The Jumbo/Conforming Spread

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Standard & Poor’s issued a research report, What Drives the Variation Between Conforming and Jumbo Mortgage Rates? It opens,

What drives the variation between the conforming and jumbo mortgage rates for the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) product offered in the U.S. residential housing market? While credit and interest rate risk are the main factors at play, S&P Global Ratings explores how these risks relate to capital market execution and whether this relationship translates into additional liquidity risk. In our study, we compare the historical spreads between the two average note rates over time, and we also examine the impact of certain loan credit characteristics. Our data indicate that the rate difference grows in periods for which the opportunity for securitization declines as a viable exit strategy for lenders. (1)

My main takeaways from the report are that (1) the decrease in securitization since the financial crisis has contributed to a wider spread between jumbo and conforming mortgages; (2) the high guaranty fee for conforming mortgages pushes down the spread between jumbo and conforming mortgages; and (3) the credit box appears to be loosening a bit, which should mean that jumbos will become available to more than the “super-prime” slice of the market.

Subprime v. Non-Prime

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The Kroll Bond Rating Agency has issued an RMBS Research report, Credit Evolution: Non-Prime Isn’t Yesterday’s Subprime. It opens,

Following the private label RMBS market’s peak in 2007 and the ensuing credit crisis, non-agency securitizations of newly originated collateral have focused almost exclusively on prime jumbo loans. This is not surprising given the poor performance of loosely underwritten residential mortgage loans that characterized certain vintages leading up to the crisis. While legacy prime, in absolute terms, performed better than Alt-A and subprime collateral, it was apparent that origination practices had a significant impact on subsequent loan performance across product types.

Many consumers were caught in the ensuing waves of defaults, which marred their borrowing records in a manner that has either barred them from accessing housing credit, or at best made it extremely challenging to obtain a home loan. Others that managed to meet their obligations have been unable to qualify for new loans in the post-crisis era due to tighter credit standards that have been influenced by regulation.

The private label securitization market has not met the needs of these consumers for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to, reputational concerns in the aftermath of the crisis, regulatory costs, investor appetite, and the time needed for borrowers to repair their credit. The tide appears to be turning quickly, however, and Kroll Bond Rating Agency (KBRA) has observed the re-emergence of more than a dozen non-prime mortgage origination programs that intend to use securitization as a funding source. Of these, KBRA is aware of at least four securitization sponsors that have accessed the PLS market across nine issuances, two of which include rated offerings.

Thus far, KBRA has observed that today’s non-prime programs are not a simple rebranding of pre-crisis subprime origination, nor do they signal a return to the documentation excesses associated with “liar loans”. While the asset class is meant to serve those with less pristine credit, and can even have characteristics reminiscent of legacy Alt-A, it is expansive, and underwriting practices have been heavily influenced by today’s consumer-focused regulatory environment and government-sponsored entity (GSE) origination guidelines. In evaluating these new non-prime programs, KBRA believes market participants should consider the following factors:

■ Loans originated under sound compliance with Ability-To-Repay (ATR) rules should outperform 2005-2007 vintage loans with similar credit parameters, including LTV and borrower FICO scores. The ATR rules have resulted in strengthened underwriting, which should bode well for originations across the MBS space. This is particularly true of non-prime loans, where differences in origination practices can have a greater influence on future loan performance.

■ Loans that fail to adhere to GSE guidelines regarding the seasoning of credit dispositions (e.g. bankruptcy, foreclosure, etc.) on a borrower’s credit history should be viewed as having increased credit risk relative to those with similar credit profiles that lack recent disposition activity. This relationship likely depends on, among other things, equity position, current FICO score, and the likelihood that any life events relating to the prior credit issue remain unresolved.

■ Alternative documentation programs need to viewed with skepticism as they relate to the ATR rules, particularly those that serve borrowers with sub-prime credit histories. Although many programs will meet technical requirements for income verification, it is also important to demonstrate good faith in determining a borrower’s ability-to-repay. Failure to do so may not only result in poor credit performance, but increased risk of assignee liability.

■ Investor programs underwritten with reliance on expected rental income and limited documentation may pose more risk relative to fully documented investor loans where the borrower’s income and debt profile are considered, all else equal. (1, footnotes omitted)

I think KBRS is documenting a positive trend: looser credit for those with less-than-prime credit is overdue. I also think that KBRS’ concerns about the development of the non-prime market should be heeded — ensuring that borrowers have the ability to repay their mortgages should be job No. 1 for originators (although it seems ridiculous that one would have to say that). We want a mortgage market that serves everyone who is capable of making their mortgage payments for the long term. These developments in the non-prime market are most welcome and a bit overdue.

Investing in Mortgage-Backed Securities

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US News & World Report quoted me in Why Investors Own Private Mortgage-Backed Securities. It opens,

Private-label, or non-agency backed mortgage securities, got a black eye a few years ago when they were blamed for bringing on the financial crisis. But they still exist and can be found in many fixed-income mutual funds and real estate investment trusts.

So who should own them – and who should stay away?

