June 21, 2016
WalletHub conducted its 2016 survey of American knowledge and opinions of credit scores and interviewed me about their findings:
What is your reaction to one-third of survey respondents believing that anyone can access their credit score/report, as if it is public information?
Given the complexity of the consumer finance industry, it is not surprising that many consumers operate in a fog of ignorance and misunderstanding about their rights and how the industry operates. Some people may be aware that many businesses can access their credit report and that many businesses contribute to their credit report, both without the clear consent of the consumer. This all leads to a sense that their financial profile is out of the consumer’s hands. And while that is not technically correct, there is a lot of truth to it. Decisions are being made about you — what interest rate will be offered to you, whether you will receive a loan, will a bank open a checking account that you applied for — and you only have a partial sense of the criteria upon which they are being made.
Why do you think 49% of people would not marry someone with bad credit?
People understand that bad credit can have a big impact on life choices — can we buy a house or a car? That can influence decisions about the suitability of a spouse as much as other financial concerns, like the job the potential spouse has. Credit scores are also being used for decisions other than whether to extend credit to someone — for instance, by landlords deciding whether to rent an apartment. These expansive uses of credit scores foster a sense that credit scores act as a broader judgment of the potential spouse, like a gauge of moral worth.
Why is money our leading societal stressor?
We live in a society that has become more divided between haves and have-nots over the last few generations. The gap shows up in the big difference between the number of people at the top (a small percentage) and the bottom (a large percentage) of the distribution of income and wealth. It also shows up in the difference in the amount of money that puts you at the top and bottom — the rich have gotten richer and the poor still have very little in terms of wealth and income. Money gets seen as being able to determine destiny and thus it stresses people out, particularly because the American safety net is not as tightly woven as those of other developed countries.
Why do you think people would prefer to be overweight, to have bad eyesight and to be going bald than to have bad credit?
Henry Kissinger has said that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac and Marilyn Monroe (in “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”) has sung that “A kiss may be grand/But it won’t pay the rental.” Money is power, and in the age of Matthew Diamond’s “Evicted,” being able to pay the rental is a pretty attractive quality.
June 20, 2016
The Consumer Federation of America and VantageScore Solutions, LLC, released the findings from their sixth annual credit score survey. Their findings are mixed, showing that many consumers have a basic understanding of how a credit score operates, but that many consumers are missing out on a lot of how they work. They find that
a large majority of consumers (over 80%) know the basic facts about credit scores:
- Credit scores are used by mortgage lenders (88%) and credit card issuers (87%).
- Key factors used to calculate credit scores are missed payments (91%), personal bankruptcy (86%), and high credit card balances (85%).
- Ethnic origin is not used to calculate these scores (believed by only 12%).
- 700 is a good credit score (81%).
Yet, the national survey also revealed that many consumers do not understand credit score details with important cost implications:
- Most seriously, consumers greatly underestimate the cost of low credit scores. Only 22 percent know that a low score, compared to a high score, typically increases the cost of a $20,000, 60-month auto loan by more than $5,000.
- A significant minority do not know that credit scores are used by non-creditors. Only about half (53%) know that electric utilities may use credit scores (for example, in determining the initial required deposit), while only about two-thirds know that these scores may be used by home insurers (66%), cell phone companies (68%), and landlords (70%).
- Over two-fifths think that marital status (42%) and age (42%) are used in the calculation of credit scores. While these factors may influence the use of credit, how credit is used determines credit scores.
- Only about half of consumers (51%) know when lenders are required to inform borrowers of their use of credit scores – after a mortgage application, when a consumer does not receive the best terms on a consumer loan, and whenever a consumer is turned down for a loan.
Overall, I guess this is good news although it also seems consistent with what we know about financial literacy — people are still lacking when it comes to understanding how consumer finance works. That being said, it would be great if we could come up with strategies to improve financial literacy so that people can improve their financial decision-making. I am not yet hopeful, though, that we can.
June 17, 2016
The Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley has issued a research brief, Housing Production, Filtering and Displacement: Untangling the Relationships. It opens,
Debate over the relative importance of subsidized and market-rate housing production in alleviating the current housing crisis continues to preoccupy policymakers, developers, and advocates. This research brief adds to the discussion by providing a nuanced analysis of the relationship between housing production, affordability, and displacement in the San Francisco Bay Area, finding that:
• At the regional level, both market-rate and subsidized housing reduce displacement pressures, but subsidized housing has over double the impact of market-rate units.
• Market-rate production is associated with higher housing cost burden for low-income households, but lower median rents in subsequent decades.
• At the local, block group level in San Francisco, neither market-rate nor subsidized housing production has the protective power they do at the regional scale, likely due to the extreme mismatch between demand and supply.
