Rising Rates and The Mortgage Market

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance at a Glance Chartbook for March focuses on how rising interest rates have been impacting the mortgage market. The chartbook makes a series of excellent points about current trends, although homeowners and homebuyers should keep in mind that rates remain near historic lows:

As mortgage rates have increased, there has been no shortage of articles explaining the effect of rising rates on the mortgage market. Mortgage rates began their present sustained increase immediately after the last presidential election in November 2016, 20 months ago. Enough data points have become available during thisperiod that we can now measure the effects of rising rates. Below we outline a few.

Refinances: The most immediate impact of rising rates is on refinance volumes, which fall as rates rise. For mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the refinance share of total originations declined from 63 percent in Nov 2016 to 46 percent today (page 11). For FHA, VA and USDA-insured mortgages, the refinance share dropped from 44 percent to 35 percent. In terms of volume, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac backed refinance volume totaled $390 billion in 2017, down from $550 billion in 2016. For Ginnie Mae, refi volume dropped from $197 billion in 2016 to $136 billion in 2017. Looking ahead, most estimates for 2018 point to a continued reduction in the refi share and origination volumes (page 15).

Originator profitability: Of course, less demand for mortgages isn’t good for originator profitability because lenders need to compete harder to attract borrowers. They do this often by reducing profit margins as rates rise (conversely, when rates are falling and everyone is rushing to refinance, lenders tend to respond by increasing their profit margins). Indeed, since Nov 2016, originator profitability has declined from $2.6 per $100 of loans originated to $1.93 today (page 16). Post crisis originator profitability reached as high as $5 per $100 loan in late 2012, when rates were at their lowest point.

Cash-out share: Another consequence of falling refinance volumes is the rising share of cash-out refinances. The share of cash-out refinances varies partly because borrowers’ motivations change with interest rates. When rates are low, the primary goal of refinancing is to reduce the monthly payment. Cash-out share tends to be low during such periods. But when rates are high, borrowers have no incentive to refinance for rate reasons. Those who still refinance tend to be driven more by their desire to cash-out (although this doesn’t mean that the volume is also high). As such, cash-out share of refinances increased to 63 percent in Q4 2017 according to Freddie Mac Quarterly Refinance Statistics. The last time cash-out share was this high was in 2008.

Industry consolidation: A longer-term impact of rising rates is industry consolidation: not every lender can afford to cut profitability. Larger, diversified originators are more able to accept lower margins because they can make up for it through other lines of business or simply accept lower profitability for some time. Smaller lenders may not have such flexibility and may find it necessary to merge with another entity. Industry consolidation due to higher rates is not easy to quantify as firms can merge or get acquired for various reasons. At the same time, one can’t ignore New Residential Investment’s recent acquisition of Shellpoint Partners and Ocwen’s purchase of PHH. (5)

Risky Cash-Out Refis

Anil Kumar of the Dallas Fed has posted Do Restrictions on Home Equity Extraction Contribute to Lower Mortgage Defaults? Evidence from a Policy Discontinuity at the Texas’ Border to SSRN.  The abstract reads

Given that excessive borrowing helped precipitate the housing crisis, a key component of a policy agenda to prevent future meltdowns is effective regulation to curb unaffordable mortgage debt. Texas is the only US state that limits home equity borrowing to 80 percent of home value. Anecdotal reports have long suggested that home equity restrictions shielded Texas homeowners from the worst of the subprime mortgage crisis. But there is, as yet, no formal empirical investigation of these restrictions’ role in curbing mortgage default. This paper is the first to empirically estimate the impact of Texas home equity restrictions on mortgage default using individual and loan level data from three different sources. The paper exploits the policy discontinuity around Texas’ interstate borders induced by the home equity restrictions to identify the causal effect of home equity extraction on mortgage default in a border discontinuity design framework. The paper finds that limits on home equity borrowing in Texas lowered the likelihood of mortgage default by about 2 percentage points with a significantly larger impact on mortgage borrowers in the bottom quartile of the credit score distribution. Estimated default hazards for mortgages within 50 to 100 miles of the Texas’ border decline sharply as one crosses into Texas. Overall, the paper finds evidence that Texas’ home equity restrictions exert a robust negative impact on mortgage default.

This is a really important paper asking a really important question.  If its findings are confirmed, it brings us back to that age-old question of paternalism in consumer financial protection: should we limit a consumer’s choice if that choice is consistently shown to have harmful effects?  I am not sure where I come down in this particular case, but I wonder if some version of Quercia et al.‘s benefit ratio could help measure the costs and benefits of such a rule. The benefit ratio compares “the percent reduction in the number of defaults to the percent reduction in the number of borrowers who would have access to [a certain type of] mortgages.” (20) I am not sure whether access to cash out refi mortgages is of the same import as purchase mortgages or even plain old refis, but the concept of the benefit ratio might still make sense in this context.