Rising Mortgage Rates

graphic by Chris Butterworth

NBC News quoted me in Mortgage Rates Just Hit 5 Percent: What Does That Mean for Homebuyers and Owners? It opens,

Mortgage rates crossed the 5 percent line on Wednesday for the first time since 2011, marking a new era for a generation of Americans raised on super-low borrowing rates and highlighting the downside of a burgeoning national economy.

Strengthening economic growth, near-record low unemployment, inflation rates and policy moves by the Federal Reserve have all contributed to move the needle beyond the psychological 5 percent barrier.”It has only been in this decade that they have fallen below 5 percent, rates not seen since the 1960s,” said David Reiss, an expert in real estate law and professor at the Brooklyn Law School.

From 1971 through early October 2008, the average rate for a 30-year mortgage was 8.1 percent. The day before Halloween 1981, the number spiked at 18.44 percent, according to data from Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage rebundler.

Psychology aside, there’s a real money impact as well. Every increase of 10 basis points, or 0.1 percentage point, means another $6 per month per $100,000 of mortgage, said Danielle Hale, chief economist for Realtor.com.

Over the last year, the mortgage on a typically priced home of $295,000 has increased by $115 to $120 a month.

Growing monthly payments are just one of the factors contributing to tougher times for many buyers. House prices also have been on the increase, and potential homeowners must contend with the loss of the so-called SALT deductions in last year’s tax cut legislation, which complicate things in high-tax states.

GSE Investors’ Hidden Win

Judge Brown

The big news yesterday was that the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in the main for the federal government in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin, one of the major cases that investors brought against the federal government over the terms of the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships.

In a measured and carefully reasoned opinion, the court rejected most but not all of the investors’ claims.  The reasoning was consistent with my own reading of the broad conservatorship provisions of the Housing and Economic Recover Act of 2008 (HERA).

Judge Brown’s dissent, however, reveals that the investors have crafted an alternative narrative that at least one judge finds compelling. This means that there is going to be some serious drama when this case ultimately wends its way to the Supreme Court. And there is some reason to believe that a Justice Gorsuch might be sympathetic to this narrative of government overreach.

Judge Brown’s opinion indicts many aspects of federal housing finance policy, broadly condemning it in the opening paragraph:

One critic has called it “wrecking-ball benevolence,” James Bovard, Editorial, Nothing Down: The Bush Administration’s Wrecking-Ball Benevolence, BARRONS, Aug. 23, 2004, http://tinyurl.com/Barrons-Bovard; while another, dismissing the compassionate rhetoric, dubs it “crony capitalism,” Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr., Commentary, Fannie/Freddie Bailout Baloney, CATO INST., http://tinyurl.com/Cato-O-Driscoll (last visited Feb. 13, 2017). But whether the road was paved with good intentions or greased by greed and indifference, affordable housing turned out to be the path to perdition for the U.S. mortgage market. And, because of the dominance of two so-called Government Sponsored Entities (“GSE”s)—the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae” or “Fannie”) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac” or “Freddie,” collectively with Fannie Mae, the “Companies”)—the trouble that began in the subprime mortgage market metastasized until it began to affect most debt markets, both domestic and international. (dissent at 1)

While acknowledging that the Fannie/Freddie crisis might justify “extraordinary actions by Congress,” Judge Brown states that

even in a time of exigency, a nation governed by the rule of law cannot transfer broad and unreviewable power to a government entity to do whatsoever it wishes with the assets of these Companies. Moreover, to remain within constitutional parameters, even a less-sweeping delegation of authority would require an explicit and comprehensive framework. See Whitman v. Am. Trucking Ass’ns, Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001) (“Congress . . . does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions—it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes.”) Here, Congress did not endow FHFA with unlimited authority to pursue its own ends; rather, it seized upon the statutory text that had governed the FDIC for decades and adapted it ever so slightly to confront the new challenge posed by Fannie and Freddie.

*     *     *

[Congress] chose a well-understood and clearly-defined statutory framework—one that drew upon the common law to clearly delineate the outer boundaries of the Agency’s conservator or, alternatively, receiver powers. FHFA pole vaulted over those boundaries, disregarding the plain text of its authorizing statute and engaging in ultra vires conduct. Even now, FHFA continues to insist its authority is entirely without limit and argues for a complete ouster of federal courts’ power to grant injunctive relief to redress any action it takes while purporting to serve in the conservator role. See FHFA Br. 21  (2-3)

What amazes me about this dissent is how it adopts the decidedly non-mainstream history of the financial crisis that has been promoted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Peter Wallison.  It also takes its legislative history from an unpublished Cato Institute paper by Vice-President Pence’s newly selected chief economist, Mark Calabria and a co-author.  There is nothing wrong with a judge giving some context to an opinion, but it is of note when it seems as one-sided as this. The bottom line though is that this narrative clearly has some legs so we should not think that this case has played itself out, just because of this decision.

