A Controversial Fix for America’s Housing Market

Sustainable Economies Law Center

Insider quoted me in A Controversial Fix for America’s Housing Market: More Foreclosures. It opens,

How many people should lose their homes to foreclosure?

In an ideal world, of course, there would be no foreclosures at all. Everyone who buys a home would get one that fits their income and needs, and people would have enough money to make their mortgage payments on time and in full. But in a housing market built on debt, foreclosures are a painful reality. People lose their jobs or fall behind on payments, and lenders repossess the home to recoup their losses.

Too many foreclosures is obviously a bad thing — losing a home is devastating both financially and emotionally — but it’s also a problem to have too few foreclosures. Low rates of foreclosure activity signal that housing lenders aren’t taking enough risk, locking out hopeful buyers who could have kept up with payments on their mortgage if only lenders gave them the chance.

Most residential loans are backed by the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or the Federal Housing Administration. To try to find a happy medium of risk, the GSEs — government-sponsored enterprises — and FHA set a “credit box” to determine who gets a mortgage. The companies base these standards on factors including the borrower’s financial stability and the state of the housing market and economy. When the credit box gets tighter, fewer people get mortgages, and foreclosures generally go down. When it opens up, banks take more risks on people with lower credit scores or worse financial histories, increasing the possibility of foreclosures.

Finding the right size for the credit box is easier said than done. In the years leading up to the Great Recession, banks and private lenders handed out millions of risky loans to homebuyers who had no hope of repaying them. A tidal wave of foreclosures followed, plunging the US housing market — and the global economy — into chaos.

But some experts argue that in the years since the crash, the GSEs, lenders, and regulators overcorrected, shutting loads of potentially reliable buyers out of the housing market. Laurie Goodman, the founder of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said there’s room today to “open the credit box” and relax lending standards without pushing the housing market into crisis. More foreclosures might come as a result, she said, but that would be “a worthwhile trade-off” if it gave more people the opportunity to build wealth through homeownership.

Opening the credit box isn’t a cure-all for housing, and given the weakening economy, more cautious experts argue that making it easier to get a mortgage is unnecessary or dangerous. But if lenders do it correctly, it could be a major step toward a healthier market. A more stable credit box over time could not only ensure future homebuyers aren’t locked out of getting the home of their dreams, but could also smooth out some of the market’s chaotic nature.

The ‘invisible victims’ of the housing market

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the victims of the housing free-for-all were clear. An estimated 3.8 million homeowners lost their homes to foreclosure from 2007 to 2010, and plenty more also lost theirs in the following years. But the overly strict lending standards and tighter regulations that followed created a new class of victims: people who were unable to join the ranks of homeowners. David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, called these would-be homebuyers “invisible victims” — people who probably could have stayed current on their payments if they’d been approved for a loan but who didn’t get that opportunity.

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)

Housing Affordability and GSE Reform

Jim Parrott and Laurie Goodman of the Urban Institute have posted Making Sure the Senate’s Access and Affordability Proposal Works. It opens,

One of the most consequential and possibly promising components of the draft bill being considered in the Senate Banking Committee is the way in which it reduces the cost of a mortgage for those who need it. In the current system, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs) deliver subsidy primarily through the level pricing of their guarantee fees, overcharging lower-risk borrowers in order to undercharge higher-risk borrowers. While providing support for homeownership through cross-subsidy makes good economic and social sense, there are a number of shortcomings to the way it is done in the current system.

First, it does not effectively target those who need the help. While Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are both pushed to provide secondary market liquidity for the loans of low- and moderate-income (LMI) borrowers in order to comply with their affordable housing goals and duty to serve obligations, almost one in four beneficiaries of the subsidy are not LMI borrowers (Parrott et al. 2018). These borrowers receive the subsidy simply because their credit is poorer than the average GSE borrower and thus more costly than the average guarantee fee pricing covers. And LMI borrowers who pose less than average risk to the GSEs are picking up part of that tab, paying more in the average guarantee fee than their lower-than-average risk warrants.

