Understanding The Ability To Repay Rule

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The Spring 2017 edition of the Consumer Financial Bureau’s Supervisory Highlights contains “Observations and approach to compliance with the Ability to Repay (ATR) rule requirements. The ability to repay rule is intended to keep lenders from making and borrowers from taking on unsustainable mortgages, mortgages with payments that borrowers cannot reliably make.  By way of background,

Prior to the mortgage crisis, some creditors offered consumers mortgages without considering the consumer’s ability to repay the loan, at times engaging in the loose underwriting practice of failing to verify the consumer’s debts or income. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act) amended the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) to provide that no creditor may make a residential mortgage loan unless the creditor makes a reasonable and good faith determination based on verified and documented information that, at the time the loan is consummated, the consumer has a reasonable ability to repay the loan according to its terms, as well as all applicable taxes, insurance (including mortgage guarantee insurance), and assessments. The Dodd-Frank Act also amended TILA by creating a presumption of compliance with these ability-to-repay (ATR) requirements for creditors originating a specific category of loans called “qualified mortgage” (QM) loans. (3-4, footnotes omitted)

Fundamentally, the Bureau seeks to determine “whether a creditor’s ATR determination is reasonable and in good faith by reviewing relevant lending policies and procedures and a sample of loan files and assessing the facts and circumstances of each extension of credit in the sample.” (4)

The ability to repay analysis does not focus solely on income, it also looks at assets that are available to repay the mortgage:

a creditor may base its determination of ability to repay on current or reasonably expected income from employment or other sources, assets other than the dwelling (and any attached real property) that secures the covered transaction, or both. The income and/or assets relied upon must be verified. In situations where a creditor makes an ATR determination that relies on assets and not income, CFPB examiners would evaluate whether the creditor reasonably and in good faith determined that the consumer’s verified assets suffice to establish the consumer’s ability to repay the loan according to its terms, in light of the creditor’s consideration of other required ATR factors, including: the consumer’s mortgage payment(s) on the covered transaction, monthly payments on any simultaneous loan that the creditor knows or has reason to know will be made, monthly mortgage-related obligations, other monthly debt obligations, alimony and child support, monthly DTI ratio or residual income, and credit history. In considering these factors, a creditor relying on assets and not income could, for example, assume income is zero and properly determine that no income is necessary to make a reasonable determination of the consumer’s ability to repay the loan in light of the consumer’s verified assets. (6-7)

That being said, the Bureau reiterates that “a down payment cannot be treated as an asset for purposes of considering the consumer’s income or assets under the ATR rule.” (7)

The ability to repay rule protects lenders and borrowers from themselves. While some argue that this is paternalistic, we do not need to go much farther back than the early 2000s to find an era where so-called “equity-based” lending pushed many people on fixed incomes into default and foreclosure.

Running The CFPB out of Town

photo by Gabriel Villena Fernández

My latest column for The Hill is America’s Consumer Financial Sheriff and The Horse it Rides Are under Fire. It reads,

Notwithstanding its name, the Financial Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs Act, or Financial Choice Act, will be terrible for consumers. It will gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and return us to the Wild West days of the early 2000s where predatory lenders could prey on the elderly and the uneducated, knowing that there was no sheriff in town to stop ‘em.

The subprime boom of the early 2000s has receded in memory the past 15 years, but a recent Supreme Court decision reminds us of what that kind of predatory behavior could look like. In Bank of America Corp. v. Miami this year, the court ruled that a municipality could sue financial institutions for violations of the Fair Housing Act arising from predatory lending.

Miami alleged that the banks’ predatory lending led to a disproportionate increase in foreclosures and vacancies which decreased property tax revenues and increased the demand for municipal services. Miami alleged that those “‘predatory’ practices included, among others, excessively high interest rates, unjustified fees, teaser low-rate loans that overstated refinancing opportunities, large prepayment penalties, and — when default loomed — unjustified refusals to refinance or modify the loans.”

The Dodd-Frank Act was intended to address just those types of abusive practices. Dodd-Frank barred many of them from much of the mortgage market through its qualified mortgage and ability-to-repay rules. More importantly, Dodd-Frank created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB was designed to be an independent regulator with broad authority to police financial institutions that engaged in all sorts of consumer credit transactions. The CFPB was the new sheriff in town. And like Wyatt Earp, it has been very effective at driving the bad guys out of Dodge.

