Mortgage Servicing Since The Financial Crisis

photo by Dan Brown

Standard & Poors issued a report, A Decade After The Financial Crisis, What’s The New Normal For Residential Mortgage Servicing? It provides a good overview of how this hidden infrastructure of the mortgage market is functioning after it emerged from the crucible of the subprime and foreclosure crises. It reads, in part,

Ten years after the start of the financial crisis, residential mortgage servicing is finally settling into a new sense of normal. Before the crisis, mortgage servicing was a fairly static business. Traditional prime servicers had low delinquency rates, regulatory requirements rarely changed, and servicing systems were focused on core functions such as payment processing, investor accounting, escrow management, and customer service. Subprime was a specific market with specialty servicers, which used high-touch collection practices rather than the low-touch model prime servicers used. Workout options for delinquent borrowers mainly included repayment plans or extensions. And though servicers completed some modifications, short sales, and deeds in lieu of foreclosure, these were exceptions to the normal course of business.

Today, residential mortgage servicing involves complex regulation, increased mandatory workout options, and multiple layers of internal control functions. Over the past 10 years servicers have had to not only modify their processes, but also hire more employees and enhance their technology infrastructure and internal controls to support those new processes. As a result, servicing mortgage loans has become less profitable, which has caused loan servicers to consolidate and has created a barrier to entry for new servicers. While the industry expects reduced regulatory requirements under the Trump administration and delinquency rates to continue to fall, we do not foresee servicers reverting to pre-crisis operational processes. Instead, we expect states to maintain, and in some cases enhance, their regulatory requirements to fill the gap for any lifted or reduced at the federal level. Additionally, most mortgage loan servicers have already invested in new processes and technology, and despite the cost to support these and adapt to any additional requirements, we do not expect them to strip back the controls that have become their new normal. (2/10, citation omitted)

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As The Economy Improves, Delinquency Rates Have Become More Stable

Total delinquency rates have only just begun returning to around pre-crisis levels as the economy–and borrowers’ abilities to make their mortgage payments–has improved (see charts 1 and 2). Lower delinquency rates can also be attributed to delinquent accounts moving through the default management process, either becoming reperforming loans after modifications or through liquidation. New regulatory requirements have also extended workout timelines for delinquent accounts. In 2010, one year after 90-plus delinquency rates hit a high point, the percentage of prime and subprime loans in foreclosure actually surpassed the percentage that were more than 90 days delinquent–a trend that continued until 2013 for prime loans and 2014 for subprime loans. But since the end of 2014, all delinquency buckets have remained fairly stable, with overall delinquency rates for prime loans down to slightly over 4% for 2016 from a peak of just over 8% in 2009. Overall delinquency rates for subprime loans have fluctuated more since the peak at 29% in 2009. (2/10)

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Modifications Now Make Up About Half Of Loan Workout Strategies

Government agencies and government-sponsored enterprises (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) developed new formal modification programs beginning in 2008 to address the rising delinquency and foreclosure rates. The largest of these programs was HAMP, launched in March 2009. While HAMP was required for banks accepting funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), all servicers were allowed to participate. These programs required that servicers exhaust all loss mitigation options before completing foreclosure. This requirement, and the fact that servicers started receiving incentives to complete modifications, spurred the increase in modifications. (4/10)

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Foreclosure Timelines Have Become Longer

As the number of loans in foreclosure rose during the financial crisis, the requirements associated with the foreclosure process grew. As a result, the time it took to complete the foreclosure process increased to almost 475 days in 2016 from more than 160 days in 2007–an increase of almost 200%. While this is not a weighted average and therefore not adjusted for states with smaller or larger foreclosure portfolios, which could skew the average, the data show longer timelines across all states. And even though the percentage of loans in foreclosure has decreased in recent years (to 1% and 9% by the end of 2016 for prime and subprime, respectively, from peaks of 3% in 2010 and 13% in 2011) the time it takes to complete a foreclosure has still not lessened (6/10)

