Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

October 15, 2013

Mortgage Reform Schooling on 30 Year Term

By David Reiss

S&P has posted U.S. Mortgage Finance Reform Efforts and the Potential Credit Implications to school us on the current state of affairs in Congress. It provides a useful lesson on three major mortgage reform bills introduced in Congress this year.  They are the Housing Finance Reform and Taxpayer Protection Act of 2013 (Corker-Warner); Protecting American Taxpayers and Homeowners ACT of 2013 (PATH); and the FHA Solvency Act.

Given the current mood in D.C., S&P somewhat optimistically states that there “seems to be a bipartisan commitment to encourage private capital support for the U.S. housing market while winding down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) that hold dominant positions in the mortgage market.” (1) S&P uses this report as an opportunity to “comment on the potential credit implications of these mortgage finance reform efforts on several market sectors.” (1)

In this post, I focus on, and criticize, S&P’s analysis of the appropriate role of the 30 year fixed-rate mortgage. S&P states that

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage has contributed significantly to housing affordability in the U.S. And while some market players have looked at current rates on jumbo mortgages (those that exceed conforming-loan limits) and suggested that the private market could support mortgage interest rates below 5%, we think this view is distorted. Jumbo mortgage rates carrying the lowest interest rates, for the most part, are limited to a narrow set of borrowers who have FICO credit scores above 750 and equity of roughly 30% in their homes. We don’t believe that these same rates would be available to average prime borrowers, such as those with credit scores of 725 and 25% equity in a property. (3)

While I think that S&P is probably right about the limited usefulness of comparing current jumbo loans to a broad swath of conforming loans, I see no support in their analysis for the assertion that the “30-year fixed-rate mortgage has contributed significantly to housing affordability in the U.S.” First, a 30-year FRM typically carries a higher interest rate than an ARM of any length. Second, a typical American household only stays in a home for about seven years. Thus, a 30-year FRM provides an expensive insurance policy against increases in interest rates that most Americans do not end up needing.

While we may end up providing governmental support for the 30-year FRM because of its longstanding popularity, S&P’s mortgage reform school should be based on facts, not fancy.

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