Improving the 30-Year Mortgage

Wayne Passmore and Alexander von Hafften have posted Improving the 30-Year Fixed-Rate Mortgage to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The 30-year fixed-rate fully amortizing mortgage (or “traditional fixed-rate mortgage”) was a substantial innovation when first developed during the Great Depression. However, it has three major flaws. First, because homeowner equity accumulates slowly during the first decade, homeowners are essentially renting their homes from lenders. With so little equity accumulation, many lenders require large down payments. Second, in each monthly mortgage payment, homeowners substantially compensate capital markets investors for the ability to prepay. The homeowner might have better uses for this money. Third, refinancing mortgages is often very costly. We propose a new fixed-rate mortgage, called the Fixed-Payment-COFI mortgage (or “Fixed-COFI mortgage”), that resolves these three flaws. This mortgage has fixed monthly payments equal to payments for traditional fixed-rate mortgages and no down payment. Also, unlike traditional fixed-rate mortgages, Fixed-COFI mortgages do not bundle mortgage financing with compensation paid to capital markets investors for bearing prepayment risks; instead, this money is directed toward purchasing the home. The Fixed-COFI mortgage exploits the often-present prepayment-risk wedge between the fixed-rate mortgage rate and the estimated cost of funds index (COFI) mortgage rate. Committing to a savings program based on the difference between fixed-rate mortgage payments and payments based on COFI plus a margin, the homeowner uses this wedge to accumulate home equity quickly. In addition, the Fixed-COFI mortgage is a highly profitable asset for many mortgage lenders. Fixed-COFI mortgages may help some renters gain access to homeownership. These renters may be, for example, paying rents as high as comparable mortgage payments in high-cost metropolitan areas but do not have enough savings for a down payment. The Fixed-COFI mortgage may help such renters, among others, purchase homes.

The authors acknowledge some drawbacks for Fixed-COFI mortgages that can make them unattractive to some borrowers:

What do homeowners lose by choosing Fixed-COFI mortgages instead of traditional fixed-rate mortgages? First, they cannot freely spend refinancing gains on non-housing items. When mortgage rates fall, homeowners with Fixed-COFI mortgages automatically pay less interest and pay down the mortgage principal more. Second, they can no longer “win the lottery” played with capital markets investors and lock in a substantially lower rate for the remainder of their mortgage. With Fixed-COFI mortgages, homeowners trade the option of prepayment for faster home equity accumulation. We believe that many households may prefer Fixed-COFI mortgages to traditional fixed-rate mortgages. Furthermore, we believe that many renting households without savings for a down payment may prefer Fixed-COFI mortgages to renting. (4)

American households rely too much on the plain vanilla 30-year fixed rate mortgage for their own good. Papers like this give us some reasonable alternatives that might be better suited for many households.

Fannie and Freddie’s Credit Risk Transfers

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:

The GSE’s credit risk transfer (CRT) program is growing and tapping into a more diverse investor base, reducing the costs of CRTs and improving liquidity in this market. At the same time, the continued reliance on back-end transactions is cause for concern
Freddie Mac‘s first two capital markets CRT transactions of 2017 have been different from previous Structured Agency Credit Risk (STACR) transactions in one important way. Unlike the pre-2017 deals, in which the first loss piece (Tranche B) was 100 basis points thick, the first loss piece (Tranche B2) in the latest transactions is only 50 basis points thick while second loss piece (B1) is also 50 basis points thick. Splitting the old B tranche more granularly in this manner is a noteworthy development for a few reasons.
Although this is hardly the first improvement the GSEs have made to their back-end CRT execution, it is an important one. Splitting the offering into more granular risk buckets will force investors to price the tranches more accurately, thus facilitating more precise price discovery of credit risk. More granular tranching will also help increase the demand for STACR securities. Investors who were previously willing, but unable to invest in the B tranche because investment guidelines prohibited them from taking first loss credit risk will now instead be able to invest in the second loss B1 tranche, which offers a higher expected returns than the previous second loss tranche (M2). Growing and diversifying the investor base is important because it makes the bidding process more efficient and minimizes the cost of risk transfer for Freddie Mac and the taxpayer. A larger, more diverse investor base also bodes well for the liquidity of the CRT market, which is still in its infancy.
Clearly, these innovations are important steps towards improving the efficiency of back-end CRT. But at the same time, they must be viewed in the context of the broader objectives of credit risk transfer and housing finance reform which have near unanimous support: reducing taxpayer risk, passing the benefits of CRT on to borrowers, facilitating broad availability of credit through the economic cycle, ensuring adequate access for lenders of all sizes, and promoting a variety of CRT executions, including at the front end to facilitate an understanding of which programs are most favorable under which circumstances.
Although the GSEs have experimented with front end mechanisms like lender recourse and deeper MI, these transactions have been few and far between, and with very little transparency about pricing and other terms. But more importantly, the GSEs’ continued and significant reliance on back-end capital markets transactions doesn’t put us on a path towards achieving some of the program objectives outlined above. This matters because it signals that the GSEs’ current strategy for credit risk transfer, which revolves largely around the success of back-end transactions, may ultimately keep the program from realizing its full potential. (5)
 So, all in all Fannie and Freddie are taking a step in the right direction, but it is just a small step on the road to housing finance reform.