Banks v. Cities

The Supreme Court issued a decision in Bank of America Corp. v. Miami, 581 U.S. __ (2017). The decision was a mixed result for the parties.  On the one hand, the Court ruled that a municipality could sue financial institutions for violations of the Fair Housing Act arising from predatory lending. Miami alleged that the banks’ predatory lending led to a disproportionate increase in foreclosures and vacancies which decreased property tax revenues and increased the demand for municipal services. On the other hand, the Court held that Miami had not shown that the banks’ actions were directly related to injuries asserted by Miami. As a result, the Court remanded the case to the Eleventh Circuit to determine whether that in fact was the case. This case could have big consequences for how lenders and others and other big players in the housing industry develop their business plans.

For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the banks’ activities of the banks that Miami alleged they engaged in during the early 2000s. It is important to remember the kinds of problems that communities faced before the financial crisis and before the Dodd-Frank Act authorized the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. As President Trump and Chairman Hensarling (R-TX) of the House Financial Services Committee continue their assault on consumer protection regulation, we should understand the Wild West environment that preceded our current regulatory environment. Miami’s complaints charge that

the Banks discriminatorily imposed more onerous, and indeed “predatory,” conditions on loans made to minority borrowers than to similarly situated nonminority borrowers. Those “predatory” practices included, among others, excessively high interest rates, unjustified fees, teaser low-rate loans that overstated refinancing opportunities, large prepayment penalties, and—when default loomed—unjustified refusals to refinance or modify the loans. Due to the discriminatory nature of the Banks’ practices, default and foreclosure rates among minority borrowers were higher than among otherwise similar white borrowers and were concentrated in minority neighborhoods. Higher foreclosure rates lowered property values and diminished property-tax revenue. Higher foreclosure rates—especially when accompanied by vacancies—also increased demand for municipal services, such as police, fire, and building and code enforcement services, all needed “to remedy blight and unsafe and dangerous conditions” that the foreclosures and vacancies generate. The complaints describe statistical analyses that trace the City’s financial losses to the Banks’ discriminatory practices. (3-4, citations omitted)

Excessively high interest rates, unjustified fees, teaser interest rates and large prepayment penalties were all hallmarks of the subprime mortgage market in the early 2000s. The Supreme Court has ruled that such activities may arise to violations of the Fair Housing Act when they are targeted at minority communities.

Dodd-Frank has barred many such loan terms from a large swath of the mortgage market through its Qualified Mortgage and Ability-to-Repay rules. Trump and Hensarling want to bring those loan terms back to the mortgage market in the name of lifting regulatory burdens from financial institutions.

What’s worse, the  burden of regulation on the banks or the burden of predatory lending on the borrowers? I’d go with the latter.

The State of the Union’s Housing in 2016

photo by Lawrence Jackson

The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University has released its excellent annual report, The State of the Nation’s Housing for 2016. It finds,

With household growth finally picking up, housing should help boost the economy. Although homeownership rates are still falling, the bottom may be in sight as the lingering effects of the housing crash continue to dissipate. Meanwhile, rental demand is driving the housing recovery, and tight markets have added to already pressing affordability challenges. Local governments are working to develop new revenue sources to expand the affordable housing supply, but without greater federal assistance, these efforts will fall far short of need. (1)

Its specific findings include,

  • nominal home prices were back within 6 percent of their previous peak in early 2016, although still down nearly 20 percent in real terms. The uptick in nominal prices helped to reduce the number of homeowners underwater on their mortgages from 12.1 million at the end of 2011 to 4.3 million at the end of 2015. Delinquency rates also receded, with the share of loans entering foreclosure down sharply as well. (1)
  • The US homeownership rate has tumbled to its lowest level in nearly a half-century. . . . But a closer look at the forces driving this trend suggests that the weakness in homeownership should moderate over the next few years. (2)
  • The rental market continues to drive the housing recovery, with over 36 percent of US households opting to rent in 2015—the largest share since the late 1960s. Indeed, the number of renters increased by 9 million over the past decade, the largest 10-year gain on record. Rental demand has risen across all age groups, income levels, and household types, with large increases among older renters and families with children. (3)

There is a lot more of value in the report, but I will leave it to readers to locate what is relevant to their own interests in the housing industry.