Many experts say they’re safer now and are worthy of a small part of the ordinary investor’s portfolio. Some funds holding non-agency securities yield upward of 10 percent.

“The current landscape is favorable for non-agency securities,” says Jason Callan, head of structured products at Columbia Threadneedle Investments in Minneapolis, pointing to factors that have reduced risks.

“The amount of delinquent borrowers is now at a post-crisis low, U.S. consumers continue to perform quite well from a credit perspective, and risk premiums are very attractive relative to the fundamental outlook for housing and the economy,” he says. “Home prices have appreciated nationwide by 5 to 6 percent over the last three years.”

Mortgage-backed securities are like bonds that give their owners rights to share in interest and principal received from homeowners’ mortgage payments.

The most common are agency-backed securities like Ginnie Maes guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration, or securities from government-authorized companies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The agency securities carry an implicit or explicit guarantee that the promised principal and interest income will be paid even if homeowners default on their loans. Ginnie Mae obligations, for instance, can be made up with federal tax revenues if necessary. Agency securities are considered safe holdings with better yields than alternatives like U.S. Treasurys.

The non-agency securities are issued by financial firms and carry no such guarantee. Trillions of dollars worth were issued in the build up to the financial crisis. Many contained mortgages granted to high-risk homeowners who had no income, poor credit or no home equity. Because risky borrowers are charged higher mortgage rates, private-label mortgage securities appealed to investors seeking higher yields than they could get from other holdings. When housing prices collapsed, a tidal wave of borrower defaults torpedoed the private-label securities, triggering the financial crisis.

Not many private-label securities have been issued in the years since, and they accounted for just 4 percent of mortgage securities issued in 2015, according to Freddie Mac. But those that are created are considered safer than the old ones because today’s borrowers must meet stiffer standards. Also, many of the non-agency securities created a decade or more ago continue to be traded and are viewed as safer because market conditions like home prices have improved.

Investors can buy these securities through bond brokers, but the most common way to participate in this market is with mutual funds or with REITs that own mortgages rather than actual real estate.

Though safer than before, non-agency securities are still risky because, unlike agency-backed securities, they can incur losses if homeowners stop making their payments. This credit risk comes atop the “prepayment” and “interest rate” risks found in agency-backed mortgage securities. Prepayment risk is when interest earnings stop because homeowners have refinanced. Interest rate risk means a security loses value because newer ones offer higher yields, making the older, stingier ones less attractive to investors.

“With non-agencies, you own the credit risk of the underlying mortgages,” Callan says, “whereas with agencies the (payments) are government guaranteed.”

Another risk of non-agency securities: different ones created from the same pool of loans are not necessarily equal. Typically, the pool is sliced into “tranches” like a loaf of bread, with each slice carrying different features. The safest have first dibs on interest and principal earnings, or are the last in the pool to default if payments dry up. In exchange for safety, these pay the least. At the other extreme are tranches that pay the most but are the first to lose out when income stops flowing.

Still, despite the risks, many experts say non-agency securities are safer than they used to be.

“Since the financial crisis, issuers have been much more careful in choosing the collateral that goes into a non-agency MBS, sticking to plain vanilla mortgage products and borrowers with good credit profiles,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who studies the mortgage market.

“It seems like the Wild West days of the mortgage market in the early 2000s won’t be returning for quite some time because issuers and investors are gun shy after the Subprime Crisis,” Reiss says. “The regulations implemented by Dodd-Frank, such as the qualified residential mortgage rule, also tamp down on excesses in the mortgage markets.”

The End of Private-Label Securities?

Steve Jurvetson

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase

J.P. Morgan’s Securitized Products Weekly has a report, Proposed FRTB Ruling Endangers ABS, CMBS and Non-Agency RMBS Markets. This is one of those technical studies that have a lot of real world relevance to those of us concerned about the housing markets more generally.

The report analyzes proposed capital rules contained in the Fundamental Review of the Trading Book (FRTB). JPMorgan believes that these proposed rules would make the secondary trading in residential mortgage-backed securities unprofitable. It also believes that “there is no sector that escapes unscathed; capital will rise dramatically across all securitized product sectors, except agency MBS.” (1) It concludes that “[u]ltimately, in its current form, the FRTB would damage the availability of credit to consumers, reduce lending activity in the form of commercial mortgage and set back private securitization, entrenching the GSEs as the primary securitization vehicle in the residential mortgage market.” (1)

JPMorgan finds that the the impact of these proposed regulations on non-agency residential-mortgage backed securities (jumbos and otherwise) “is so onerous that we wonder if this was the actual intent of the regulators.” Without getting too technical, the authors thought “that the regulators simply had a mathematical mistake in their calculation (and were off by a factor of 100, but unfortunately this is what was intended.” (4) Because these capital rules “would make it highly unattractive for dealers to hold inventory in non-agency securities,” JPMorgan believes that they threaten the entire non-agency RMBS market. (5)

The report concludes with a policy takeaway:

Policymakers have at various times advocated for GSE reform in which the private sector (and private capital) would play a larger role. However, with such high capital requirements under the proposal — compared with capital advantages for GSE securities and a negligible amount of capital for the GSEs themselves — we believe this proposal would significantly set back private securitization, entrenching the GSEs as the primary securitization vehicle in the mortgage market. (5, emphasis removed)

I am not aware if JPMorgan’s concerns are broadly held, so it would important to hear others weigh in on this topic.

