Understanding The Ability To Repay Rule

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

The Spring 2017 edition of the Consumer Financial Bureau’s Supervisory Highlights contains “Observations and approach to compliance with the Ability to Repay (ATR) rule requirements. The ability to repay rule is intended to keep lenders from making and borrowers from taking on unsustainable mortgages, mortgages with payments that borrowers cannot reliably make.  By way of background,

Prior to the mortgage crisis, some creditors offered consumers mortgages without considering the consumer’s ability to repay the loan, at times engaging in the loose underwriting practice of failing to verify the consumer’s debts or income. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act) amended the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) to provide that no creditor may make a residential mortgage loan unless the creditor makes a reasonable and good faith determination based on verified and documented information that, at the time the loan is consummated, the consumer has a reasonable ability to repay the loan according to its terms, as well as all applicable taxes, insurance (including mortgage guarantee insurance), and assessments. The Dodd-Frank Act also amended TILA by creating a presumption of compliance with these ability-to-repay (ATR) requirements for creditors originating a specific category of loans called “qualified mortgage” (QM) loans. (3-4, footnotes omitted)

Fundamentally, the Bureau seeks to determine “whether a creditor’s ATR determination is reasonable and in good faith by reviewing relevant lending policies and procedures and a sample of loan files and assessing the facts and circumstances of each extension of credit in the sample.” (4)

The ability to repay analysis does not focus solely on income, it also looks at assets that are available to repay the mortgage:

a creditor may base its determination of ability to repay on current or reasonably expected income from employment or other sources, assets other than the dwelling (and any attached real property) that secures the covered transaction, or both. The income and/or assets relied upon must be verified. In situations where a creditor makes an ATR determination that relies on assets and not income, CFPB examiners would evaluate whether the creditor reasonably and in good faith determined that the consumer’s verified assets suffice to establish the consumer’s ability to repay the loan according to its terms, in light of the creditor’s consideration of other required ATR factors, including: the consumer’s mortgage payment(s) on the covered transaction, monthly payments on any simultaneous loan that the creditor knows or has reason to know will be made, monthly mortgage-related obligations, other monthly debt obligations, alimony and child support, monthly DTI ratio or residual income, and credit history. In considering these factors, a creditor relying on assets and not income could, for example, assume income is zero and properly determine that no income is necessary to make a reasonable determination of the consumer’s ability to repay the loan in light of the consumer’s verified assets. (6-7)

That being said, the Bureau reiterates that “a down payment cannot be treated as an asset for purposes of considering the consumer’s income or assets under the ATR rule.” (7)

The ability to repay rule protects lenders and borrowers from themselves. While some argue that this is paternalistic, we do not need to go much farther back than the early 2000s to find an era where so-called “equity-based” lending pushed many people on fixed incomes into default and foreclosure.

Dodd-Frank Repeal Unappealing for Homeowners

photo by Gage Skidmore

Congressman Jeb Hensarling

The Hill published my latest column, Why Repealing Dodd-Frank Is Unappealing if You Own a Home. It opens, 

President Trump has made it clear that he wished to dismantle the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Just two weeks after his inauguration, he issued an executive order to get the ball rolling by means of agency action, an effort that will be led by the Department of the Treasury. Trump will have lots of allies in Congress as he pursues this agenda. A recent memo by House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) to his committee’s leadership team outlines a legislative path that leads to much the same goal.

One of the key components of the Dodd-Frank regulatory regime was the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The bureau is responsible for administering a range of consumer protection regulations, some of which predate Dodd-Frank and some of which were mandated by it. Homeowners should sit up and take notice because a lot of protections they can now take for granted will be stripped away if this push is successful.

Many of these regulations protect homeowners as they obtain mortgages for their homes. Others protect homeowners over the life of the mortgages, particularly when they are having trouble keeping up with their mortgage payments because of those common life events that still knock us for a loop when they happen to us: job loss, divorce, medical bills, a death in the family.

Hensarling’s memo makes clear the extent to which he wants to weaken the CFPB. Among many other things, he wants to eliminate the bureau’s consumer education functions, bar it from commencing actions involving unfair, deceptive or abusive acts and practices, end its practice of tracking consumer complaints, and stop if from monitoring and conducting research on the consumer credit market.

Before the financial crisis, homeowners suffered from a range of abusive and predatory behaviors that were prevalent in the mortgage industry for years and years. Lenders would lend without regard to a borrower’s ability to repay a loan, so long as there was sufficient equity in the home to make the lender whole after a foreclosure. Dodd-Frank’s ability-to-repay rule keeps lenders from doing that now. Lenders would make loans that had large balloon payments at the end of the term, forcing unsophisticated borrowers to refinance with all of the fees and costs that that entails. The lenders would look at those refinancing costs as another profit center. Dodd-Frank’s qualified mortgage rule banned those abusive balloon payments for the most part.

While Hensarling claims that Dodd-Frank “clogs the arteries of capitalism,” he seems to forget that unfettered capitalism nearly gave us a fatal heart attack just 10 years ago, when the subprime mortgage crisis led us to the brink of a second Great Depression. He seems to forget that predatory mortgage lending is not only bad for the individuals affected by it, but also for the housing market and economy in general. Housing prices did not just fall for those with unsustainable mortgages—they fell for all of us.

The push to get rid of the CFPB is not being driven by the consumer finance industry. The industry has learned to live with the bureau. It has come to see that there are some benefits that accrue from primarily dealing with one regulator, in place of the patchwork of regulators that was the norm before Dodd-Frank. Rather, the push is being driven by an unfettered free market ideology that is out of step with the workings of the modern economy.

Getting rid of the CFPB will be bad for homeowners. They will no longer be able to assume that a mortgage they receive is one that has payments they can make month-in and month-out. They will need to treat lenders as predators because predatory lending will certainly return to the mortgage market. Caveat emptor.