Easy Money From Fannie Mae

The San Francisco Chronicle quoted me in Fannie Mae Making It Easier to Spend Half Your Income on Debt. It reads in part,

Fannie Mae is making it easier for some borrowers to spend up to half of their monthly pretax income on mortgage and other debt payments. But just because they can doesn’t mean they should.

“Generally, it’s a pretty poor idea,” said Holly Gillian Kindel, an adviser with Mosaic Financial Partners. “It flies in the face of common financial wisdom and best practices.”

Fannie is a government agency that can buy or insure mortgages that meet its underwriting criteria. Effective July 29, its automated underwriting software will approve loans with debt-to-income ratios as high as 50 percent without “additional compensating factors.” The current limit is 45 percent.

Fannie has been approving borrowers with ratios between 45 and 50 percent if they had compensating factors, such as a down payment of least 20 percent and at least 12 months worth of “reserves” in bank and investment accounts. Its updated software will not require those compensating factors.

Fannie made the decision after analyzing many years of payment history on loans between 45 and 50 percent. It said the change will increase the percentage of loans it approves, but it would not say by how much.

That doesn’t mean every Fannie-backed loan can go up 50 percent. Borrowers still must have the right combination of loan-to-value ratio, credit history, reserves and other factors. In a statement, Fannie said the change is “consistent with our commitment to sustainable homeownership and with the safe and sound operation of our business.”

Before the mortgage meltdown, Fannie was approving loans with even higher debt ratios. But 50 percent of pretax income is still a lot to spend on housing and other debt.

The U.S. Census Bureau says households that spend at least 30 percent of their income on housing are “cost-burdened” and those that spend 50 percent or more are “severely cost burdened.”

The Dodd-Frank Act, designed to prevent another financial crisis, authorized the creation of a “qualified mortgage.” These mortgages can’t have certain risky features, such as interest-only payments, terms longer than 30 years or debt-to-income ratios higher than 43 percent. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said a 43 percent limit would “protect consumers” and “generally safeguard affordability.”

However, loans that are eligible for purchase by Fannie Mae and other government agencies are deemed qualified mortgages, even if they allow ratios higher than 43 percent. Freddie Mac, Fannie’s smaller sibling, has been backing loans with ratios up to 50 percent without compensating factors since 2011. The Federal Housing Administration approves loans with ratios up to 57 percent, said Ed Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute Center on Housing Risk.

Since 2014, lenders that make qualified mortgages can’t be sued if they go bad, so most lenders have essentially stopped making non-qualified mortgages.

Lenders are reluctant to make jumbo loans with ratios higher than 43 percent because they would not get the legal protection afforded qualified mortgages. Jumbos are loans that are too big to be purchased by Fannie and Freddie. Their limit in most parts of the Bay Area is $636,150 for one-unit homes.

Fannie’s move comes at a time when consumer debt is soaring. Credit card debt surpassed $1 trillion in December for the first time since the recession and now stands behind auto loans ($1.1 trillion) and student loans ($1.4 trillion), according to the Federal Reserve.

That’s making it harder for people to get or refinance a mortgage. In April, Fannie announced three small steps it was taking to make it easier for people with education loans to get a mortgage.

Some consumer groups are happy to see Fannie raising its debt limit to 50 percent. “I think there are enough other standards built into the Fannie Mae underwriting system where this is not going to lead to predatory loans,” said Geoff Walsh, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

Mike Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, said, “There are households that can afford these loans, including moderate-income households.” When they are carefully underwritten and fully documented “they can perform at that level.” He pointed out that a lot of tenants are managing to pay at least 50 percent of income on rent.

A new study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University noted that 10 percent of homeowners and 25.5 percent of renters are spending at least 50 percent of their income on housing.

When Fannie calculates debt-to-income ratios, it starts with the monthly payment on the new loan (including principal, interest, property tax, homeowners association dues, homeowners insurance and private mortgage insurance). Then it adds the monthly payment on credit cards (minimum payment due), auto, student and other loans and alimony.

It divides this total debt by total monthly income. It will consider a wide range of income that is stable and verifiable including wages, bonuses, commissions, pensions, investments, alimony, disability, unemployment and public assistance.

Fannie figures a creditworthy borrower with $10,000 in monthly income could spend up to $5,000 on mortgage and debt payments. Not everyone agrees.