Although more detailed analysis is needed to clarify the complex relationship between development, affordability, and displacement at the local scale, this research implies the importance of not only increasing production of subsidized and market-rate housing in California’s coastal communities, but also investing in the preservation of housing affordability and stabilizing vulnerable communities. (1)
This brief takes on an important subject — the relationship between new housing and displacement — and concludes,
There is no denying the desperate need for housing in California’s coastal communities and similar housing markets around the U.S. Yet, while places like the Bay Area are suffering from ballooning housing prices that are affecting people at all income levels, the development of market-rate housing may not be the most effective tool to prevent the displacement of low-income residents from their neighborhoods, nor to increase affordability at the neighborhood scale.
Through our analysis, we found that both market-rate and subsidized housing development can reduce displacement pressures, but subsidized housing is twice as effective as market-rate development at the regional level. It is unclear, however, if subsidized housing production can have a protective effect on the neighborhood even for those not fortunate enough to live in the subsidized units themselves.
By looking at data from the region and drilling down to local case studies, we also see that the housing market dynamics and their impact on displacement operate differently at these different scales. Further research and more detailed data would be needed to better understand the mechanisms via which housing production affects neighborhood affordability and displacement pressures. We know that other neighborhood amenities such as parks, schools, and transit have a significant impact on housing demand and neighborhood change and it will take additional research to better untangle the various processes at the local level.
In overheated markets like San Francisco, addressing the displacement crisis will require aggressive preservation strategies in addition to the development of subsidized and market-rate housing, as building alone won’t protect specific vulnerable neighborhoods and households. This does not mean that we should not continue and even accelerate building. However, to help stabilize existing communities we need to look beyond housing development alone to strategies that protect tenants and help them stay in their homes. (10-11, footnote omitted)
The brief struggles with a paradox of housing — how come rents keep going up in neighborhoods with lots of new construction? The answer appears to be that the broad regional demand for housing in a market like the Bay Area or New York City overwhelms the local increase in housing supply. The new housing, then, just acts like a signal of gentrification in the neighborhoods in which it is located.
If I were to criticize this brief, I would say that it muddies the waters a bit as to what we need in hot markets like SF and NYC: first and foremost, far more housing units. In the absence of a major increase in supply, there will be intense market pressure to increase rents or convert units to condominiums. Local governments will have a really hard time overcoming that pressure and may just watch as area median income rises along with rents. New housing may not resolve the problem of large-scale displacement, but it will be hard to address displacement without it. Preservation policies should be pursued as well, but the only long-term solution is a lot more housing.
I would also say that the brief elides over the cost of building subsidized housing when it argues that subsidized housing has twice the impact of market-rate units on displacement. The question remains — at what cost? Subsidized housing is extremely expensive, often costing six figures per unit for new housing construction. The brief does not tackle the question of how many government dollars are needed to stop the displacement of one low-income household.
My bottom line: this brief begins to untangle the relationship between housing production and displacement, but there is more work to be done on this topic.
June 16, 2016
Realtor.com quoted me in What Is Fannie Mae? And Freddie Mac, for That Matter? It opens,
Whether you are shopping for a mortgage or just occasionally read financial news stories, you’ve probably heard of Fannie Mae. But what is Fannie Mae, anyway? And for that matter, what about her buddy Freddie Mac? While they may sound like a Nashville singer and standup comic, respectively, they aren’t actual people. Rather, they’re oddly cute nicknames for major forces in the mortgage market.
Fannie Mae stands for the Federal National Mortgage Association, or FNMA (FNMA becomes Fannie Mae, get it?). Fannie’s brother organization is Freddie Mac, aka the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, or FHLMC. In a nutshell, these two government-sponsored enterprises—hybrids of government agencies and private corporations—help thousands of Americans get loans for homes, so it pays to familiarize yourself with what they do in more detail.
How Fannie and Freddie help homeowners
Fannie Mae was born in 1938, during the height of the Great Depression, when about 25% of Americans were defaulting on their mortgages. As part of the New Deal, the federal government created Fannie (followed by Freddie in 1970) to stimulate the housing market by making mortgages more accessible to lower-income borrowers who might not qualify otherwise. So how do they do that, exactly?
For starters, Fannie and Freddie don’t actually make loans—which is why you may have only heard about them in vague terms, since you wouldn’t approach them directly for a mortgage. Instead, these organizations purchase other lenders’ loans on the secondary market, package them (into mortgage-backed securities), and sell them to investors such as hedge funds.
By buying up banks’ loans, Fannie and Freddie essentially flood those companies with cash, which they can then turn around and lend to more home buyers. This, in turn, helps more buyers get homes who might not qualify otherwise.
“They are the behemoths of the housing finance sector, owning or guaranteeing nearly half of all the residential mortgages in the United States,” says David Reiss, professor of law and academic program director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.
June 15, 2016
The Deseret News quoted me in Why The Young and Old Are Embracing The Rewards of Downsizing. It reads, in part,
Not very long ago, living with less implied money problems or a lack of professional success.
No longer. From younger and middle-aged professionals to retirees, more people are embracing the rewards of “downsizing” — a term that can mean anything from ridding yourself of unnecessary possessions to opting for a less spacious home.
“Downsizing your home can make sense,” said artist and designer Pablo Solomon. “You can save on energy costs, insurance, taxes and upkeep.”
