Rising Mortgage Borrowing for Seniors

graphic by www.aag.com/retirement-reverse-mortgage-pictures

J. Michael Collins et al. have posted Exploring the Rise of Mortgage Borrowing Among Older Americans to SSRN. The abstract reads,

3.6 million more older American households have a mortgage than 2000, contributing to an increase in mortgage usage among the elderly of thirty-nine percent. Rather than collecting imputed rent, older households are borrowing against home equity, potentially with loan terms that exceed their expected life spans. This paper explores several possible explanations for the rise in mortgage borrowing among the elderly over the past 35 years and its consequences. A primary factor is an increase in homeownership rates, but tax policy, rent-to-price ratios, and increased housing consumption are also factors. We find little evidence that changes to household characteristics such as income, education, or bequest motives are driving increased mortgage borrowing trends. Rising mortgage borrowing provides older households with increased liquid saving, but it does not appear to be associated with decreases in non-housing consumption or increases in loan defaults.

The discussion in the paper raises a lot of issues that may be of interest to other researchers:

Changes to local housing markets tax laws, and housing consumption preferences also appear to contribute to differential changes in mortgage usage by age.

Examining sub-groups of households helps illuminate these patterns. Households with below-median assets and those without pensions account for most of the increase in borrowing. Yet there are no signs of rising defaults or financial hardship for these older households with mortgage debt.

Relatively older homeowners without other assets, especially non-retirement assets, may simply be borrowing to fund consumption in the present—there are some patterns of borrowing in response to local unemployment rates that are consistent with this concept. This could be direct consumption or to help family members.

Older homeowners are holding on to their homes, and their mortgages, longer and potentially smoothing consumption or preserving liquid savings. Low interest rates may have enticed many homeowners in their 50s and 60s into refinancing in the 2000s. Those loans had low rates, and given the decline in home equity and also other asset values in the recession, paying off these loans was less feasible. There is also some evidence that borrowing tends to be more common in areas where the relative costs of renting are higher–limiting other options. Whether these patterns are sustained as more current aging cohorts retire from work, housing prices appreciate, and interest rates increase remains ambiguous.

The increase in the use of mortgages by older households is a trend worthy of more study. This is also an important issue for financial planners, and policy makers, to monitor over the next few years as more cohorts of older households retire, and existing retirees either take on more debt or pay off their loans. Likewise, estate sales of property and probate courts may find more homes encumbered with a mortgage. Surviving widows and widowers may struggle to pay mortgage payments after the death of a spouse and face a reduction of pension or Social Security payments. This may be a form of default risk not currently priced into mortgage underwriting for older loan applicants. If more mortgage borrowing among the elderly results in more foreclosures, smaller inheritances, or even estates with negative values, this could have negative effects on extended families and communities.

Accurately Measuring Mortgage Availability

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has posted a research report, Measuring Mortgage Credit Availability Using Ex-Ante Probability of Default. This report tackles an important subject:

How to strike a balance between credit availability and risk to achieve a sustainable housing market is a much-debated topic today, but these discussions are not grounded in good measurements of credit availability and risk. We address this problem below with a new index that measures credit availability and risk simultaneously

The first section of the paper discusses the limitations of the existing measures. The second section describes our development of the new index, which distills borrower credit profiles, loan products and terms, and macro economic conditions into a measurement of the weighted average probability of default for mortgages originated at a given time. The third section illustrates the value of this measure by empirically exploring the varying risk appetites of the market as a whole, and of market segments, which directly aids evidence-based policymaking on how to open the tight credit box. The final section discusses the limitations of this new index. (1)
The report concludes,
Measuring a concept as complicated and varied as credit access is no easy task. Yet this is an important time to ensure that it is being measured accurately. As we seek to reform the housing finance system, Congress, the housing finance industry, advocacy groups, policymakers, and even the general public need to clearly understand how well the market is providing access to mortgage credit for borrowers. (18)
I say amen to that. There is a slim chance that housing finance reform may be back on the table in Washington, given the midterm election results. We need as much good data we can get in order to structure a system based on solid principles rather than on the views of special interests that typically dominate this debate.

Frannie Effects on Mortgage Terms

The Federal Reserve’s Alex Kaufman has posted The Influence of Fannie and Freddie on Mortgage Loan Terms to SSRN.  It is behind a paywall on SSRN, but an earlier draft is available elsewhere on the web. The abstract reads,

This article uses a novel instrumental variables approach to quantify the effect that government‐sponsored enterprise (GSE) purchase eligibility had on equilibrium mortgage loan terms in the period from 2003 to 2007. The technique is designed to eliminate sources of bias that may have affected previous studies. GSE eligibility appears to have lowered interest rates by about ten basis points, encouraged fixed‐rate loans over ARMs and discouraged low documentation and brokered loans. There is no measurable effect on loan performance or on the prevalence of certain types of “exotic” mortgages. The overall picture suggests that GSE purchases had only a modest impact on loan terms during this period.

This is pretty dry reading, but it is actually an important project: “[g]iven the GSEs’ vast scale, the liability they represent to taxpayers, and the decisions that must soon be made about their future, it is crucial to understand how exactly they affect the mortgage markets in which they operate.” (2, earlier draft) The current conventional wisdom is that the two companies will return in something that looks like their pre-conservatorship form.

Given that that is the case, studies such as these are useful for providing some facts about the actual impact that these two companies actually have on the mortgage market.  In terms of their impact on loan terms, it appears that the two companies have a modest or even “mixed” effect, at least for the subset of mortgages studied. (22, earlier draft) And there “is no measurable effect on loan performance” at all. (22, earlier draft)

I have argued previously that returning Fannie and Freddie to their pre-conservatorship ways is a bad call. I still think that is the case. And I think studies such as these offer support for that view, in the face of the conventional wisdom.