“If you have a debt ratio that high, the last thing you should be doing is buying a house. You are stretching yourself way too thin,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst with Bankrate.com.

*     *     *

“If this is data-driven as Fannie says, I guess it’s OK,” said David Reiss, who teaches real estate finance at Brooklyn Law School. “People can make decisions themselves. We have these rules for the median person. A lot of immigrant families have no problem spending 60 or 70 percent (of income) on housing. They have cousins living there, they rent out a room.”

Reiss added that homeownership rates are low and expanding them “seems reasonable.” But making credit looser “will probably drive up housing prices.”

The article condensed my comments, but they do reflect the fact that the credit box is too tight and that there is room to loosen it up a bit. The Qualified Mortgage and Ability-to-Repay rules promote the 43% debt-to-income ratio because they provide good guidance for “traditional” nuclear American families.  But there are American households where multigenerational living is the norm, as is the case with many families of recent immigrants. These households may have income streams which are not reflected in the mortgage application.

All About Mortgage Brokers

photo by Day Donaldson

Bankrate.com quoted me in Mortgage Broker — Everything You Need To Know. It opens,

When you need a mortgage to buy or refinance a home, there are 3 main ways to go about applying — through a traditional brick-and-mortar bank, an online lender or a mortgage broker (either in-person or online).

Many people first think about shopping for a mortgage where they already have their checking and savings accounts, which is often a major bank or a local credit union. And applying online with a traditional bank or online-only lender has become more common.

But while borrowers are probably the least familiar with using a mortgage broker, it comes with many benefits.

Here’s everything you need to know about using a mortgage broker. 

Working with a mortgage broker

A mortgage broker connects a borrower with a lender. While that makes them middlemen, there are several reasons why you should consider working with a broker instead of going straight to a lender.

For starters, brokers can shop dozens of lenders to get you the best pricing, says Casey Fleming, author of “The Loan Guide: How to Get the Best Possible Mortgage” and mortgage advisor with C2 Financial Corp. in San Jose, California.

Fleming says the price he charges for certain lenders or banks is very often better than the price a consumer could get by going directly to the same lender.

“When the lender outsources the loan origination and sales function to a broker, they offer to pay us what they would otherwise pay to cover their internal operations for the same function,” Fleming says.

“If we are willing to work for less than that—and that is usually the case—then the consumer’s price through a broker ends up being less than if they went directly to the lender,” he explains.

Further, “A broker is legally required to disclose his compensation in writing — a banker is not,”says Joe Parsons, senior loan officer with PFS Funding in Dublin, California, and author of the “Mortgage Insider blog.”

Variety is another benefit of brokers. It can help you find the right lender.

“Some may specialize in particular property types that others avoid. Some may have more flexibility with credit scores or down payment amounts than others,” says David Reiss, a law professor who specializes in real estate and consumer financial services at Brooklyn Law School in New York and the editor of REFinBlog.com.

In addition, brokers offer one-stop shopping, saving borrowers time and headaches.

“If you are turned down by a bank, you’re done — you have to walk away and begin again,” Fleming says. But “If you are turned down by one lender through a broker, the broker can take your file to another lender,” he adds. The borrower doesn’t need to do any extra work.

A broker’s expertise and relationships can also simplify the process of getting a loan.

Brokers have access to private lenders who can meet with you and assess whether or not you have the collateral, says Mike Arman, a retired longtime mortgage broker in Oak Hill, Florida.

Private lenders, which include nonbank mortgage companies and individuals, can make loans to borrowers in unconventional situations that banks can’t or won’t because of Dodd-Frank regulations or internal policy.

You may get a better price on a loan from a broker as well.

Under the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Loan Originator Compensation rule, brokers (but not bank lenders) must charge the same percentage on every deal, so they can’t raise their margin “just because” like a bank can, Fleming explains.

“The intent was to prevent originators from steering borrowers to high-cost loans in order to increase their commission,” Fleming notes.

You should also know that working with a broker won’t make your loan more expensive.

“The lender pays us, just like a cruise line pays a travel agent,” Fleming says.

Working with a traditional bank lender

Banks issue less than half of mortgages these days, according to the industry publication Inside Mortgage Finance. But working with a broker isn’t necessarily a slam dunk.