If the proposed rule is adopted, it is likely not to be implemented for a few years.  As a result, there is plenty of time to get the right balance between safety and soundness on the one hand and credit availability on the other. While the private-label sector has been a source of trouble in the past, particularly during the subprime boom, it is not in the public interest to put an end to it:  it has provided capital to the jumbo sector and provides much needed competition to Fannie, Freddie and Ginnie.

Frannie v. Private-Label Smackdown

Eric Armstrong

S&P posted a report, Historical Data Show That Agency Mortgage Loans Are Likely to Perform Significantly Better Than Comparable Non-Agency Loans. The overview notes,

  • We examined the default frequencies of both agency and non-­agency mortgage loans originated from 1999­-2008.
  • As expected, default rates for both agencies and non-­agencies were higher for crisis-­era vintages relative to pre­-crisis vintages.
  • The loan characteristics that were the most significant predictors of default were FICO scores, debt­-to­-income (DTI) ratios, and loan­-to­-value (LTV) ratios.
  • Agency loans performed substantially better than non­agency loans for all vintages examined. The default rate of agency loans was approximately 30%-­65% that for comparable non-­agency loans, whether analyzed via stratification or through a logistic regression framework. (1)

This is not so surprising, but it is interesting to see the relative performance of Frannie (Fannie & Freddie) and Private-Label loans quantified and it is worth thinking through the implications of this disparity.

S&P was able to do this analysis because Fannie and Freddie released their “loan-level, historical performance data” to the public in order to both increase transparency and to encourage private capital to return to the secondary mortgage market. (1) Given that the two companies have transferred significant credit risk to third parties in the last few years, this is a useful exercise for potential investors, regulators and policymakers.

It is unclear to me that this historical data gives us much insight into future performance of either Frannie or Private-Label securities because so much has changed since the 2000s. Dodd-Frank enacted the Qualified Mortgage, Ability-to-Repay and Qualified Mortgage regimes for the primary and secondary mortgage market and they have fundamentally changed the nature of Private-Label securities. And the fact that Fannie and Freddie are now in conservatorship has changed how they do business in very significant ways just as much. So, yes, old Frannie mortgages are likely to perform better, but what about new ones?

Better to Be a Banker or a Non-Banker?

 

The Community Home Lenders Association (CHLA) has prepared an interesting chart, Comparison of Consumer and Financial Regulation of Non-bank Mortgage Lenders vs. Banks.  The CHLA is a trade association that represents non-bank lenders, so the chart has to be read in that context. The side-by side-chart compares the regulation of non-banks to banks under a variety of statutes and regulations.  By way of example, the chart leads off with the following (click on the chart to see it better):

CLHA Chart

The chart emphasizes all the ways that non-banks are regulated where banks are exempt as well as all of the ways that they are regulated in the identical manner. Given that this is an advocacy document, it only mentions in passing the ways that banks are governed by various little things like “generic bank capital standards” and safety and soundness regulators. That being said, it is still good to look through the chart to see how non-bank regulation has been increasing since the passage of Dodd-Frank.

S&P: Future of Private-Label RMBS Uncertain

S&P has posted an Executive Comment, Lifted By Improving Economic Conditions, The U.S. Leads The Global Securitization Rebound–But Headwinds Remain. It concludes,

After surviving its first severe test, the market for securitization is slowly emerging from a sharp downturn, demonstrating its viability to efficiently distribute risk and expand credit availability. In this light, with many regulatory and economic uncertainties still present, we’re forecasting continuing slow growth going into next year.

The question is if, and when, securitization will register large issuance numbers again, contribute to the funding diversity and liquidity positions of banks, and improve the efficient allocation of resources to foster global economic growth.

For the U.S.–far and away the largest and most mature securitization market in the world–it’s clear, given the interconnectivity of the economy, the securitization market, and housing finance, that a continued economic recovery is necessary before the securitization market can fully recover. Economic growth will also encourage regulators, policymakers, and investors to work on the eventual return of private housing finance. But we believe that mortgage financing remains a concern for general credit availability and a continuing housing market recovery. The future of non-agency RMBS will remain in question so long as the GSEs dominate housing finance while enjoying exemptions from the qualified mortgage and risk-retention rules. (7)

I do not think that there is anything particularly new in this analysis, but it does highlight an important issue, one that I have touched on before. The gridlock on housing finance reform in DC has many effects. The GSEs are not on solid footing. The private-label industry does not know what part of the mortgage market it can operate in, whether with Qualified Mortgage (QM) or Non-QM products. And most importantly, homeowners are  not getting credit at a price that a stable and mature market would offer.

The conventional wisdom is that housing finance reform is off the table until after the mid-term elections or even until after the next presidential election. That is bad news for American households, the housing industry and the financial markets. And without some strong leadership in DC, it looks like the conventional will be right.