WASHINGTON – With a major housing finance reform bill pending in Congress, Jerome H. Powell, one of four sitting governors on the Federal Reserve Board, said Thursday that the nation is overdue for substantial changes in the mortgage market.
Powell, a former Treasury Department official under President George H.W. Bush, said consideration of the housing reform bill came at a crucial moment. Powell filled an unexpired term on the Reserve board in 2012 and was reappointed to a full 14-year term in 2014.
“We’re almost at a now-or-never moment,” Powell said in a speech in American Enterprise Institute. “If Congress does not enact reforms over the next few years, we are at risk of settling for the status quo — a government-dominated mortgage market with insufficient private capital to protect taxpayers, and insufficient competition to drive innovation.”
A Republican-led housing finance reform bill, the Financial Choice Act, seeks to repeal parts of the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, enacted by a Democratic-majority Congress in 2010 during former President Barack Obama’s first term of office. Dodd-Frank was enacted in response to the 2008 financial crisis, in which the government was forced to intervene in markets and offer bailout plans to threatened banks and the automobile industry.
However, Republicans, who now control both houses of Congress, have blamed Dodd Frank as a barrier to economic growth. The new bill would, among other things, give presidents the right to remove the director of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, designed to protect consumers in the financial sector and created under Dodd-Frank.
Democrats oppose repeal of Dodd Frank and Obama-era consumer protection rules and contend that the new bill would allow banks to take unwarranted risks that would finally require taxpayers to rescue them.
“This partisan, dangerous legislation would once again leave families, seniors, and service members at the mercy of predatory lenders, and put taxpayers back on the hook to pay for Wall Street’s greed and recklessness,” said Sherrod Brown, Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, in a statement.
Some analysts said the bill cannot make it through the Senate. Republicans would still need eight Democrats to cross the 60-vote threshold needed for passage. GOP senators currently hold 52 seats in the Senate.
Powell, in his speech, implied that he supported repeal of at least of some aspects of Dodd-Frank. While the measure has addressed flaws that led to the 2008 recession, which was triggered by the subprime mortgage crisis, he said it is unsustainable and systemic risk remains.
“We need a system that provides mortgage credit in good times and bad to a broad range of creditworthy borrowers,” Powell said.
Powell said a major step would be changing the system to attract private capital to protect taxpayer and drive innovation.
“The most obvious and direct step forward would be to require ample amounts of private capital to support housing finance activities, as we do in the banking system,” Powell said. “Reform should not leave us with any institutions that are so important as to be candidates for too-big-to-fail.”
The federal government seized the nation’s government mortgage agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, in 2008 to protect them from default. The combined market share of Fannie, Freddie, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has grown to 80 percent, leaving private financial institutions 20 percent of the mortgage market, Powell said.
Powell said that he advocates a new system that would transfer risk to the private sector and prevent any institution, including government-sponsored entities, from becoming too big. The ultimate goal, Powell said, was to make future bailouts unlikely.
“Any such [government]guarantee should be explicit, transparent, and should apply to securities, not institutions,” said Powell in the speech.
While the Federal Reserve does not play a direct role in the legislation process, Powell said it does provide technical help for Congress.
“I do see bipartisan discussion going on,” Powell said. “I hear people from all sides saying they find the current status quo unacceptable and see constructive movements,” Powell said.