Second, the subsidy is provided almost exclusively through lower mortgage rates, even though that is not the form of help all LMI borrowers need. For many, the size of their monthly mortgage is not the barrier to homeownership, but the lack of savings needed for a down payment and closing costs or to cover emergency expenses once the purchase is made. For those borrowers, the lower rate provided in the current system simply does not help.

And third, the opacity of the subsidy makes it difficult to determine who is benefiting, by how much, and whether it is actually helping. The GSEs are allocating more than $4 billion a year in subsidy, yet policymakers cannot tell how it has affected the homeownership rate of those who receive it, much less how the means of allocation compares with other means of support. We thus cannot adjust course to better allocate the support so that it provides more help those who need it.

The Senate proposal remedies each of these shortcomings, charging an explicit mortgage access fee to pay for the Housing Trust Fund, the Capital Magnet Fund, and a mortgage access fund that supports LMI borrowers, and only LMI borrowers, with one of five forms of subsidy: a mortgage rate buy-down, assistance with down payment and closing costs, funding for savings for housing-related expenses, housing counseling, and funding to offset the cost of servicing delinquent loans. Unlike the current system, the support is well targeted, helps address the entire range of impediments to homeownership, and is transparent. As a means of delivering subsidy to those who need it, the proposed system is likely to be more effective than what we have today.

If, that is, it can be designed in a way that overcomes two central challenges: determining who qualifies for the support and delivering the subsidy effectively to those who do. (1-2, footnote omitted)

This paper provides a clear framework for determining whether a housing finance reform proposal actually furthers housing affordability for those who need it most. It is unclear where things stand with the Senate housing finance reform bill as of now, but it seems like the current version of the bill is a step in the right direction.

Understanding Homeownership


The Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute released its House Finance at a Glance Chartbook for December. It states that financial education “can help reduce barriers to homeownership.” As I argue below, I do not think that financial education is the right thing to emphasize when trying to get people to enter the housing market.

The Introduction makes the case for financial education:

While mortgage debt has been stable to marginally increasing, other types of debt, particularly auto and student loan debt have increased far more rapidly. Our calculations, based on The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, show that over the past 5 years (Q3 2012 to Q3 2017), mortgage debt outstanding has grown at an annualized rate of 1.3 percent, while non-mortgage debt (which includes credit card debt, student loan debt, auto debt, and other debt) has grown by 6.8 percent annualized rate. Student loan debt has grown by 7.3 percent per year while auto debt has been growing by 9.6 percent per year. In Q3 2012, the number of accounts for mortgage loans and auto loans are very close (84 million vs 82 million). By Q3 2017, the number of accounts for mortgages had fallen to 80 million consistent with declining homeownership rate, while the number of accounts for auto loans had increased to 110 million.

Another metric where auto loans have diverged from mortgages is delinquency rates. Over the past 5 years, mortgage delinquencies have plummeted (pages 22 and 29) while the percent of auto loans that is more than 90 days late is roughly flat despite an improving economy. However, the percent of auto loans transitioning into serious delinquency has risen from 1.52 percent in Q3 2012 to 2.36 percent in Q3 2017. While these numbers remain small, the growth bears monitoring.

When we looked at the distribution of credit scores for new auto origination and new mortgage origination, we found no major change in either loan category; while mortgage credit scores are skewed higher, the distribution of mortgage credit scores (page 17) and the distribution of auto credit scores have been roughly consistent over the period. Our calculations based off NY Fed data shows the percent of auto loan origination balances with FICOs under 660 was 35.9% in Q3, 2012, it is now 31.7%; similarly the percent of auto origination with balances under 620 has contracted from 22.7 percent to 19.6 percent. There have been absolutely more auto loans with low FICOs originated, but this is because of the increased overall volume.

