Fed retreat from MBS market sparks short-term uncertainty

HW+ Federal Reserve
Federal Reserve in Washington, D.C.

What happens when the Federal Reserve begins pulling back in a serious way from the mortgage-backed securities (MBS) market that it has helped to prop up through billions of dollars in bond purchases since the start of the pandemic in 2020 — to the point where it now holds a $2.7 trillion agency MBS portfolio?

In short, uncertainty is the forecast, according to industry experts who weighed in on the subject. 

Long-term, however, they agree the market will work through the changes and likely wind up better off, assuming the Fed’s so-called quantitative tightening strategy manages to tame runaway inflation and chases off its close cousin, a recession.

“It doesn’t make sense to start raising interest rates [to fight inflation] without running off their MBS portfolio,” said Laurie Goodman, vice president for housing finance policy and the founder of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute

How that policy of shrinking the Fed’s MBS holdings will ultimately shake out short-term in the mortgage origination and secondary markets as it is played out, she said, is simply not knowable at this point, however.

“It’s just hard to tell exactly what will happen because there’s so many currents,” Goodman explained. “You don’t know what investor demand is going to be. At the end of the day, though, the product [agency MBS] will be absorbed at a price.”

Ray Perryman, president and CEO of The Perryman Group, an economic research and analysis firm based in Texas, added that the Federal Reserve must act now to get inflation under control. He, too, agrees that there are “too many moving parts” to predict with any degree of certainty what will happen to the agency MBS market, the origination market, or the private label securities (PLS) market in the short-term as rates continue to rise and the Fed pulls back further from MBS purchases.

“Although we are not facing the same structural issues as the late 1970s and early 1980s, prices are rising at the fastest rate in decades and unemployment is trending below 4%,” Perryman said. “There also seems to be adequate momentum to sustain growth with a more restrictive policy, although that patter will have to be monitored very carefully.  

“Of necessity, this [effort to battle inflation] will involve actions such as increasing baseline interest rates (likely in half-point increments) and reducing the Fed’s portfolio of mortgage backed (and other) securities. “

The Federal Reserve, as part of its inflation-busting strategy, ceased making new purchases of agency mortgage-backed securities, or MBS, in early March.  Its quantitative tightening efforts also included a quarter-point boost in its benchmark interest rate in March, with at least six more bumps planned yet as the year progresses.

The Fed’s agency MBS holdings now total about $2.7 trillion and, so far, it is continuing to replace maturing assets in that portfolio as they run off the books. 

That’s about to end, however. 

Notes from the Fed’s March gathering of its Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) indicate that there is consensus around a plan to cease replacing up to $35 billion of maturing MBS assets each month. For some context, in February, as the Fed was winding down its net new purchases of MBS at a pace of $10 billion a month, its gross monthly agency MBS purchases totaled about $60 billion, or 31.3% of total agency gross issuance for the month. 

The Feds existing $2.7 trillion portfolio represented about 25% of the total $10.7 trillion in agency MBS issuance outstanding as of year-end 2021, according to figures from the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, or SIFMA.

Cutting another $35 billion from the Fed’s monthly MBS purchase tally will create a significant amount of new supply in the market and likely further increase pressure on interest rates, which could be amplified by other potential world events, explained Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors.

“Directionally, it means higher mortgage rates,” Yun said. “… If China reduces its holdings of U.S. government bonds or GSE-related [government-sponsored enterprise] securities, then interest rates will rise even further. 

“The soaring federal deficit requires even more buyers of bonds, and some government bond sales may make it more difficult to issue MBS securities, unless with higher interest rates.” 

The Fed, however, appears resolute in its path. The cost of doing nothing on the MBS front is too high.

“All participants agreed that elevated inflation and tight labor market conditions warranted commencement of balance sheet runoff at a coming meeting,” the FOMC March meeting notes state. “Participants generally agreed that monthly caps of … about $35 billion for agency MBS would likely be appropriate. Participants also generally agreed that the caps could be phased in over a period of three months or modestly longer if market conditions warrant.”

When new MBS runoff-replacement contraction program will begin is not clear at this point. The FOMC’s next meeting is in early May.

The ultimate impact on the origination and private label securities markets, and the broader housing market, of losing some $35 billion in monthly agency MBS buying power could be offset if other investors step up to the plate to fill the void. 

Some industry experts, however, expect the Fed’s move to significantly decrease its reinvestment in agency MBS will likely create more short-term disruption in the nation’s housing market. It’s a market already under siege from a hawkish Fed policy that has sparked a sharp rise in interest rates, up 1.5 percentage points over the past three months — with the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate now over the 5% threshold, according to recent rate lock figures from Black Knight‘s Optimal Blue OBMMI.

“As the Fed pursues quantitative tightening (the steady undoing of quantitative easing), more private bond investors have to step up to buy MBS securities of GSE and private labels, Yung said. “The soaring federal deficit requires even more buyers of bonds, and some government bond sales may make it more difficult to issue MBS securities, unless with higher interest rates. 