I would be remiss, though, in not reiterating my criticism of this annual report: it fails to adequately disclose who funded it. The acknowledgments page says that principal funding for it comes from the Center’s Policy Advisory Board, but it does not list the members of the board.

Most such reports have greater transparency about funders, but the interested reader of this report would need to search the Center’s website for information about its funders. And there, the reader would see that the board is made up of many representatives of real estate companies including housing finance giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; national developers, like Hovnanian Enterprises and KB Homes; and major construction suppliers, such as Marvin Windows and Doors and Kohler. Nothing wrong with that, but disclosure of such ties is now to be expected from think tanks and academic centers.  The Joint Center for Housing Studies should follow suit.

The Prime Crisis

Ben Franklin, Founder of the University of Pennsylvania

Fernando Ferreira and Joseph Gyourko, both at Penn’s Wharton School, have posted A New Look at the U.S. Foreclosure Crisis: Panel Data Evidence of Prime and Subprime Borrowers from 1997 to 2012 to SSRN. Unfortunately it is behind a National Bureau of Economic Research paywall. The paper makes the case for “a reinterpretation of the U.S. foreclosure crisis as more of a prime, rather than a subprime, borrower issue.” (1) The authors conclude,

The housing bust and its consequences are among the defining economic events of the past quarter century. Constructing and analyzing new and very large micro data spanning the cycle and all sectors of the mortgage market leads us to reinterpret the ensuing foreclosure crisis as something much more than a subprime sector issue. Many more homes were lost by prime mortgage borrowers, and their loss rates not only increased relatively early in the crisis, but stayed high through 2012. This new characterization of the crisis motivates a very different empirical strategy from previous research on this topic. Rather than focus solely on the subprime sector and subprime traits, we turn to the traditional home mortgage default literature that explains outcomes in terms of common factors such as negative equity and borrower illiquidity.

The key empirical finding is that negative equity conditions can explain virtually all of the difference in foreclosure and short sale outcomes of Prime borrowers compared to all Cash owners. This is true on average, over time (including the spike in their foreclosure rate beginning in 2009), and across metropolitan areas. Given the predominance of this group in terms of foreclosures and short sales, this is tantamount to explaining the crisis itself. We can explain much, but not all, of the variation in Subprime borrower outcomes in terms of negative equity or borrower illiquidity conditions, so something potentially ‘special’ about the subprime sector still is unaccounted for. That said, it also could be that a less noisy measure of borrower illiquidity would be able to account for this residual variation. That remains for future research.

None of the other ‘usual suspects’ raised by previous research or public commentators change this conclusion. Housing quality traits, household demographics (race or gender), buyer income, and speculator status do not have a material influence on outcomes across borrower types. Certain loan-related attributes such as initial LTV, whether a refinancing occurred or a second mortgage was taken on, and loan cohort origination quarter do have some independent influence, but they are much weaker than that of current LTV. (27)

I will have to leave it to other empiricists to evaluate whether this sure-to-be-controversial study is methodologically sound, but I sure did find their policy conclusion to be interesting:

We are not able to provide a definitive recommendation one way or another, but we can rule out one noteworthy reason offered for not aiding homeowners—namely, that the crisis was mostly about irresponsible subprime sector actors (both lenders and borrowers) who were undeserving of transfers. Of course, this is not to say that there was no such behavior. The evidence from other research and serious journalists is that there was. However, it is clear from the passage of time (and the accumulation and analysis of new data that provides) that the problem was much more widespread and systemic.  (28)

Hopefully, this is a lesson that we can take with us into the next (inevitable) housing crisis so we lay the foundation for policy solutions based on facts and not rely on moral judgments about borrowers that are built on shaky ground.