Understanding The Ability To Repay Rule

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The Spring 2017 edition of the Consumer Financial Bureau’s Supervisory Highlights contains “Observations and approach to compliance with the Ability to Repay (ATR) rule requirements. The ability to repay rule is intended to keep lenders from making and borrowers from taking on unsustainable mortgages, mortgages with payments that borrowers cannot reliably make.  By way of background,

Prior to the mortgage crisis, some creditors offered consumers mortgages without considering the consumer’s ability to repay the loan, at times engaging in the loose underwriting practice of failing to verify the consumer’s debts or income. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act) amended the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) to provide that no creditor may make a residential mortgage loan unless the creditor makes a reasonable and good faith determination based on verified and documented information that, at the time the loan is consummated, the consumer has a reasonable ability to repay the loan according to its terms, as well as all applicable taxes, insurance (including mortgage guarantee insurance), and assessments. The Dodd-Frank Act also amended TILA by creating a presumption of compliance with these ability-to-repay (ATR) requirements for creditors originating a specific category of loans called “qualified mortgage” (QM) loans. (3-4, footnotes omitted)

Fundamentally, the Bureau seeks to determine “whether a creditor’s ATR determination is reasonable and in good faith by reviewing relevant lending policies and procedures and a sample of loan files and assessing the facts and circumstances of each extension of credit in the sample.” (4)

The ability to repay analysis does not focus solely on income, it also looks at assets that are available to repay the mortgage:

a creditor may base its determination of ability to repay on current or reasonably expected income from employment or other sources, assets other than the dwelling (and any attached real property) that secures the covered transaction, or both. The income and/or assets relied upon must be verified. In situations where a creditor makes an ATR determination that relies on assets and not income, CFPB examiners would evaluate whether the creditor reasonably and in good faith determined that the consumer’s verified assets suffice to establish the consumer’s ability to repay the loan according to its terms, in light of the creditor’s consideration of other required ATR factors, including: the consumer’s mortgage payment(s) on the covered transaction, monthly payments on any simultaneous loan that the creditor knows or has reason to know will be made, monthly mortgage-related obligations, other monthly debt obligations, alimony and child support, monthly DTI ratio or residual income, and credit history. In considering these factors, a creditor relying on assets and not income could, for example, assume income is zero and properly determine that no income is necessary to make a reasonable determination of the consumer’s ability to repay the loan in light of the consumer’s verified assets. (6-7)

That being said, the Bureau reiterates that “a down payment cannot be treated as an asset for purposes of considering the consumer’s income or assets under the ATR rule.” (7)

The ability to repay rule protects lenders and borrowers from themselves. While some argue that this is paternalistic, we do not need to go much farther back than the early 2000s to find an era where so-called “equity-based” lending pushed many people on fixed incomes into default and foreclosure.

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.