So what might explain the differences in trends in the delinquency rate and loan growth between these two asset classes? A good part of the story (in addition to tight mortgage credit) is that many potential low- and moderate-income borrowers do not believe they can get a mortgage. As a result, many don’t even bother to apply. We showed in our recently released report on Barriers to Accessing Homeownership that survey after survey shows that borrowers think they need far bigger down payments than they actually do. And there are many down payment assistance programs available. Moreover, it is still less expensive at the national level to own than to rent. This suggests that many LMI borrowers who are shying away from applying for a mortgage could benefit from financial education; with a better grasp of down payment facts and assistance opportunities, many of these families could be motivated to apply for mortgages and have the opportunity to build wealth. (5)

I am not sure if financial education is the whole answer here. Employment instability as well as generalized financial insecurity may be playing a bigger role in home purchases than in car purchases. The longer time horizon as well as the more serious consequences of a default with homeownership may be keeping people from stepping into the housing market. This is particularly true if renters have visions in their heads of family members or friends suffering during the long and lingering foreclosure crisis.

Taking Down Barriers to Homeownership

Laurie Goodman and her colleagues at the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center have released a report, Barriers to Accessing Homeownership Down Payment, Credit, and Affordability. The Executive Summary states that

Saving for a down payment is a considerable barrier to homeownership. With rising home prices, rising interest rates, and tight lending standards, the path to homeownership has become more challenging, especially for low-to-median-income borrowers and first-time homebuyers. Yet most potential homebuyers are largely unaware that there are low–down payment and no–down payment assistance programs available at the local, state, and federal levels to help eligible borrowers secure an appropriate down payment. This report provides charts and commentary to articulate the challenges families face saving for down payments as well as the options available to help them. This report is accompanied by an interactive map.

Barrier 1. Down Payments

• Consumers often think they need to put more down than lenders actually require. Survey results show that 53 percent of renters cite saving for a down payment as an obstacle to homeownership. Eighty percent of consumers either are unaware of how much lenders require for a down payment or believe all lenders require a down payment above 5 percent. Fifteen percent believe lenders require a 20 percent down payment, and 30 percent believe lenders expect a 20 percent down payment.

• Contrary to consumer perceptions, borrowers are not actually putting down 20 percent. The national median loan-to-value (LTV) ratio is 93 percent. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) typically offer lower down payment options than the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), from 0 to 3.5 percent. As the share of FHA and VA lending has increased considerably in the post-crisis period (since 2008), the median LTV ratio has increased as well.

*    *    *

Barrier 2. The Credit Box

• Access to homeownership is not limited by down payments alone. Credit access is tight by historical standards. Accordingly, the median credit score of new purchase mortgage originations has increased considerably in the post-crisis period. The median credit score for purchase mortgages is 779, compared with the pre-crisis median of 692. Credit scores of FHA borrowers have historically been lower; the current median credit score is 671.

*    *    *

Barrier 3. Affordability

• Because of home price appreciation in the past five years, national home price affordability has declined. Low interest rates have aided affordability. If interest rates reach 4.75 percent, national affordability will return to historical average affordability.

*    *    *

Access to Down Payment Assistance

• Low–down payment mortgages and other down payment assistance programs provide grants or loans to potential homeowners all over the country. There are 2,144 active programs across the country, and 1,295 agencies and housing finance agencies offering them at the local, state, and national levels. One of the major challenges of the offerings in each state is that they are not standard, eligibility requirements vary, and not all lenders offer the programs. Pricing for the programs also vary, so counseling and consumer education about the programs is necessary to ensure consumers understand how the program works and any additional costs that may be incurred.

*    *    *

• Eligibility for down payment assistance programs is determined by such factors as loan amount, homebuyer status, borrower income, and family size. Assistance is available for many loan types including conventional, FHA, VA, and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) loans. The share of people eligible for assistance in select MSAs ranges from 30 to 52 percent, and the eligible borrowers could qualify for 3 to 12 programs with down payment assistance ranging from $2,000 to more than $30,000.