“All in all, the impact is likely to be the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage reaching 5.2 to 5.5% by the end of the year. Some homebuyers may get slight relief in taking the 5-year ARM at around 100 basis points below the 30-year rate.”

Mortgage-data analytics firm Recursion recently published an assessment of the major agency MBS investment sectors that might step in to replace the central bank’s purchasing power. One of those sectors is the agency MBS issuers themselves — the GSEs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

Each agency has a $225 billion regulatory cap on the size of its asset portfolio, however, which includes mortgage loans and MBS holdings. 

As of January 2022, Fannie’s asset portfolio stood at $108.5 billion and Freddie’s at $102 billion, according to a report from the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center. The GSEs’ combined share of total MBS purchases has declined from 11.2% in 2009 to 1.9% today, according to Recursion, with little room to expand under the current caps.

“This occurred under the auspices of the terms of conservatorship and subsequent amendments to the Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements (PSPAs) that govern the financial aspects of their relationship with Treasury and FHFA [the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees the GSEs],” Recursion notes in its report, posted as a blog on its website. “It is possible that the caps will rise temporarily … but there is virtually no chance that this will account for more than a tiny amount of the upcoming decline in Fed [MBS] holdings in this administration.” 

An April 2021 Congressional Research Service report notes: “The current … cap on the GSEs’ asset portfolios (resulting from the PSPAs) may limit their ability to buy and sell MBSs at the volumes necessary to influence market pricing.”

Recursion also is skeptical about the prospects for the other major investment sectors to step in and fill the gap being opened by the Fed’s plan to withdraw further from the agency MBS market. Those investor sectors, according to Recursion, and their estimated share of overall agency MBS purchases as of the end of last year are as follows: commercial banks, roughly 34%; money market and pension funds, 5% to 6%; and foreign investors, 11% to 12.5%. 

Making up the balance of the agency MBS purchaser sector are Life insurance companies, real estate investment trusts, credit unions, broker/dealers, state and local governments, households and nonprofits, Recursion notes.

“The most important private market segment of agency MBS holdings is commercial banks,” the Recursion report states. “This is the only segment whose share in Q4 2021 was bigger than the Fed’s.”

Still, the banks tend to mirror Fed patterns in their MBS purchasing activity, Recursion notes, therefore “the outlook for bank activity in the new monetary policy regime of a shrinking Fed balance sheet is highly uncertain.” 

“Looking across these major asset classes, the most likely purchasers of MBS are real money investors [money market and pension funds], but it is far from certain that they will make up for falling holdings on the part of the Fed and commercial banks,” the Recursion report continues. “[However], there is little reason for ‘real money’ investors such as these to catch a falling knife while the new policy regime unfolds.

“…Investors and analysts cannot simply assume that the handoff from the central bank to private investors will be smooth.”

So, we are left with some glimmer of hope of a market adjustment, but mainly we again find uncertainty. Still, there are some market observers who see a potential upside to the shrinking Fed agency MBS balance sheet that will come from outside the agency MBS market. Michael Bright, CEO of the Structured Finance Association, said the winding down of the Fed’s MBS portfolio will result in higher rates across all sectors of the industry, including the private label market.

“But on a relative basis, the economics are still favoring some pickup in PLS versus agency execution,” he added. “This dynamic will continue to be driven by product decisions and loan-level pricing adjustments from the FHFA and the GSEs [that it oversees], which have been favorable to PLS execution lately.”

Some evidence of the accuracy of Bright’s assessment can be found in the bevy of recent PLS deals secured by agency-eligible investment property mortgages. A total of 22 securitization transactions backed by investment properties valued in total at $10.1 billion have found their way into the PLS channel so far this year, and at least 14 of those deals have been secured, in part or in whole, by agency-eligible mortgages on investment properties — with five of those deals scheduled to close this month. 

Those numbers, based on deals tracked by Kroll Bond Rating Agency, do seem to support Bright’s contention that the PLS market does offer favorable pricing versus the agency MBS pipeline — at least for securitizations involving investment properties.

“We are starting to see some indication of a resurgence in investor-loan issuance backed by agency-eligible loans,” states a recent report from digital-mortgage exchange and loan aggregator MAXEX. “Many of these transactions continue to have some seasoning with newer originations starting to show up as liquidity away from the agencies for certain loans with specific criteria.

“We have also seen an increase in the number of second-home loans being traded through the exchange to avoid the LLPA increase instituted by the FHFA for second-home and high-balance loans delivered to the agencies after April 1. We’ll continue to watch this trend as it develops.”

Goodman added that there also exist other investment channels that are now off the radar of the MBS market, but which could yet come into play as market dynamics shift. In that sense, uncertainty doesn’t always turn out long-term to be a negative, especially in a resilient market.

“You also always have portfolio managers that can shift from corporates into mortgages,” Goodman said. “They could sell their corporate bonds and buy mortgage-backed securities if that made sense. 

“So, you have money out there that can come in that is not necessarily in the [MBS] sector now. … We just need some stability in the market and then people will have to reevaluate where yields are on different asset classes and sort of redo their ideas of relative value.”

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