“A broker may claim that he offers more choices than a banker because he works with many lenders,” Parsons says. “In reality, most lenders offer pricing on their loans that is very similar.” Although, he notes, a broker may have available some niche lenders for unusual circumstances.

Reiss says that even if you’re working with a mortgage broker, it can be worthwhile to check out lenders on your own since no broker can work with every lender — there are simply too many. He suggests starting with lenders you already have a relationship with, but also looking at ads and reaching out directly to big banks, small banks and credit unions in your community.

It’s important to know your range of options, he notes.

For the same reason, you might want to shop around with a few different brokers.

The Housing Market Under Trump

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

TheStreet.com quoted me in Interest Rates Likely to Rise Under Trump, Could Affect Confidence of Homebuyers. It opens,

Interest rates should increase gradually during the next four years under a Donald Trump administration, which could dampen growth in the housing industry, economists and housing experts predict.

The 10-year Treasury rose over the 2% threshold on Wednesday for the first time in several months, driving mortgage rates higher with the 30-year conventional rate rising to 3.73% according to Bankrate.com. Mortgage pricing is tied to the 10-year Treasury.

Housing demand will remain flat with a rise in interest rates as many first-time homebuyers will be saddled with more debt, said Peter Nigro, a finance professor at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I.

“With first-time homebuyers more in debt due to student loans, I don’t expect much growth in home purchasing,” he said.

Interest rates will also be affected by the size of the fiscal stimulus since additional infrastructure spending and associated debt “could push interest rates up through the issuance of more government debt,” Nigro said.

Even if interest rates spike in the next year, banks will not benefit, because there is a lack of demand, said Peter Borish, chief strategist with Quad Group, a New York-based financial firm. The economy is slowing down, and consumers have already borrowed money at very “cheap” interest rates, he said.

The policies set forth by a Trump administration will lead to contractionary results and will not spur additional growth in the housing market.

“I prefer to listen to the markets,” Borish said. “This will put downward pressure on the prices in the market. Everyone complained about Dodd-Frank, but why is JPMorgan Chase’s stock at all time highs?”

An interest rate increase could still occur in December, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based real estate company. With nearly five weeks before the December Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, the market can contemplate the potential outcomes.

“While the market is now indicating a reduced probability of a short-term rate hike at that meeting, the Fed has repeatedly indicated that they would be data-driven in their decision,” he said in a written statement. “If the markets calm down and November employment data look solid on December 2, a rate hike could still happen. The market moves yesterday are already indicating that financial markets are pondering that the Trump effect could be positive for the economy.

“The Fed is likely to start increasing the federal funds rate at a “much faster pace starting next year,” said K.C. Sanjay, chief economist for Axiometrics, a Dallas-based apartment market and student housing research firm. “This will cause single-family mortgage rates to increase slightly, however they will remain well below the long-term average.”

Since Trump has remained mum on many topics, including housing, predicting a short-term outlook is challenging. One key factor is the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who are the main players in the mortgage market, because they own or guarantee over $4 trillion in mortgages, remain in conservatorship and “play a critical role in keeping mortgage rates down through the now explicit subsidy or government backing which allows them to raise funds more cheaply,” Nigro said.

It is unlikely any changes will occur with them, because “Trump has not articulated a plan to deal with them and coming up with a plan to deal with these giants is unlikely,” he said.

Trump could attempt to take on government sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, said Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist for Trulia, a San Francisco-based real estate website.

“If he does, it’s going to be a hairy endeavor for him, because he’ll need bipartisan support to do so,” he said.

Since he has alluded to ending government conservatorship and allowing government sponsored enterprises to “recapitalize by allowing retention of their own profits instead of passing them on to the Treasury,” the result is that banks could have their liquidity and lending activity increase, which could help boost demand for homes, McLaughlin said.

“We caution President-elect Trump that he would also need to simultaneously help address housing supply, which has been at a low point over the past few years,” he said. “The difficulty for him is that most of the impediments to new housing supply rest and the state and local levels, not the federal.”

Even on Trump’s campaign website, there is “next to nothing” about his ideas on housing, said David Reiss, a law professor at the Brooklyn Law School in New York. The platform of the Republican Party and Vice President-elect Mike Pence could mean that the federal government will have a smaller footprint in the mortgage market.