Because of the tight credit environment, many borrowers have been shut out of the market and have not been able to take advantage of low interest rates and affordable home prices. As the credit box opens, educating consumers about low–down payment mortgages and down payment assistance is critical to ensuring homeownership is available to more families. (V-VI, emphasis removed)

Storm-Induced Delinquencies

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has released its November 2017 Housing Finance at a Glance Chartbook. The Introduction looks out how this summer’s big storms have pushed up delinquency rates:

The Mortgage Bankers Association recently released the results of its National Delinquency Survey (NDS) for Q3 2017. The non-seasonally adjusted NDS data for Q3 2017 showed a significant increase in delinquency rates across all past due categories (30-59 days, 60-89 days and 90 days and over). The increase was largest–and most noteworthy–for the 30-59 day category, spiking by 57 basis points from 2.27 percent in Q2 2017 to 2.84 percent in Q3. The D60 rate increased by a much smaller 12 basis points, from 0.74 to 0.86 percent, while the D90 rate increased the least, by 9 basis points, from 1.20 to 1.29 percent. The rise in delinquencies was broad based, affecting FHA, VA and Conventional channels with FHA D30 seeing the largest increase (4.57 to 5.92 percent).
While early payment delinquency rates were expected to increase in the wake of the storms Harvey, Irma and Maria for the affected states, the magnitude of increase in the D30 rate is quite remarkable. The reported Q3 2017 D30 rate is the highest in nearly four years. The 57 basis points increase in a single quarter was also the largest in recent history. The last time D30 rate increased by more than 50 bps in one quarter was in Q4 2000, when it rose by 61 bps. In comparison, both D60 and D90 rates, while slightly higher in Q3, are well within their recent range.
MBA’s state level NDS data confirms that storms were a major driver behind the increase. For Florida, the non-seasonally adjusted D30 rate more than doubled from 2.12 to 4.64 percent, the highest ever D30 rate recorded. The D30 rate for Puerto Rico also nearly doubled from 4.98 to 9.12 percent, while Texas D30 rate increased from 5.05 to 7.38 percent. The increase in FL and PR was larger than in TX because of the statewide impact of hurricanes Irma and Maria. In contrast Harvey’s impact was limited to Houston and surrounding areas. The increase in the D90 rate is not storm-related as not enough time has elapsed since the storms made landfall (Harvey made landfall in Houston on August 25, Irma made landfall in Florida on September 9, and Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20).
Besides storms, there are other factors that are driving the D30 rate higher. As the figure shows, there is a very strong seasonal pattern associated with 30 day delinquencies. The D30 rate typically witnesses an uptick in the second half of each calendar year after declining in the first half because of tax refunds. Another reason for the Q3 increase is that the last day of September was a Saturday, which means that payments received on this day were not processed until Monday Oct 2nd and were identified as past due (mortgage payments are due on the 1st of the month; D30 rate is based on mortgages unpaid as of 30th of the month).
There is one more thing worth pointing out. Many borrowers affected by recent storms have received forbearance plans that allow them to defer mortgage payments for a few months. Under the NDS methodology, these borrowers are considered delinquent. Many will likely resume making monthly payments once they regain their financial footing or after forbearance ends. Others unable to afford payments could get a loan modification. Therefore, although it will take several quarters before the eventual impact of storms on delinquency rates becomes clear, many borrowers who are currently 30-days delinquent might not enter D60 or D90 status.
While the Chartbook does not look at the longer term impact of climate change on mortgage markets, it is clear that policy makers need to account for it in terms of mortgage servicing, flood insurance, land use and building code regulation.

Your Lender, The Federal Reserve Board

photo by United States Federal Reserve

Federal Reserve Chair Yellen

Laurie Goodman and Bing Bai at the Urban Institute have posted Normalizing the Federal Reserve’s Balance Sheet The Impact on the Mortgage-Backed Securities Market. It is quite extraordinary to realize that the Federal Reserve owns nearly a third of outstanding residential mortgage-backed securities. When we think about the appropriate role of the government in the housing finance market, we cannot forget about this type of involvement. The paper opens,

During the crisis, the Federal Reserve found the traditional tools for monetary policy insufficient to stimulate the economy. From December 2008 to December 2015, the Fed’s primary policy tool, the target Fed funds rate, was set between 0 and 0.25 percent. But the economy remained weak, and there was no room to cut rates further. As a result, the Fed began to purchase large quantities of assets from the private sector. These programs are referred to as quantitative easing or large-scale asset purchases. The Fed owned $1.77 trillion of agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and $2.45 trillion of US Treasury securities (Treasuries) in late September 2017 and began to reduce the amount of these portfolio holdings in October 2017.

