Investing in Mortgage-Backed Securities

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

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.”

Mortgage Market Overview

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The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center issued its May 2016 Housing Finance at a Glance Chartbook. This monthly report is invaluable for those of us who follow the mortgage market closely. The mortgage market changes so quickly and so much that what one thinks is the case is often no longer the case a few months later. This month’s report has new features, including Housing Credit Availability Index and first-time homebuyer share charts. Here are some of the key findings of the May report:

  • The Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds report has consistently indicated an increasing total value of the housing market driven by growing household equity in each quarter of the past 2 years, and the trend continued according to the latest data, covering Q4 2015. Total debt and mortgages increased slightly to $9.99 trillion, while household equity increased to $13.19 trillion, bringing the total value of the housing market to $23.18 trillion. Agency MBS make up 58.2 percent of the total mortgage market, private-label securities make up 6.1 percent, and unsecuritized first liens at the GSEs, commercial banks, savings institutions, and credit unions make up 29.4 percent. Second liens comprise the remaining 6.4 percent of the total. (6)

It is worth wrapping your head around the size of this market. Total American wealth is about $88 trillion, so household equity of $13 trillion is about 15 percent of the total. With debt and mortgages at $10 trillion, the aggregate debt-to-equity ratio is nearly 45%.

  • As of March 2016, debt in the private-label securitization market totaled $613 billion and was split among prime (19.5 percent), Alt-A (42.2 percent), and subprime (38.3 percent) loans. (7)

This private-label securitization total is a pale shadow of the height of the market in 2007, back to the levels seen in 1999-2000. It is unclear when and how this market will recover — and the extent to which it should recover, given its past excesses

  • First lien originations in 2015 totaled approximately $1,735 billion. The share of portfolio originations was 30 percent, while the GSE share dropped to 46 percent from 47 in 2014, reflecting a small loss of market share to FHA due to the FHA premium cut. FHA/VA originations account for another 23 percent, and the private label originations account for 0.7 percent. (8)

The federal government, through Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae, is insuring 69 percent of originations. Hard for me to think this is good for the mortgage market in the long term. There is no reason that the private sector could not take on a bigger share of the market in a responsible way.

  • Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) accounted for as much as 27 percent of all new originations during the peak of the recent housing bubble in 2004 (top chart). They fell to a historic low of 1 percent in 2009, and then slowly grew to a high of 7.2 percent in May 2014. (9)

It is pretty extraordinary to see the extent to which ARMs change in popularity over time, although it makes a lot of sense. When interest rates are high and prices are high, more people prefer ARMs and when they are low they prefer FRMs.

  • Access to credit has become extremely tight, especially for borrowers with low FICO scores. The mean and median FICO scores on new originations have both drifted up about 40 and 42 points over the last decade. The 10th percentile of FICO scores, which represents the lower bound of creditworthiness needed to qualify for a mortgage, stood at 666 as of February 2016. Prior to the housing crisis, this threshold held steady in the low 600s. LTV levels at origination remain relatively high, averaging 85, which reflects the large number of FHA purchase originations. (14)

It is hard to pinpoint the right level of credit availability, particularly with reports of 1% down payment mortgage programs making the news recently. But it does seem like credit can be loosened some more without veering into bubble territory.

Hard to keep up with all of the changes in the mortgage market, but this chartbook sure does help.

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.

Mortgage Credit Conditions Easing

Home of Easy Credit

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has released its July Housing Finance at a Glance. It opens,

Our latest update to HFPC’s Credit Availability Index (HCAI) shows early signs that the overly tight mortgage lending standards of the post-crisis period may finally be starting to ease. This HCAI update shows improvements for both GSE and FHA/VA channels. Between Q3 2013 and Q1 2015, the expected mortgage default rate increased from 1.8 to 2.1 percent (17 percent increase) for GSE originations, and from 9.6 to 10.8 percent (a 13 percent increase) for FHA/VA originations. The expected default rate for portfolio loans and PLS channels has remained largely flat at 2.6 percent over this period.

Long overdue, these improvements are largely a result of efforts to clarify put-back standards and conduct early due diligence. While the FHA has lagged the GSEs in these efforts, it has made some progress. Still, more needs to be done, especially to mitigate uncertain lender litigation risk arising out of FHA’s False Claims Act.

These improvements notwithstanding, there is still significant room to safely expand the credit box. Even if the mortgage market had taken twice the default risk it took in Q1 2015, that level would have still been below the level of default risk of the early 2000s. (3)

This excellent chartbook contains many very interesting graphs. I recommend that you look at the National Housing Affordability Over Time graph in particular. It shows that housing “prices are still very affordable by historical standards, despite increases over the last three years.” (16)

Friday’s Government Reports Round-up

Thursday’s Advocacy & Think Tank Round-up

Consumer Protection in RMBS 3.0

The Structured Finance Industry Group has issued RMBS 3.0:  A Comprehensive Set of Proposed Industry Standards to Promote Growth in the Private Label Securities Market.  This “green paper,” frequently referred to as a First Edition, states that RMBS 3.0 is an initiative

established with the primary goal of re-invigorating the “private label” residential mortgage-backed securities (“RMBS”) market.

Initiated by members of SFIG, the project seeks to reduce substantive differences within current market practices through an open discussion among a broad cross-section of market participants. Where possible, participants seek to identify and agree upon best practices. RMBS 3.0 focuses on the following areas related to RMBS:

  • Representations and warranties, repurchase governance and other enforcement mechanisms;
  • Due diligence, disclosure and data issues; and
  • Roles and responsibilities of transaction parties and their communications with investors. (1 footnotes omitted)

RMBS 3.0 is expected to

1. Create standardization where possible, in a manner that reflects widely agreed upon best practices and procedures.
2. Clarify differences in alternative standards in a centralized and easily comprehendible manner to improve transparency across RMBS transactions.
3. Develop new solutions to the challenges that impede the emergence of a sustainable, scalable and fluid post-crisis RMBS market.
4. Draft or endorse model contractual provisions, or alternative “benchmark” structural approaches, where appropriate to reflect the foregoing.(2)

There is much of interest in this attempt at self-regulation by the now quiescent but formerly roaring private-label market. But I think that readers of this blog would be interested in its approach to consumer protection regulation. First, the green paper refers to it as “consumer compliance.” (See, e.g., 23) Unsurprisingly, the paper is only concerned with protecting industry participants from liability for violations of consumer protection/consumer compliance laws. It pays no lip service to the spirit of consumer protection — promoting sustainable credit on transparent terms. That’s fine given the constituents of the SFIG, but it only confirms the importance of active consumer protection regulators and enforcement agencies who will look beyond rote compliance with regulations. The private-label industry is capable of rapid change once it gets going, change that can outpace regulations. Someone has to keep an eye on it with an eye toward to the principles that should guide a fair market for consumer credit.