“There will be a reduction in the federal government’s guaranty of mortgages, and this will likely increase the interest rates charged on mortgages, but will reduce the likelihood of taxpayer bailouts,” he said. “Fannie and Freddie will likely have fewer ties to the federal government and the FHA is likely to be limited to the lower end of the mortgage market.”

Mortgage Market Forecast

crystal-ball

OnCourseLearning.com’s new financial services blog quoted me in Mortgage Rates Likely to Remain Low for Foreseeable Future. It opens,

In the weeks since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, previously low interest rates have fallen to near historically low levels.

For the week ending Aug. 25, a 30-year fixed rate mortgage averaged 3.43%, just slightly above the record low of 3.31% established in 2012. At the same time a year ago, the average mortgage rate for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage was 3.84%, according to Freddie Mac.

The drop in interest rates appears to be drawing more homeowners into the mortgage market. Freddie Mac now expects 2016 loan originations to reach $2 trillion, the highest level since 2012.

Market Uncertainty

While markets have calmed since the Brexit vote in late June, the Mortgage Bankers Association cautioned in a July 14 Economic and Mortgage Finance commentary that the actual “terms and conditions of the exit will continue to destabilize markets.”

Global economic uncertainty, oil price fluctuations, slow economic growth and the potential for interest rate hikes suggest market instability will likely continue for some time, experts said. As a result, most analysts expect interest rates will remain low, at least in the short term.

“Those who have been betting on increasing interest rates have been wrong for a long time now,” said David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and research director of its Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. He believes rates likely will remain low “over the next six to 12 months, partially driven by a further reduction in spreads between Treasury yields and mortgage rates.”

Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com, a personal finance website, expects “the backdrop of slow global economic growth, low inflation, and negative interest rates elsewhere will keep demand for U.S. bonds high, and mortgage rates [below] 4% in the foreseeable future.”

In July, Freddie Mac predicted the 30-year rate won’t top 3.6% in 2016, or 4% in 2017.

Lending Opportunities

The low-interest rates have created new opportunities for lenders. Refinance bids recently reached their highest level in three years.

“With mortgage rates having been range-bound for so long, this breakout to the low side has opened the door to refinancing for homeowners who had previously refinanced around 4% or even just below,” McBride said. He expects refinancing demand to continue as long as mortgage rates stay close to 3.5%, but predicts rates may need to drop a bit more to prolong the boom.

Meanwhile, rising home prices are creating more equity, and the MBA expects homeowners to want more cash-out refinancing. In its July 14 report, the MBA raised its 2016 refinance origination forecasts by 10% to $760 billion, replacing its pre-Brexit projection of a decrease.

As rates fall, refinancing becomes attractive earlier for those with outsize mortgages. These jumbo loans are those that exceed $417,000 in most of the country, or $625,000 in high-priced markets like New York and San Francisco, according to a July 7 online article in the Wall Street Journal. With these big loans, lower rates can mean substantial savings.

“Borrowers with larger loans stand to gain more by refinancing, and may not need as large of a rate incentive than borrowers with lower loan balances,” according to the July 14 MBA report. Because more affluent borrowers take out these loans, they generally have fewer delinquencies or foreclosures, and lenders can steer big borrowers to a bank’s other accounts and services. They’re also becoming cheaper: Rates on jumbo loans were at record lows in July, according to the MBA.

Reiss thinks lenders have been somewhat “slow to expand in the jumbo market, and may now gain a leg up over their competitors by doing so.”

Potential Risks

Still, lenders face some risks to profitability, including increased regulatory expenses such as the impact of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s new TRID rule. Most of the pain from the TRID regulations, Reiss said, involve “transition costs for implementing the new regulation, and those costs will decrease over time.”

Tax Refunds Into Mortgage Payments

photo by 401(K) 2012

TheStreet.com quoted me in Investing Your Tax Refund Instead of Spending It Boosts Retirement Savings. It opens,

Ramping up your emergency cash fund or IRA with your tax refund is a better option than spending it on a new smartphone or vacation.

Three out of four taxpayers received a refund of $3,000 in 2015. Although many consumers look forward to this windfall each year, it is not a “cause for celebration,” said Joe Jennings, a wealth director for PNC, a Pittsburgh-based financial institution.