But don’t cart stuff out to the dumpster or plant the “for sale” sign in the front yard just yet. First, consider the varied ways that downsizing can streamline your life.
Home, sweet (downsized) home
One of the most ready targets for would-be downsizers is their home. Perhaps they’ve recently retired and want to retire extensive upkeep responsibilities as well. By contrast, younger people might embrace the greater simplicity that can come from a home that better matches their lifestyle.
But downsizing is not the remedy for other issues, Solomon said, that need a different — and sometimes less costly — approach: “Don’t downsize to be part of a trend or fad or to escape depression or make a ‘statement,’” he said.
Approach downsizing your home as you would any sort of housing decision. Consider space, amenities and any associated costs — only from a particularly budget-conscious perspective.
“Think about the long-term needs you will have for the next 20 to 30 years. Don’t select a place to live temporarily — the costs of moving are high and the cost of buying and selling homes is also high,” said Linda P. Jones, host of the “Be Wealthy & Smart” podcast. “Think before you make a decision and be sure about the move you are making so you won’t have to do it again.”
Another way to approach downsizing a home is what Jodi Holzband of the self-storage search website Sparefoot referred to as “rightsizing” — beginning with basic living requirements and, from there, thoughtfully adding on those features that are of genuine importance.
“Focus first on your needs — essential living items like your bed, clothing and toiletries,” she said. “Then focus on what you love or value — the touchstones of life such as pictures, memorabilia from home, vacation souvenirs, high school pennants and varsity jackets. Look to the space you have and limit what you take in this second category based on space.”
Lastly, don’t ignore possible tax consequences of moving into a smaller space. For instance, retirees who have owned a home for a long time may have acccumulated a great deal of equity. As David Reiss, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, noted, capital gains that exceed a certain amount (generally, $250,000 for one person, $500,000 for a married couple) are taxable. Check with a tax professional to gauge your situation.
June 13, 2016
The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center issued its May 2016 Housing Finance at a Glance Chartbook. This monthly report is invaluable for those of us who follow the mortgage market closely. The mortgage market changes so quickly and so much that what one thinks is the case is often no longer the case a few months later. This month’s report has new features, including Housing Credit Availability Index and first-time homebuyer share charts. Here are some of the key findings of the May report:
- The Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds report has consistently indicated an increasing total value of the housing market driven by growing household equity in each quarter of the past 2 years, and the trend continued according to the latest data, covering Q4 2015. Total debt and mortgages increased slightly to $9.99 trillion, while household equity increased to $13.19 trillion, bringing the total value of the housing market to $23.18 trillion. Agency MBS make up 58.2 percent of the total mortgage market, private-label securities make up 6.1 percent, and unsecuritized first liens at the GSEs, commercial banks, savings institutions, and credit unions make up 29.4 percent. Second liens comprise the remaining 6.4 percent of the total. (6)
It is worth wrapping your head around the size of this market. Total American wealth is about $88 trillion, so household equity of $13 trillion is about 15 percent of the total. With debt and mortgages at $10 trillion, the aggregate debt-to-equity ratio is nearly 45%.
- As of March 2016, debt in the private-label securitization market totaled $613 billion and was split among prime (19.5 percent), Alt-A (42.2 percent), and subprime (38.3 percent) loans. (7)
This private-label securitization total is a pale shadow of the height of the market in 2007, back to the levels seen in 1999-2000. It is unclear when and how this market will recover — and the extent to which it should recover, given its past excesses
- First lien originations in 2015 totaled approximately $1,735 billion. The share of portfolio originations was 30 percent, while the GSE share dropped to 46 percent from 47 in 2014, reflecting a small loss of market share to FHA due to the FHA premium cut. FHA/VA originations account for another 23 percent, and the private label originations account for 0.7 percent. (8)
The federal government, through Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae, is insuring 69 percent of originations. Hard for me to think this is good for the mortgage market in the long term. There is no reason that the private sector could not take on a bigger share of the market in a responsible way.
- Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) accounted for as much as 27 percent of all new originations during the peak of the recent housing bubble in 2004 (top chart). They fell to a historic low of 1 percent in 2009, and then slowly grew to a high of 7.2 percent in May 2014. (9)
It is pretty extraordinary to see the extent to which ARMs change in popularity over time, although it makes a lot of sense. When interest rates are high and prices are high, more people prefer ARMs and when they are low they prefer FRMs.
- Access to credit has become extremely tight, especially for borrowers with low FICO scores. The mean and median FICO scores on new originations have both drifted up about 40 and 42 points over the last decade. The 10th percentile of FICO scores, which represents the lower bound of creditworthiness needed to qualify for a mortgage, stood at 666 as of February 2016. Prior to the housing crisis, this threshold held steady in the low 600s. LTV levels at origination remain relatively high, averaging 85, which reflects the large number of FHA purchase originations. (14)
It is hard to pinpoint the right level of credit availability, particularly with reports of 1% down payment mortgage programs making the news recently. But it does seem like credit can be loosened some more without veering into bubble territory.
Hard to keep up with all of the changes in the mortgage market, but this chartbook sure does help.