The Financial Choice Act would bring the abusive practices of the subprime boom back to life. The act would gut the CFPB. Among other things, it would make the Director removable at will, unlike other financial institution regulators. It would take away the CFPB’s supervisory function of large banks, credit unions and other consumer finance institutions. It would take away the CFPB’s power to address unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices. It would restrict the CFPB from monitoring the mortgage market and thereby responding to rapidly developing abusive practices.

The impacts on consumers will be immediate and harmful. The bad guys will know that the sheriff has been undercut by its masters, its guns loaded with blanks. The bad guys will re-enter the credit market with the sorts of products that brought about the subprime crisis: teaser rates that quickly morph into unaffordable payments, high costs and fees packed into credit products, and all sorts of terms that will result in exorbitant and unsustainable credit.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is the chief proponent of the Financial Choice Act. Hensarling claims that Dodd-Frank and the CFPB place massive burdens on consumer credit providers. That is not the case. Interest rates remain near all-time lows. Consumer credit markets have many providers. Credit availability has eased up significantly since the financial crisis

One only needs to look at his top donors to see how the Financial Choice Act lines up with the interests of those consumer credit companies that are paying for his re-election campaign. These top donors include people affiliated to Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Capital One Financial, Discover Financial Services, and the American Bankers Association, among many others.

Dodd-Frank implemented regulations that work very well in the consumer credit markets. It created a regulator, the CFPB, that has been very effective at keeping the bad guys out of those markets. The Financial Choice Act will seriously weaken the CFPB. When vulnerable consumers cry out for help, Hensarling would heave the CFPB over its saddle and let its horse slowly trot it out of town.

Banks v. Cities

The Supreme Court issued a decision in Bank of America Corp. v. Miami, 581 U.S. __ (2017). The decision was a mixed result for the parties.  On the one hand, the Court ruled that a municipality could sue financial institutions for violations of the Fair Housing Act arising from predatory lending. Miami alleged that the banks’ predatory lending led to a disproportionate increase in foreclosures and vacancies which decreased property tax revenues and increased the demand for municipal services. On the other hand, the Court held that Miami had not shown that the banks’ actions were directly related to injuries asserted by Miami. As a result, the Court remanded the case to the Eleventh Circuit to determine whether that in fact was the case. This case could have big consequences for how lenders and others and other big players in the housing industry develop their business plans.

For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the banks’ activities of the banks that Miami alleged they engaged in during the early 2000s. It is important to remember the kinds of problems that communities faced before the financial crisis and before the Dodd-Frank Act authorized the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. As President Trump and Chairman Hensarling (R-TX) of the House Financial Services Committee continue their assault on consumer protection regulation, we should understand the Wild West environment that preceded our current regulatory environment. Miami’s complaints charge that

the Banks discriminatorily imposed more onerous, and indeed “predatory,” conditions on loans made to minority borrowers than to similarly situated nonminority borrowers. Those “predatory” practices included, among others, excessively high interest rates, unjustified fees, teaser low-rate loans that overstated refinancing opportunities, large prepayment penalties, and—when default loomed—unjustified refusals to refinance or modify the loans. Due to the discriminatory nature of the Banks’ practices, default and foreclosure rates among minority borrowers were higher than among otherwise similar white borrowers and were concentrated in minority neighborhoods. Higher foreclosure rates lowered property values and diminished property-tax revenue. Higher foreclosure rates—especially when accompanied by vacancies—also increased demand for municipal services, such as police, fire, and building and code enforcement services, all needed “to remedy blight and unsafe and dangerous conditions” that the foreclosures and vacancies generate. The complaints describe statistical analyses that trace the City’s financial losses to the Banks’ discriminatory practices. (3-4, citations omitted)

Excessively high interest rates, unjustified fees, teaser interest rates and large prepayment penalties were all hallmarks of the subprime mortgage market in the early 2000s. The Supreme Court has ruled that such activities may arise to violations of the Fair Housing Act when they are targeted at minority communities.