“If you are receiving a large refund check, it actually means that you have loaned money to the government throughout the year and the next year the government is paying you back without interest,” he said.

Adjusting your withholdings is a good strategy if your refund exceeds $1,000. Changing the number of exemptions on your W-4 means you will net more income from each paycheck.

Bankrate.com, a North Palm Beach, Fla.-based financial content company, found that 31% of Americans who receive a tax refund this year plan to save or invest it. The survey revealed that 28% will use the funds to pay down debt, 27% will spend it on necessities like food/utility bills and 6% will splurge with a shopping spree or vacation.

Some consumers view the refund as a method of forcing them to save money each year or a way to pay down existing debt such as credit card balances with high interest.

Pay Off Existing Debt

Use your refund check to pay off as much as your credit card or student loan debt as possible since the amount of interest you are paying each month adds up quickly, said Jonathan Bochese, director of resolution services for Tax Defense Network, LLC, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based tax resolution company.

“The best use for any tax refund is to use it to pay off high interest revolving debts,” he said.

With the current low interest rate environment in money market funds and CDs, paying down debt is a no-brainer.

“If you can only make 3% on your investment and your debt is at a higher rate, pay off the debt,” said Carl Sera, a portfolio manager with Covestor, the online investing marketplace and managing principal of Sera Capital Management, a registered investment advisor in Annapolis, Md. “Don’t make it a habit to receive a tax refund, because it is money you have lent the taxing authority at a zero interest rate.”

Homeowners who do not have any other debt should pay down their mortgage by making an extra payment or two instead of stashing the refund in a savings account that is only receiving minimal interest, said David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School.

“By doing so, you are making the equivalent of a pre-tax return of the interest rate on your mortgage,” he said. “If your mortgage has a 5% interest rate and your savings account has a 0.1% interest rate that is like getting a 4.9% higher rate of interest without taking any risk at all.”

The New Mortgage Disclosure Rules

President Barack Obama meets with Rep. Barney Frank, (D-Mass), Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Ill), and Sen. Chris Dodd, (D-Conn) by White House (Pete Souza)

TheStreet.com quoted me in New Mortgage Rule Requires Disclosure Documents to Help Consumers Compare Costs. It reads, in part,

A new set of shorter and simpler mortgage documents will be disclosed to consumers before they close on a loan, making the costs more transparent and helping home buyers compare offers from multiple lenders easier.

Mortgage lenders are required to start giving loan applicants the new disclosure documents starting on October 3, a new government requirement imposed by the Dodd-Frank Act.

“The disclosures will be easier and shorter so that consumers understand the mortgage they are getting because it will be simpler to compare offers,” said Holden Lewis, a mortgage analyst for Bankrate.com, the Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.-based financial content company.

*     *     *

Drawbacks of New Documents

Of course, it’s not all positive. You can now expect your closing to take longer than before while lenders and title companies adjust to the new procedures. Consumers should definitely lock in their interest rates “a little longer to be safe in case there are delays,” he said. The process might stretch to three days, so lock in your mortgage rates for 45 days instead of the traditional 30 days and “err on side of caution,” Lewis said.

 Major changes to the terms in a mortgage can push back the closing and this can present a serious problem if the current interest rate lock is “on the verge of expiring and interest rates are rising,” said David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School. In a worst case scenario, a lender could withdraw an offer because the consumer cannot afford higher monthly payments due to an increase in interest rates.

Homebuyers can mitigate this issue by negotiating the terms of their interest rates cautiously and discussing them with their lender or real estate broker who can help determine “whether there is enough of a cushion to take into account all of the things that can delay a closing,” he said. “Borrowers should know that a rate lock without a sufficient cushion of time offers a false sense of security.”

Closing on a house might take longer, so consumers should make sure their timing meshes with the apartment or house they are renting or if they are selling their current home. This is more critical right now because of the transition to the new documents.

“Through the end of the year, homebuyers may want to build in a cushion as to when they have to close on the purchase,” Reiss said. “This could offer some protection if the mortgage application process takes longer than expected because of TRID-related issues.”

If tax reasons are prompting homeowners to close on a sale by a certain date, then it is even more vital to focus on documents a buyer, lender or tittle company might require during the process.

“As with many things, staying on top of everyone at each stage such as the contract negotiation, mortgage application and closing is the best bet for avoiding surprises and bad results,” he said.