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.”

Leverage in a Tight Market

photo by Rex Pe

TheStreet.com quoted me in Home Shoppers Seeking Leverage in a Tight Market. It opens,

Homebuyers have faced tight supply issues this year, and obtaining leverage in this market has been challenging.

The lower inventories pushed sales in July down by 3%, according to the National Association of Realtors, a Chicago-based trade organization. The decline has resulted in sales falling back to levels in March and April with an annualized pace of 5.39 million, bringing the sales pace down by 2% from July 2015. The level of inventory of homes for sale has declined by 6%.
As the faster summer buying pace has moved into the fall phase when there are fewer buyers, consumers have a greater advantage as homes are on the market longer. For both May and June, the listings stayed on Realtor.com a median of 65 days. By July, that figure rose to 68 days and August brings even more options and should end at 72 days. The reduction of inventory has occurred for 47 consecutive months, helping sellers, but restricting options for buyers.

For homebuyers who want to nab their dream house in the neighborhood they have been eyeing, they still have leverage, but here are some tips to improve the process.

Home Buying Tips

Before consumers start shopping, they should work on improving their finances and avoid making any large purchases such as a car. After finding out your FICO score, the goal is to find ways for it to rise above 700, which means you will qualify with more lenders and obtain a lower interest rate, saving you thousands of dollars, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for realtor.com, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based real estate company.

Determine how much you can carve out of your savings for a down payment, but still maintain six months of emergency funds, especially if you are buying an older home which may have unexpected repairs.

The average down payment in 2016 is 11% across the U.S., but it depends vastly on the market and loan you are seeking.

“If you are struggling to come up with a down payment necessary for your market or type of mortgage, research down payment assistance programs,” he said. “Get all of your financial records organized, including recent bank and financial statements, the last two years of income tax filings and pay statements.”

There are many opportunities available since mortgage rates remain near historic lows and are unlikely to see substantial moves soon.

“The buying opportunity is still substantial and now the annual cycle means you will face less competition on homes that are on the market,” Smoke said.

Sellers want to see serious buyers, so getting pre-approved from a lender is important.

“A pre-approval letter as part of an offer will communicate to the seller that you have the ability to close,” he said.

Sellers still have an advantage and even though there are fewer potential buyers with fall right around the corner, the existing inventory remains low, so getting a house under contract can still be problematic, Smoke said.

“Don’t expect sellers to feel desperate,” he said. “Sellers may still act like it is the spring. Listen to the advice of your realtor on the composition of the initial offer so that you are more likely to keep the conversation going rather than face complete rejection.”

While you continue to search for another home, maintain your savings and increase the amount of your down payment and keep paying down your credit cards and student loans. Consumers who will be receiving a bonus in December should include these funds it into their down payment. If the interest rates for your credit card rates are fairly low, consider bulking up your down payment since mortgage rates are very low, said Colby Sambrotto, president of USRealty.com, a New York-based online real estate broker. said. These measures will help increase your odds as you house hunt.

“Ask your lender to recalculate your loan preapproval to reflect your updated debt-to-income ratio and the greater amount you can put down,” he said. “That can reframe your search parameters.”

Down payment assistance is available through employer and community group programs. Some companies will offer loans if you remain employed there for a certain number of years, said Sambrotto. A good source for more information about various programs is Down Payment Resource.

“The loans are usually geared to encourage employees to buy around a certain area, usually within walking distance of the employer,” he said.

Location is Key

Transportation can emerge as a “hidden cost” if your commute includes costly tolls or you want quicker access to cultural and sporting events, schools for children, shopping districts and professional education opportunities.

“Narrow your search to neighborhoods that offer economical options for commuting and routine errands,” Sambrotto said. “Look for neighborhood groups on Facebook and ask to join the conversation so you can quiz current residents about the true cost of living in that area.”

While homeowners might prefer a standard standalone house, a two-family duplex might be a better option, said David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School in New York. These homes have a clear advantage because they generate investment income along with various financing, tax and capital gains advantages which the traditional single-family house does not have.

“Think through your preferences and then take a fresh look at the market,” he said. “You might have that idealized picket-fenced house in mind, but a duplex will expand the number of houses you can look at. They also bring along all sorts of additional maintenance responsibilities with them, so they are not right for everyone.”

Down in ARMs

group-of-hand

TheStreet.com quoted me in Top 5 Lowest 7-Year ARM Rates. It opens,

U.S. mortgage rates have continued to decline in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, low Treasury rates and stagnant economy, giving potential homeowners an opportunity to save money because of the dip.