Dodd-Frank has barred many such loan terms from a large swath of the mortgage market through its Qualified Mortgage and Ability-to-Repay rules. Trump and Hensarling want to bring those loan terms back to the mortgage market in the name of lifting regulatory burdens from financial institutions.

What’s worse, the  burden of regulation on the banks or the burden of predatory lending on the borrowers? I’d go with the latter.

Minority Homeownership During the Great Recession

photo by Daniel X. O'Neil

Print by Andy Kane

Carlos Garriga et al. have posted The Homeownership Experience of Minorities During the Great Recession to SSRN. The paper concludes,

The Great Recession wiped out much of the homeownership gains attained during the housing boom. However, the homeownership experience was very different across racial and ethnic groups. Black and Hispanic borrowers experienced substantial repayment difficulties that ultimately led to a greater share of homes in foreclosure.

Given that home equity often represents a substantial share of household wealth, these foreclosure events severely damaged the balance sheets of minority families. The dynamics of delinquency and foreclosure functioned differently across the income distribution within racial and ethnic groups.

For the majority, higher income was associated with lower delinquency rates and fewer foreclosures as a group. However, for Hispanic families this relationship was surprisingly reversed. Hispanics with the highest incomes fared worse than those with the lowest incomes. This counterintuitive finding suggests how college-educated Hispanic families may have had worse wealth outcomes than their non-college-educated peers: Hispanic families with high income (potentially the result of high educational attainment) had a greater share of home equity lost in foreclosure than lower-income Hispanic families.

Logit regressions suggest that underwriting standards and loan structure explain a significant amount of the greater likelihood of foreclosure among Black and Hispanic borrowers. However, underwriting standards explained more of the gap for Black borrowers, while loan structure was a stronger factor among Hispanic borrowers. Regional concentration and variation in housing markets explained more of the Hispanic-White foreclosure gap than any other group. This is understandable given that Hispanic borrowers in our sample were heavily concentrated in housing markets that experienced some of the largest volatility. Despite accounting for these important factors, sizable gaps remain in foreclosures among Blacks and Hispanics relative to Whites. Incorporating measures of labor market outcomes into the analysis may offer further insights.

In sum, the homeownership experience during the Great Recession proved to be inimical for many families, but far more so for Black and Hispanic families. For these families, financially destructive foreclosure events delayed and potentially derailed the dream of homeownership. (164-65)

I am not sure what this all means for housing finance policy other than the obvious: consumer protection in the mortgage market is a good thing as it ensures that underwriting standards evaluate ability-to-repay and loan structures exclude abusive terms like teaser rates (thanks to the ATR and QM rules and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). There are probably other policies that we should consider to reduce the depths of our busts, but they do not seem likely to gain traction in the current political environment.

Mortgages from the Shadows

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Realtor.com quoted me in ‘Shadow Banks’ Are on the Rise for Home Loans: Should We Be Afraid? It opens,

Where do home buyers go for a mortgage? To a bank, of course—or at least that’s what many might think. Yet a new force has taken over home financing, called “shadow banks.” So what are these non-banks exactly, and should we run for the hills?

In a nutshell, these are the less conventional places that don’t provide savings accounts, only loans to buy homes. They include companies like Quicken Loans, which is one of the nation’s largest mortgage providers, Caliber, and loanDepot.com.

But they can also be companies run by wealthy individuals using their personal fortunes to finance loans and then pocketing monthly interest payments, according to the Wall Street Journal. Or they could be funded by private equity, which is financed by pooled investor cash.

And, as a group, they’re no longer operating on the fringes of the housing industry. Instead, shadow banks “have overtaken U.S. commercial banks, to grab a record slice” of the market,” according to a recent housing report by ATTOM Data Solutions.

This group of nontraditional lenders now accounts for 48.3% of mortgages in 2016—compared to just 23.4% in 2008, according to the ATTOM report.

“The big banks got burned by the financial crisis, so they’ve become much more hesitant to make loans that are even close to being risky,” says Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at ATTOM.

These mortgage makers are very appealing to buyers without a 20%—or even 10%—down payment and therefore have trouble getting a loan from a regular old bank, says Blomquist. This might make sense for first-time buyers, or folks who have gone through a foreclosure.

