Easy Money From Fannie Mae

The San Francisco Chronicle quoted me in Fannie Mae Making It Easier to Spend Half Your Income on Debt. It reads in part,

Fannie Mae is making it easier for some borrowers to spend up to half of their monthly pretax income on mortgage and other debt payments. But just because they can doesn’t mean they should.

“Generally, it’s a pretty poor idea,” said Holly Gillian Kindel, an adviser with Mosaic Financial Partners. “It flies in the face of common financial wisdom and best practices.”

Fannie is a government agency that can buy or insure mortgages that meet its underwriting criteria. Effective July 29, its automated underwriting software will approve loans with debt-to-income ratios as high as 50 percent without “additional compensating factors.” The current limit is 45 percent.

Fannie has been approving borrowers with ratios between 45 and 50 percent if they had compensating factors, such as a down payment of least 20 percent and at least 12 months worth of “reserves” in bank and investment accounts. Its updated software will not require those compensating factors.

Fannie made the decision after analyzing many years of payment history on loans between 45 and 50 percent. It said the change will increase the percentage of loans it approves, but it would not say by how much.

That doesn’t mean every Fannie-backed loan can go up 50 percent. Borrowers still must have the right combination of loan-to-value ratio, credit history, reserves and other factors. In a statement, Fannie said the change is “consistent with our commitment to sustainable homeownership and with the safe and sound operation of our business.”

Before the mortgage meltdown, Fannie was approving loans with even higher debt ratios. But 50 percent of pretax income is still a lot to spend on housing and other debt.

The U.S. Census Bureau says households that spend at least 30 percent of their income on housing are “cost-burdened” and those that spend 50 percent or more are “severely cost burdened.”

The Dodd-Frank Act, designed to prevent another financial crisis, authorized the creation of a “qualified mortgage.” These mortgages can’t have certain risky features, such as interest-only payments, terms longer than 30 years or debt-to-income ratios higher than 43 percent. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said a 43 percent limit would “protect consumers” and “generally safeguard affordability.”

However, loans that are eligible for purchase by Fannie Mae and other government agencies are deemed qualified mortgages, even if they allow ratios higher than 43 percent. Freddie Mac, Fannie’s smaller sibling, has been backing loans with ratios up to 50 percent without compensating factors since 2011. The Federal Housing Administration approves loans with ratios up to 57 percent, said Ed Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute Center on Housing Risk.

Since 2014, lenders that make qualified mortgages can’t be sued if they go bad, so most lenders have essentially stopped making non-qualified mortgages.

Lenders are reluctant to make jumbo loans with ratios higher than 43 percent because they would not get the legal protection afforded qualified mortgages. Jumbos are loans that are too big to be purchased by Fannie and Freddie. Their limit in most parts of the Bay Area is $636,150 for one-unit homes.

Fannie’s move comes at a time when consumer debt is soaring. Credit card debt surpassed $1 trillion in December for the first time since the recession and now stands behind auto loans ($1.1 trillion) and student loans ($1.4 trillion), according to the Federal Reserve.

That’s making it harder for people to get or refinance a mortgage. In April, Fannie announced three small steps it was taking to make it easier for people with education loans to get a mortgage.

Some consumer groups are happy to see Fannie raising its debt limit to 50 percent. “I think there are enough other standards built into the Fannie Mae underwriting system where this is not going to lead to predatory loans,” said Geoff Walsh, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

Mike Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, said, “There are households that can afford these loans, including moderate-income households.” When they are carefully underwritten and fully documented “they can perform at that level.” He pointed out that a lot of tenants are managing to pay at least 50 percent of income on rent.

A new study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University noted that 10 percent of homeowners and 25.5 percent of renters are spending at least 50 percent of their income on housing.

When Fannie calculates debt-to-income ratios, it starts with the monthly payment on the new loan (including principal, interest, property tax, homeowners association dues, homeowners insurance and private mortgage insurance). Then it adds the monthly payment on credit cards (minimum payment due), auto, student and other loans and alimony.

It divides this total debt by total monthly income. It will consider a wide range of income that is stable and verifiable including wages, bonuses, commissions, pensions, investments, alimony, disability, unemployment and public assistance.

Fannie figures a creditworthy borrower with $10,000 in monthly income could spend up to $5,000 on mortgage and debt payments. Not everyone agrees.

“If you have a debt ratio that high, the last thing you should be doing is buying a house. You are stretching yourself way too thin,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst with Bankrate.com.

*     *     *

“If this is data-driven as Fannie says, I guess it’s OK,” said David Reiss, who teaches real estate finance at Brooklyn Law School. “People can make decisions themselves. We have these rules for the median person. A lot of immigrant families have no problem spending 60 or 70 percent (of income) on housing. They have cousins living there, they rent out a room.”