The current market conditions give homeowners in the U.S. an opportunity to take advantage of the continuation of low mortgage rates since the Federal Reserve has not increased interest rates.

But, how do you snag the absolute lowest rates, especially if you don’t plan on staying in your first home for more than seven years and are learning toward 7/1 adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs)?

The 7-year ARMs are attractive to consumers, especially first-time homebuyers, because the interest rates are lower, helping you save more money each month compared to the traditional 30-year mortgage.

“You get what amounts to a fixed rate mortgage, but at a lower rate than the traditional 30-year fixed,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst of Bankrate, a North Palm Beach, Fla.-based financial content company.

While lower monthly payments are appealing, the interest rates reset after seven years, and it can be difficult to determine how much they will increase.

“If your timetable changes, then you may want to reconsider the loan you have,” he said. “You don’t want to be in the position of facing rising monthly payments that squeeze your budget or jeopardize your ability to afford your own home.”

Consumers on fixed incomes and saddled with student loans and credit card debt might opt for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage, because it represents “permanent payment affordability,” McBride said. The principal and interest will never change, because it is a fixed rate and can be easier to budget.

“It may not always be the optimal choice, but it is the safest choice,” he said.

Adjustable rate mortgages can still be beneficial if homeowners take advantage of the savings each month and allocate it towards paying down debt or into an emergency fund.

“Even if you’re still holding the 7-year ARM at the end of seven years, that doesn’t automatically turn it into a bad decision,” McBride said. “You will have banked seven years of savings relative to the fixed rate mortgage that can help you absorb any payment increases until you refinance or sell the home.”

Many consumers gravitate toward the 30-year mortgage, because the payments are stable and have been very low, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based real estate company. Others are seeking the 7-year ARM, because they are more likely to qualify for a mortgage.

Mortgage activity so far in 2016 reveals that only 3% of mortgages have had shorter rate terms, according to Realtor.com’s analysis of purchase mortgage activity. Hybrid term mortgages such as the 7/1 ARM typically increase in share when “mortgage rates rise because the shorter fixed term offers a lower rate, often between 40 and 100 basis points,” he said. “The lower rate translates into a lower payment for the duration of the initial term, which is seven years.”

Each lender utilizes a benchmark such as a the 10-year U.S. Treasury or LIBOR rate and a margin, which is “what is added to the benchmark to determine your new rate,” Smoke said. The loans also have a cap on how high any single rate change can be and also a ceiling on how high the rate can ever be, he said.

At the end of the seven years, homeowners can choose to refinance to a lower fixed rate, but need to budget for the closing costs.

A lower rate upfront can be favorable for younger homeowners, but examining the ceiling rate and how it will impact your monthly payments is crucial.

“A mortgage broker or lender can help you walk through scenarios to determine if your timeline could benefit,” Smoke said. “To help calm any nerves about just how high your payment could go, ask yourself if you are willing to exchange the initial seven year savings for how long you might keep that mortgage after the seven-year period is up.”

Paying the premium for the peace of mind that your payments will remain static means that if interest rates rise several percentages in the next few years, you won’t be faced with having to consider the lower rate options or lower priced homes and/or more money down, he said.

“That’s why hybrids will likely become more popular in the future compared to how little they are used today,” Smoke said.

Since people have a tendency to change homes every seven years on average, a 7/1 ARM could be a good option because the savings can be substantial, said David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School in N.Y.

“Even if you are not planning to move now, the future may bring changes such as divorce, frail relatives, job loss or new job opportunities,” he said. “Some people like the certainty of the 30-year fixed rate mortgages, but it is worth calculating just how much that certainty will cost you.”

Creative Credit Union Mortgages

Credit Union

DepositAccounts.com quoted me in Types of Institutions in the U.S. Banking System – Credit Unions. It reads, in part,

What You Need to Know About Credit Unions

For more than 100 years, credit unions have been providing financial services to their members. Forget about what you thought you knew about credit unions. Long gone are the days when credit unions were seemingly only a “bank” for government employees. Today some 100 million Americans are member-owners of 6,900 credit unions and credit unions have more than $1 trillion in assets.

The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) defines a credit union as a non-for-profit, member-owned financial cooperative, democratically managed by its members, and operated for the purpose of promoting thrift, providing credit at competitive rates, and providing other financial services to its members.

Simply put — credits unions are about their members, not profits.

 *     *     *

How are credit unions different from banks?

“They are structured very differently. Credit unions don’t issue stock or pay dividends to outside shareholders, so they are not beholden to outside third party interests,” says Steve Rick, chief economist of CUNA Mutual Group, an insurer and maker of financial productions within credit unions.