But are they right for everyone? And, more to the point: Are they harbingers of the risky loaning behavior that help bring on the U.S. housing collapse?

Could shadow banks lead to another housing crisis?

As a group, these lenders are not subject to the same level of governmental scrutiny, regulations, and fees that drove many traditional financial institutions, like banks, out of the space after the housing bust. But they still come under a significant amount of federal oversight.

In short, regular banks retreated, so shadow banks moved in. What’s wrong with that?

As market media site Seeking Alpha has pointed out, shadow banks are “some of the same characters that played leading roles [in the last housing crisis].”

Not all experts believe we should be overly worried.

“While it’s true that so-called shadow banks played roles in the last housing crisis … the market itself is very different,” says David Reiss, a professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School and editor of REFinBlog.com.

For one, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed in 2010 in response to the housing meltdown of 2008, changed how all lenders—banks, shadow banks, and otherwise—make loans, to better ensure there isn’t another housing bust.

Another big difference: Lenders are now documenting the income of borrowers to make sure these new homeowners can afford to make their monthly payments.

“There’s no evidence out there that non-banks are lending in any sort of imprudent way and/or hurting consumers,” Guy Cecala, publisher and CEO of Inside Mortgage Finance, tells realtor.com®. “In fact, most non-banks are more competitive than banks when it comes to mortgage interest rates and fees.”

“But they don’t have the same level of capital [such as cash], assets, or liquidity as banks do,” he says.

What to consider before getting a shadow bank loan

Borrowers should just take care to tread carefully and examine the terms and conditions of the financing before signing on the dotted line, says Mark Greene, a longtime mortgage lender based in Hackensack, NJ.

He recommends looking for red flags like adjustable rate change terms, prepayment penalties, and other hidden fees.

Good ol’ common sense will come in handy too.

“If your loan is coming from a fishy-sounding company like Two Brothers Fly-by-Night Hard Money-Lenders, Inc., you may want to dig a bit deeper, to figure out what kind of lender it really is,” says law professor Reiss.

REFinBlog has been nominated for the second year in a row for The Expert Institute’s Best Legal Blog Competition in the Education Category. Please vote here if you like what you read.

Subprime v. Non-Prime

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The Kroll Bond Rating Agency has issued an RMBS Research report, Credit Evolution: Non-Prime Isn’t Yesterday’s Subprime. It opens,

Following the private label RMBS market’s peak in 2007 and the ensuing credit crisis, non-agency securitizations of newly originated collateral have focused almost exclusively on prime jumbo loans. This is not surprising given the poor performance of loosely underwritten residential mortgage loans that characterized certain vintages leading up to the crisis. While legacy prime, in absolute terms, performed better than Alt-A and subprime collateral, it was apparent that origination practices had a significant impact on subsequent loan performance across product types.

Many consumers were caught in the ensuing waves of defaults, which marred their borrowing records in a manner that has either barred them from accessing housing credit, or at best made it extremely challenging to obtain a home loan. Others that managed to meet their obligations have been unable to qualify for new loans in the post-crisis era due to tighter credit standards that have been influenced by regulation.

The private label securitization market has not met the needs of these consumers for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to, reputational concerns in the aftermath of the crisis, regulatory costs, investor appetite, and the time needed for borrowers to repair their credit. The tide appears to be turning quickly, however, and Kroll Bond Rating Agency (KBRA) has observed the re-emergence of more than a dozen non-prime mortgage origination programs that intend to use securitization as a funding source. Of these, KBRA is aware of at least four securitization sponsors that have accessed the PLS market across nine issuances, two of which include rated offerings.

Thus far, KBRA has observed that today’s non-prime programs are not a simple rebranding of pre-crisis subprime origination, nor do they signal a return to the documentation excesses associated with “liar loans”. While the asset class is meant to serve those with less pristine credit, and can even have characteristics reminiscent of legacy Alt-A, it is expansive, and underwriting practices have been heavily influenced by today’s consumer-focused regulatory environment and government-sponsored entity (GSE) origination guidelines. In evaluating these new non-prime programs, KBRA believes market participants should consider the following factors:

■ Loans originated under sound compliance with Ability-To-Repay (ATR) rules should outperform 2005-2007 vintage loans with similar credit parameters, including LTV and borrower FICO scores. The ATR rules have resulted in strengthened underwriting, which should bode well for originations across the MBS space. This is particularly true of non-prime loans, where differences in origination practices can have a greater influence on future loan performance.