Reiss added that homeownership rates are low and expanding them “seems reasonable.” But making credit looser “will probably drive up housing prices.”

The article condensed my comments, but they do reflect the fact that the credit box is too tight and that there is room to loosen it up a bit. The Qualified Mortgage and Ability-to-Repay rules promote the 43% debt-to-income ratio because they provide good guidance for “traditional” nuclear American families.  But there are American households where multigenerational living is the norm, as is the case with many families of recent immigrants. These households may have income streams which are not reflected in the mortgage application.

The Advantages of ARMs

photo by Kathleen Zarubin

The Wall Street Journal quoted me in Why Home Buyers Should Consider Adjustable-Rate Mortgages (behind paywall). It opens,

While many out-of-the-mainstream loans got a black eye in the subprime debacle, today’s versions have been shorn of the toxic features—such as negative amortization and prepayment penalties—that tripped up many borrowers during the housing bubble a decade ago.

Plan to move

Experts say today’s adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs, as well as interest-only loans, are especially suitable for borrowers who expect to move before any rate increases can wipe out the savings in the early years. They’re also useful for sophisticated borrowers wrestling with uneven income, borrowers who expect their income to rise, or borrowers who are willing to bet they can invest their mortgage savings for a greater return elsewhere.

“Many of the mortgage products that some may have thought slipped into extinction, such as interest-only loans, do still exist today, but in far less volume” than in the heyday of the subprime era, says Bill Handel, vice president of research and product development at Raddon Financial Group, consultant to the financial-services industry.

Adds David Reiss, a law professor and academic program director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School: “The benefits of non-30-year, fixed-rate mortgages are legion.”

A sweet spot

Many borrowers can find a sweet spot, for example, in the so-called 7/1 adjustable-rate mortgage, which carries a fixed rate for seven years before starting annual adjustments. With a typical rate of 3.75%, the monthly payment on a $300,000 loan would be $1,389, compared with $1,449 for a 30-year, fixed-rate loan at 4.1%, saving the borrower $5,040 over seven years.

Even if the loan rate then went up, it could take two or three years for higher payments to offset the initial savings, making the mortgage a good choice for a borrower likely to move within 10 years. Once annual adjustments begin, they are generally calculated by adding a fixed margin to a floating rate, such as the London interbank offered rate.

“ARMs are very underutilized,” says Mat Ishbia, president of United Wholesale Mortgage, a lender in Troy, Mich. He expects the 7/1 ARM to account for 15% of new mortgages within the next few years, up from less than 5% today. Historically, ARMs become more popular as interest rates rise, making savings from the loan’s low initial “teaser rate” more attractive, he notes.

Minority Homeownership During the Great Recession

photo by Daniel X. O'Neil

Print by Andy Kane

Carlos Garriga et al. have posted The Homeownership Experience of Minorities During the Great Recession to SSRN. The paper concludes,

The Great Recession wiped out much of the homeownership gains attained during the housing boom. However, the homeownership experience was very different across racial and ethnic groups. Black and Hispanic borrowers experienced substantial repayment difficulties that ultimately led to a greater share of homes in foreclosure.

Given that home equity often represents a substantial share of household wealth, these foreclosure events severely damaged the balance sheets of minority families. The dynamics of delinquency and foreclosure functioned differently across the income distribution within racial and ethnic groups.

For the majority, higher income was associated with lower delinquency rates and fewer foreclosures as a group. However, for Hispanic families this relationship was surprisingly reversed. Hispanics with the highest incomes fared worse than those with the lowest incomes. This counterintuitive finding suggests how college-educated Hispanic families may have had worse wealth outcomes than their non-college-educated peers: Hispanic families with high income (potentially the result of high educational attainment) had a greater share of home equity lost in foreclosure than lower-income Hispanic families.

Logit regressions suggest that underwriting standards and loan structure explain a significant amount of the greater likelihood of foreclosure among Black and Hispanic borrowers. However, underwriting standards explained more of the gap for Black borrowers, while loan structure was a stronger factor among Hispanic borrowers. Regional concentration and variation in housing markets explained more of the Hispanic-White foreclosure gap than any other group. This is understandable given that Hispanic borrowers in our sample were heavily concentrated in housing markets that experienced some of the largest volatility. Despite accounting for these important factors, sizable gaps remain in foreclosures among Blacks and Hispanics relative to Whites. Incorporating measures of labor market outcomes into the analysis may offer further insights.

In sum, the homeownership experience during the Great Recession proved to be inimical for many families, but far more so for Black and Hispanic families. For these families, financially destructive foreclosure events delayed and potentially derailed the dream of homeownership. (164-65)

I am not sure what this all means for housing finance policy other than the obvious: consumer protection in the mortgage market is a good thing as it ensures that underwriting standards evaluate ability-to-repay and loan structures exclude abusive terms like teaser rates (thanks to the ATR and QM rules and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). There are probably other policies that we should consider to reduce the depths of our busts, but they do not seem likely to gain traction in the current political environment.

