Key Issues > Modernizing the U.S. Financial Regulatory System and Federal Role in Housing Finance - High Risk Issue
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Modernizing the U.S. Financial Regulatory System and Federal Role in Housing Finance - High Risk Issue

In response to the worst financial crisis in more than 75 years, U.S. policymakers created programs involving billions of dollars to stabilize the financial system. They continue to implement reforms across numerous areas of the financial regulatory system, and act to address home foreclosures and government’s role in housing finance.

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Issue Summary

The 2007-2009 financial crisis highlighted the high risk of fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement in the U.S. financial regulatory system, as well as the reforms necessary to mitigate this risk. Effective management of home foreclosures (a key catalyst of the financial crisis), and of the government entities that help finance housing, can also help protect consumers and taxpayers.

Financial Regulatory Reform

During the financial crisis, the federal government offered substantial support to the financial sector, including guarantees, support through the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System’s emergency loan programs and the Department of the Treasury’s (Treasury) Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

GAO includes the federal role in housing finance on its High Risk List because key housing finance entities (the Federal Housing Administration and two government-sponsored enterprises—Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) face unresolved challenges relating to their future structures, roles, and financial conditions.

In 2010, Congress passed and the President signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (the Dodd-Frank Act), which aims to address regulatory gaps revealed during the crisis and may better position the financial regulatory system to address the recent changes to the financial system and associated risks. The Dodd-Frank Act resulted in various reforms, including

  • The Financial Stability Oversight Council, a new organization that monitors for systemic risks and includes representatives of the various financial regulators. This council has begun holding regular meetings to carry out its mission of identifying risks to U.S. financial stability, has issued reports outlining risks to the U.S. financial system, and has designated certain financial market participants as systemically important.
  • The Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (CFPB), which has broad regulatory responsibilities for providers of residential mortgage loans and other consumer financial products and services. CFPB has also begun operations, including examining financial institutions and penalizing various organizations for violation of consumer financial protection laws and regulations.
  • New requirements intended to enhance oversight of markets (such as over-the-counter derivatives markets) and market participants (such as nonbank mortgage lenders, hedge fund advisers, and credit rating agencies), that various financial regulators have been issuing as proposed or final regulations since 2010.
  • New standards for residential mortgage loans to help ensure that borrowers have a reasonable ability to repay.

Considerable progress has been made, with financial regulators having finalized rules to implement many of the reforms called for by the Dodd-Frank Act and with the new regulatory bodies operating and taking actions to address systemic risks and to improve consumer protections. However, the Dodd-Frank Act generally left the existing regulatory structure, which includes numerous regulators that oversee different firms, products, and markets, largely unchanged. This can result in inconsistency of oversight in examinations of financial firms, of increasingly interconnected securities and derivatives markets, and of insurance activities, which lack a federal regulator.  

Mitigating Home Foreclosures

A range of federal programs have offered relief for millions of struggling homeowners facing potential foreclosure, such as loan modifications and refinancing into loans with lower interest rates. One of the key federal programs, Making Home Affordable Home Affordable Modification Program, which included $38.5 billion allocated to housing programs funded under TARP, is to start closing to new entrants after December 2016. Other efforts remain ongoing, such as programs implemented by the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac. However, there has been a lack of comprehensive data gathering and analysis of federal foreclosure mitigation programs.

To help curb some of the abusive lending practices that contributed to the foreclosure crisis, CFPB issued regulations intended to ensure that lenders assess a consumer’s ability to repay a residential mortgage loan as part of the loan underwriting process. CFPB also issued mortgage-servicing related rules to provide better disclosure to consumers about their loan obligations and to require lenders to inform borrowers of and assist them with options that may be available if they have difficulty making their mortgage loan payments. However, Congress and lenders have expressed concerns that the regulations, which are intended to help protect consumers, may have the unintended effect of unduly burdening small institutions or restricting consumers’ access to credit. Further, foreclosure is governed primarily at the state level federal agencies' past oversight of mortgage servicers' foreclosure activities has been limited and fragmented.

Additionally, rising mortgage delinquencies during the 2007-2009 financial crisis and subsequent new capital requirements have created opportunities for nonbank servicers to increase their presence in the mortgage loan servicing market. Banks and nonbank servicers are subject to different safety and soundness standards and different capital rules. While nonbank servicers are generally regulated by federal and state regulators, there are some limitations to the oversight. Further, because of their rapid growth and business model, they may be more susceptible to certain risks that can lead to operational problems and pose additional risk to consumers and the market.

Housing Finance Reform

Federal agencies and policymakers are also considering ways to reform the role of the federal government in housing finance to reduce the exposure that the government and taxpayers face from risks arising from housing finance activities. In the years since the crisis began, the federal government has directly or indirectly supported over three-quarters of the value of new mortgage originations in the single-family housing market. Mortgages with federal support include those backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the enterprises), whose aim is to provide stability in the secondary market for residential mortgages and serve the mortgage credit needs of targeted groups, such as low-income borrowers.

In September 2008, the Federal Housing Finance Agency placed the enterprises in conservatorship out of concern that their deteriorating financial condition would destabilize the financial system. As of September 2016, the enterprises had received about $187 billion in financial assistance from Treasury through purchases of senior preferred stock, but had paid more than $250 billion in dividends to Treasury under the stock purchase agreements. The federal government also supports mortgages through FHA, which helps households purchase and refinance homes by insuring private lenders against losses from defaults on FHA-insured mortgages. FHA has experienced substantial growth in its insurance portfolio and faced financial difficulties. At the end of fiscal year 2013, FHA received about $1.7 billion from the Treasury to ensure that it had sufficient funds to pay for all expected future losses on existing insurance obligations.

Videos

Mortgage Financing: Financial Condition of FHA's Mutual Mortgage Insurance Fund
AskGAOLive Chat on Home Foreclosure Rescue Schemes
  • portrait of Lawrance Evans
    • Lawrance Evans
    • Director, Financial Markets and Community Investment
    • evansl@gao.gov
    • 202-512-8678