | 7:00 am | nytlogo | Public |

Here is an interview I recently did for Bloomberg Television’s In The Loop on the first phase of the long awaited and sorely needed Second Avenue subway line. I had also looked at this data about two years ago.

subway map

For the show I crunched closed sales data for the 4th Quarter of 2013 versus the same period in 2009 and provided a similar time frame for the rental market. I defined the impacted subway zone as the Upper East Side neighborhood between Third Avenue and First Avenue extending from 96th Street to 59th Street. Areas out side the zone were simply those to the east and west of it but within the neighborhood. I realize that simply taking the average price of all transactions in each of the zones are subject to skew. However given the large size of the zones, I think it is a reasonable way to extract some sort of impact.

Based on the results, the subway zone fell behind the areas outside the zone during the 4 year time span.

West of Zone
Sales Prices +14.7%
Rental Prices +7.7%

East of Zone
Sales Prices +12.2%
Rental Prices +9.1%

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Money for Nothing Movie Trailer

March 28, 2013 | 5:29 pm | fedny | Videos |

I can’t wait for the documentary Money for Nothing to be released. In fact I donated to IndieGoGo.com because I was so impressed that I wanted my own copy.

This documentary is compelling and so are all the cast members. It includes a who’s who list of current and past members of the Federal Reserve as well as economists and Wall Street experts. Cast members include my friend Barry Ritholtz and Gary Shilling who both have been on my podcast. Todd Harrison of the great site Minyanville.com and John Mauldlin who I have always looked to for insights. Jim Grant of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer who called me at the height of the crisis to get a gauge on the Manhattan housing market.

During the housing bubble I often felt like screaming as I saw the financial world through my appraisal glasses thinking I missed an important math class in 8th grade. Fast growing banks with gigantic mortgage volume and many of my appraisal competitors in bed with mortgage brokers were clearly smarter than me – they could make the numbers work and I couldn’t.

In 2003 and 2004 I remember being absolutely confident as a non-economist that the Fed was keeping interest rates too low for too long. I could see it in the loss of lending standards and the lavish incomes enjoyed by those around me who embraced a world of based on moral flexibility. The froth was simply ignored.

Don’t mean to get sentimental on you dear readers, but this movie struck a chord with me. Enjoy the trailer and watch for the release date announcement.

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On Bloomberg TV, Surveillance w/Tom Keene 3-11-13: Housing, Mortgages, Rising Prices

March 11, 2013 | 11:46 am | bloomberglogo | Public |

Had a great visit with Tom Keene this morning on Bloomberg TV’s Surveillance along with Scarlet Fu and Sara Eisen. It was simulcast on Bloomberg Radio.

Also in studio was James Lockhart, vice chairman of WL Ross & Co., formerly the head of GSE regulator FHFA. We were also joined by Nicolas Retsinas, a senior lecturer in real estate at Harvard Business School who called in – he has been on my old podcast a few times. Both provided great insight to the housing narrative.

Here’s the second clip from the same session. My basic premise is that while new home sales are rising, it will not be enough to address the collapse of listing inventory which will drive housing prices higher in the US. Hint: It’s mostly about tight credit. Housing is local and credit is national.

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