Some background: Since the Great Recession, the Fed has done three rounds of quantitative easing. From November 2008 to March 2010, it purchased $1.75 trillion in long-term Treasuries, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac agency debentures, and agency mortgage-back securities (comprising Ginnie Mae, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac issuances). From November 2010 to June 2011, the Fed purchased an additional $600 billion of Treasuries. From September 2012 to September 2014, the Fed engaged in its third round of quantitative easing, initially purchasing $85 billion a month in Treasuries and agency debt and MBS, with $40 billion of agency MBS. The Fed began to taper its purchases in December 2013 and ended the program in October 2014. From October 2014 through September 2017, the Fed has reinvested its runoff. Through these actions, the Fed owned $1.77 trillion of agency MBS, nearly 29 percent of all outstanding MBS as of late September 2017.

The Federal Open Market Committee announced on September 20, 2017, that it would begin to normalize its balance sheet in October 2017. The committee has been transparent about the course. It will begin by reducing the reinvestment rates on its portfolio. In months 1 through 3, the Fed would let the System Open Market Account (SOMA) portfolio run off by $10 billion each month, increasing to $20 billion in months 4 through 6, $30 billion in months 6 through 9, $40 billion in months 10 through 12, and $50 billion a month thereafter. The maximum runoff in each month, if met, would comprise 60 percent Treasuries and 40 percent MBS. If there is not enough runoff in that month, the Fed will not sell to meet these targets.

Although this timetable is clear, additional questions arise about the MBS portfolio that the Fed should shed some light on. The largest questions include the following: What size and mix of assets does the Fed eventually want to hold? And how does it intend to get there? In this brief, we argue that this is not an academic exercise. When the Fed reaches its desired balance sheet size, it will hold approximately $1.18 trillion in mortgage assets. It will take a long time for these to run off if there is no selling. This may be fine, but the Fed has made several comments that indicate it could sell the “residual.” For example, the minutes of the September 2014 meeting includes the following statement:

The Committee currently does not anticipate selling agency mortgage-backed securities as part of the normalization process, although limited sales might be warranted in the longer run to reduce or eliminate residual holdings. The timing and pace of any sales would be communicated to the public in advance.

It is not at all clear what constitutes a “residual.”

This brief has four sections. The first shows that under assumptions reasonably close to what the Fed has used, there will still be close to $1.18 trillion of MBS on its books when the Fed balance sheet normalizes. We then review the arguments about the Fed’s long-term desired portfolio mix. If it is Treasuries only, this raises questions about whether and how quickly the Fed should change its mortgage and treasury mix to avoid making asset allocation decisions that distort financial markets. In the third section, we argue that the Fed should do some active portfolio management while they are still doing a small amount of reinvestment. Finally, we make the case that the Fed could play a costless and helpful role in launching the single government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) security. (1-2)

The paper raises some important policy questions:

There has been considerable discussion on what role mortgages should play in the Fed’s portfolio. There is general but not universal agreement that the Fed should not be in the asset allocation business over the long term because it distorts financial market prices. Lawrence White has stated that “government programs that divert credit away from the most productive uses, as evaluated by the marketplace, are inherently wasteful, even if policymakers have the best of intentions.” Charles Plosser, a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, sees additional dangers, noting that holding securities other than Treasuries opens the door for Congress (or the Fed) to use the balance sheet for political purposes. The Fed’s balance sheet could be “a huge intermediary and supplier of taxpayer subsidies to selected parties through credit allocation.” For example, if there was an infrastructure bill, the funds could be used to purchase the bonds that support the infrastructure initiative. Similarly, the funds could be used to purchase bonds to keep a municipality from defaulting. (9, citations omitted)

The Fed should address these policy questions head on, before any unintended consequences of such a dramatic policy intervention make themselves known.