Home Equity Loan Resets

photo by Karel Chladek

Newsday quoted me in Know What To Do When Your Home Equity Loan Resets (behind paywall). It opens,

Whoever said what you don’t know can’t hurt you, was wrong. Take for example the 43% of U.S. homeowners polled by TD Bank, who over the next couple of years will have their Home Equity Lines of Credit (HELOC) reset. More than a quarter of them don’t know when their draw period ends.

People use HELOCs for things like home renovations, medical bills and college tuition. With HELOCs, you borrow — often for 10 years — and make interest-only payments. When that “draw period” ends, you pay principal and interest. Monthly payments can jump significantly.

However, only 19% of those polled understood that a reset would increase their monthly payments and 34% thought they would decrease.

Confusion is costly.

  • Understand the terms

What is the current interest rate? When does it reset? When it resets, how is the new interest rate determined? When are principal payments first due? What will the new payment be? Can the HELOC convert to a fixed interest rate? Know the answers to these questions, says David Reiss, a Brooklyn law school professor, specializing in real estate.

  • Come up with a game plan

“Don’t wait until the final month of the interest-only period to evaluate the impact the payment has on your budget,” says Chuck Price, vice president of lending at NEFCU in Westbury.

 

 

Optimizing Mortgage Availability

"Barack Obama speaks to press in Diplomatic Reception Room 2-25-09" by Pete Souza - http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/09/02/25/Overhaul/. Licensed via ttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barack_Obama_speaks_to_press_in_Diplomatic_Reception_Room_2-25-09.jpg#/media/File:Barack_Obama_speaks_to_press_in_Diplomatic_Reception_Room_2-25-09.jpg

The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report, Mortgage Reforms: Actions Needed to Help Assess Effects of New Regulations. The GAO did this study to predict the effects of the Qualified Mortgage (QM) and Qualified Residential Mortgage (QRM) regulations. The GAO found

Federal agency officials, market participants, and observers estimated that the qualified mortgage (QM) and qualified residential mortgage (QRM) regulations would have limited initial effects because most loans originated in recent years largely conformed with QM criteria.

  • The QM regulations, which address lenders’ responsibilities to determine a borrower’s ability to repay a loan, set forth standards that include prohibitions on risky loan features (such as interest-only or balloon payments) and limits on points and fees. Lenders that originate QM loans receive certain liability protections.
  • Securities collateralized exclusively by residential mortgages that are “qualified residential mortgages” are exempt from risk-retention requirements. The QRM regulations align the QRM definition with QM; thus, securities collateralized solely by QM loans are not subject to risk-retention requirements.

The analyses GAO reviewed estimated limited effects on the availability of mortgages for most borrowers and that any cost increases (for borrowers, lenders, and investors) would mostly stem from litigation and compliance issues. According to agency officials and observers, the QRM regulations were unlikely to have a significant initial effect on the availability or securitization of mortgages in the current market, largely because the majority of loans originated were expected to be QM loans. However, questions remain about the size and viability of the secondary market for non-QRM-backed securities.

This last bit — questions about the non-QRM-backed market — is very important.

Some consumer advocates believe that there should not be any non-QRM mortgages. I disagree. There should be some sort of market for mortgages that do not comply with the strict (and, in the main, beneficial) QRM limitations.

Some homeowners will not be eligible for a plain vanilla QM/QRM mortgage but could still handle a mortgage responsibly. The mortgage markets would not be healthy without some kind of non-QRM-backed securities market for those consumers.

So far, that non-QRM market has been very small, smaller than expected. Regulators should continue to study the effects of the new mortgage regulations to ensure that they incentivize making the socially optimal amount of non-QRM mortgage credit available to homeowners.

Reiss on New Limits on Lending for Fannie and Freddie

Law360 interviewed me in Fannie, Freddie Will Only Buy Qualified Mortgages, FHFA Says (behind a paywall) about the new limits on lending imposed on Fannie and Freddie:

The Federal Housing Finance Agency on Monday said that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would only be allowed to purchase so-called qualified mortgages when the new standard comes into effect in January.

Under the new standard, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will only be able to purchase and securitize mortgages that qualify to an exemption to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s ability to repay rule, which the federal consumer finance watchdog finalized in January.

* * *

Given the cautious state of mortgage lending, the change is likely to only affect Fannie, Freddie and the mortgage market along the margins, said Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss.

“It will be interesting to see, however, whether the private-label market will step into the void and offer more of these products — and it will be interesting to see how the market prices them,” he said in an email.