■ Loans that fail to adhere to GSE guidelines regarding the seasoning of credit dispositions (e.g. bankruptcy, foreclosure, etc.) on a borrower’s credit history should be viewed as having increased credit risk relative to those with similar credit profiles that lack recent disposition activity. This relationship likely depends on, among other things, equity position, current FICO score, and the likelihood that any life events relating to the prior credit issue remain unresolved.

■ Alternative documentation programs need to viewed with skepticism as they relate to the ATR rules, particularly those that serve borrowers with sub-prime credit histories. Although many programs will meet technical requirements for income verification, it is also important to demonstrate good faith in determining a borrower’s ability-to-repay. Failure to do so may not only result in poor credit performance, but increased risk of assignee liability.

■ Investor programs underwritten with reliance on expected rental income and limited documentation may pose more risk relative to fully documented investor loans where the borrower’s income and debt profile are considered, all else equal. (1, footnotes omitted)

I think KBRS is documenting a positive trend: looser credit for those with less-than-prime credit is overdue. I also think that KBRS’ concerns about the development of the non-prime market should be heeded — ensuring that borrowers have the ability to repay their mortgages should be job No. 1 for originators (although it seems ridiculous that one would have to say that). We want a mortgage market that serves everyone who is capable of making their mortgage payments for the long term. These developments in the non-prime market are most welcome and a bit overdue.

The State of Mortgage Lending

AmericanBankersAssociation-1950

The American Bankers Association has issued its 23rd Annual ABA Residential Real Estate Survey Report for 2016. There is a lot to unpack in its findings. The key ones are

  • About 86 percent of loans originated by banks were QM [Qualified Mortgage] compliant compared to 90 percent in 2014, likely because more banks are adjusting underwriting criteria to target selected non-QM loan opportunities
  • Despite increased non-QM lending, approximately 72 percent of respondents expect the current ATR [Ability to Repay]/QM regulations will continue to reduce credit availability – down from nearly 80 percent in 2014
  • Relatedly, the percentage of banks restricting lending to QM segments dropped from 33 percent to 26 percent, and those providing targeted non-QM lending rose to 54 percent from 48 percent
  • High debt-to-income levels continue to be the most likely reason why a non-QM loan did not meet QM standards
  • The percentage of single family mortgage loans made to first time home buyers continues to climb to a new all-time high as it represented 15 percent of loans underwritten in 2015 – up from 13 percent in 2013 and 14 percent in 2014
  • Approximately half of the respondents state that regulations have a moderate negative impact on business, while nearly a quarter report the impact as extremely negative (4)

The most important finding is that banks are becoming more and more comfortable with non-QM loans. I had thought that this would happen more quickly than it has, but it now seems that the industry has become comfortable with the ATR/QM regs.

There are good non-QM loans — for good borrowers with quirky circumstances. And there are bad non-QM loans — for bad borrowers generally. As a result, the finding that “High debt-to-income levels continue to be the most likely reason why a non-QM loan did not meet QM standards” could cut both ways. There are some non-QM borrowers with high debt-to-income [DTI] ratios who are good credit risks.  Think of the doctor about to finish a residency and enter private practice. And there are some non-QM borrowers with high DTI who are bad credit risks. Think of the borrower with lots of student loan, credit card and auto debt. Unfortunately this survey does not provide any insight into what types of non-QM loans are being originated. That is a big limitation of this survey.

The finding that about “half of the respondents state that regulations have a moderate negative impact on business, while nearly a quarter report the impact as extremely negative” is also ambiguous. Is a negative impact a reduction in the number of loan originations? But what if those loans were likely to be unsustainable because of the high DTI ratios of bad borrowers? Is it so bad for the ATR/QM regulations to have kept those loans from having been made in the first place? I don’t think so. It is hard to tell what is meant by this survey question as well. Perhaps the ABA could tighten up its questions for next year’s survey.