The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has released its February 2017 Housing Finance at a Glance Chartbook, always a great resource for housing geeks. Each Chartbook highlights one topic. This one focuses on GSE credit risk transfers, an important but technical subject:
Various NBC News affiliates quoted me in What You Need To Know About Trump’s Reversal of the FHA Mortgage Insurance Rate Cut. It opens,
On his first day in office, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to undo a quarter-point decrease in Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage insurance premiums. The rate decrease had been announced by the Obama administration shortly before Trump’s inauguration. Many congressional Republicans, including incoming Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, opposed the Obama administration’s rate cut because they worried that the FHA would not be able to maintain adequate cash reserves.
What does this mean for potential homebuyers going forward? We’ll explain in this post.
How FHA mortgage insurance premiums work
FHA-backed mortgages are popular among first-time homebuyers because borrowers can get a loan with as little as 3.5% down. However, in exchange for a lower down payment, borrowers are required to pay mortgage insurance premiums. Lower mortgage insurance premiums can make FHA mortgages more affordable, and help incentivize more first-time homebuyers to enter the housing market.
On January 9, 2016, outgoing HUD Secretary Julian Castro announced that the administration would reduce the annual mortgage insurance premiums borrowers pay when taking out FHA-backed home loans.
For most borrowers, the rate reduction would have meant mortgage insurance premiums decrease from 0.85% of the loan amount to 0.60%. The FHA estimated that the reduction, a quarter of one percentage point, would save homeowners an average of $500 per year.
To see how the numbers would compare, we ran two scenarios through an FHA Loan Calculator — once with the reduced MIP, and again with the higher rates.
Using the December 2016 median price for an existing home in the U.S. of $232,200 and assuming a 30-year loan, a down payment of 3.5%, and an interest rate of 3.750%, the difference in the monthly payment under the new and old rates would be as follows:
Monthly payment under the existing MIP rate: $1,213.27
Monthly payment with the reduced MIP rate: $1,166.98
Annual savings: $555.48
What the rate cut reversal means for consumers
This could be bad news for people who went under contract to buy a house using an FHA loan during the week of Trump’s inauguration. Those buyers could find that their estimated monthly payment has gone up.
Heather McRae, a loan officer at Chicago Financial Services, says Trump’s move was unfortunate. “A lower premium provides for a lower overall monthly payment,” she says. “For those homebuyers who are on the bubble, it could be the deciding factor in determining whether or not the person qualifies to purchase a new home.”
David Reiss, a law professor at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, says the change will have only a “modest negative impact” on a potential borrower’s ability to qualify for a loan.
To be clear, the fluctuating mortgage insurance premiums do not affect homeowners with existing loans. They do affect buyers in the process of buying a home using an FHA-backed loan, and anyone buying or refinancing with an FHA-backed mortgage loan in the future. Had the rate cut remained in effect, Mortgagee Letter 2017-01 would have applied to federally-backed mortgages with closing/disbursement dates of January 27, 2017, and later.
Reiss does not believe the rate reversal will have an impact on the housing market. “Given that the Obama premium cut had not yet taken effect,” he says, “it is unlikely that Trump’s action had much of an impact on home sales.”
The Federal Housing Finance Agency has released Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Single-Family Guarantee Fees in 2014. Ok, ok, this is some really technical stuff. But it gives us a lot of important information about what goes into the cost of a home mortgage.
The executive summary opens, “The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA) requires the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to submit reports to Congress annually on the guarantee fees charged by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises).” (2, footnotes omitted) The report finds that “the average level of guarantee fees charged has increased since 2009. The guarantee fees are currently two-and-a-half times their previous level; from 2009 to 2014, average fees increased from 22 basis points to 58 basis points. From 2013 to 2014, average fees increased from 51 basis points to 58 basis points.” (2, footnote omitted)
For all of you non-experts out there, a basis point is 1/100th of a percentage point. So a guarantee fee (or g-fee in the lingo) of 58 basis points increases the interest rate paid by more than half a percentage point (for instance, from 4.5% to 5.08%). So homeowners should want to understand why g-fees have more than doubled since 2009.
The report breaks down how g-fees gradually increased in response to Congressional and FHFA requirements, some of which are not tied to housing finance goals at all. For instance, Congress added ten basis points to fund an extension of a tax cut.
Many have argued that g-fees should be kept as low as possible in order to help out the housing market. I do not take that position, in large part because cheap credit does not necessarily lower the cost of housing; sellers may just be able to raise the price of their homes in a cheap credit environment. I also believe that the housing market and the mortgage market need to achieve some sort of equilibrium and unnaturally low g-fees will distort such an equilibrium.
The price of the g-fee should reflect the real costs of the g-fee. For instance, it should cover the cost of losses that result from borrower default. It should not be used to fund programs unrelated to housing. G-fees that are unnaturally high distort the housing finance market and make homeowners subsidize other constituencies. Federal housing finance policy tends to get screwed up if it veers too much from its fundamentals, so we should not ask too much of the g-fee.
Fannie and Freddie have been in limbo ever since they entered conservatorship in 2008. The longer they are in that limbo, the more likely it is that Congress will use them to do all sorts of things that do not relate to maintaining a liquid housing finance market. This study outlines how the g-fee has morphed over time and is a wake-up call to homeowners and policy makers alike to set Fannie and Freddie on a healthy course for the long term, starting with that obscure and technical g-fee.