Each person who holds an account is a member, and each member has one vote, “rather than the voices of only the powerful few stockholders heard at for-profit banks. And all earnings go straight back to members in the form of favorable interest rates and lower fees that other for-profit institutions can’t beat,” he adds.

Banks are governed by paid shareholders and voting rights depend on the number of shares owned. Earnings go to outside bond and stockholders in the form of dividends.

As cooperatives, credit unions are part of a broader cooperative community that shares philosophies around benefiting their member owners. One of the core missions of the credit union system is to educate its members on financial issues to ensure their financial health.

“It’s worth noting that credit unions can offer creative types of mortgages that should be explored by first-time and experienced homebuyers alike. The PenFed Credit Union, along with some other credit unions, has a 5/5 ARM that adjusts every five years. A product like this combines aspects of a fixed rate mortgage (fewer, but not the fewest) surprises about payment sizes, with aspects of an ARM (lower, but not the lowest) interest rates,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor specializing in real estate.

Road to GSE Reform

photo by Antonio Correa

A bevy of housing finance big shots have issued a white paper, A More Promising Road to GSE Reform. The main objective of the proposal

is to migrate those components of today’s system that work well into a system that is no longer impaired by the components that do not, with as little disruption as possible. To do this, our proposal would merge Fannie and Freddie to form a single government corporation, which would handle all of the operations that those two institutions perform today, providing an explicit federal guarantee on mortgage-backed securities while syndicating all noncatastrophic credit risk into the private market. This would facilitate a deep, broad and competitive primary and secondary mortgage market; limit the taxpayer’s risk to where it is absolutely necessary; ensure broad access to the system for borrowers in all communities; and ensure a level playing field for lenders of all sizes.

The government corporation, which here we will call the National Mortgage Reinsurance Corporation, or NMRC, would perform the same functions as do Fannie and Freddie today. The NMRC would purchase conforming single-family and multifamily mortgage loans from originating lenders or aggregators, and issue securities backed by these loans through a single issuing platform that the NMRC owns and operates. It would guarantee the timely payment of principal and interest on the securities and perform master servicing responsibilities on the underlying loans, including setting and enforcing servicing and loan modification policies and practices. It would ensure access to credit in historically underserved communities through compliance with existing affordable-housing goals and duty-to-serve requirements. And it would provide equal footing to all lenders, large and small, by maintaining a “cash window” for mortgage purchases.

The NMRC would differ from Fannie and Freddie, however, in several important respects. It would be required to transfer all noncatastrophic credit risk on the securities that it issues to a broad range of private entities. Its mortgage-backed securities would be backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, for which it would charge an explicit guarantee fee, or g-fee, sufficient to cover any risk that the government takes. And while the NMRC would maintain a modest portfolio with which to manage distressed loans and aggregate single- and multifamily loans for securitization, it cannot use that portfolio for investment purposes. Most importantly, as a government corporation, the NMRC would be motivated neither by profit nor market share, but by a mandate to balance broad access to credit with the safety and soundness of the mortgage market. (2-3, footnotes omitted)

The authors of the white paper are

  • Jim Parrott, former Obama Administration housing policy guru
  • Lewis Ranieri, a Wall Street godfather of the securitized mortgage market
  • Gene Sperling,  Obama Administration National Economic Advisor
  • Mark Zandi, Moody’s Analytics chief economist
  • Barry Zigas, Director of Housing Policy at Consumer Federation of America

While I think the proposal has a lot going for it, I think that the lack of former Republican government officials as co-authors is telling. Members of Congress, such as Chair of the House Financial Services Committee Jeb Hensaerling  (R-TX), have taken extreme positions that leave little room for the level of government involvement contemplated in this white paper. So, I would say that the proposal has a low likelihood of success in the current political environment.

That being said, the proposal is worth considering because we’ll have to take Fannie and Freddie out of their current state of limbo at some point in the future. The proposal builds on on current developments that have been led by Fannie and Freddie’s regulator and conservator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The FHFA has required Fannie and Freddie to develop a Common Securitization Platform that is a step in the direction of a merger of the two entities. Moreover, the FHFA’s mandate that Fannie and Freddie’s experiment with risk-sharing is a step in the direction of the proposal’s syndication of “all noncatastrophic credit risk.” Finally, the fact that the two companies have remained in conservatorship for so long can be taken as a sign of their ultimate nationalization.

In some ways, I read this white paper not as a proposal to spur legislative action, but rather as a prediction of where we will end up if Congress does not act and leaves the important decisions in the hands of the FHFA. And it would not be a bad result — better than what existed before the financial crisis and better than what we have now.