FinTech Disrupting The Mortgage Industry

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Researchers at the NY Fed have posted The Role of Technology in Mortgage Lending. There is no doubt that tech can disrupt the mortgage lending business much as it has done with others. The abstract reads,

Technology-based (“FinTech”) lenders increased their market share of U.S. mortgage lending from 2 percent to 8 percent from 2010 to 2016. Using market-wide, loan-level data on U.S. mortgage applications and originations, we show that FinTech lenders process mortgage applications about 20 percent faster than other lenders, even when controlling for detailed loan, borrower, and geographic observables. Faster processing does not come at the cost of higher defaults. FinTech lenders adjust supply more elastically than other lenders in response to exogenous mortgage demand shocks, thereby alleviating capacity constraints associated with traditional mortgage lending. In areas with more FinTech lending, borrowers refinance more, especially when it is in their interest to do so. We find no evidence that FinTech lenders target marginal borrowers. Our results suggest that technological innovation has improved the efficiency of financial intermediation in the U.S. mortgage market.

The report documents the significant extent to which FinTech firms have already disrupted the primary mortgage market. They also predict a whole lot more disruption coming down the pike:

Going forward, we expect that other lenders will seek to replicate the “FinTech model” characterized by electronic application processes with centralized, semi-automated underwriting operations. However, it is unclear whether traditional lenders or small institutions will all be able to adopt these practices as these innovations require significant reorganization and sizable investments. The end result could be a more concentrated mortgage market dominated by those firms that can afford to innovate. From a consumer perspective, we believe our results shed light on how mortgage credit supply is likely to evolve in the future. Specifically, technology will allow the origination process to be faster and to more easily accommodate changes in interest rates, leading to greater transmission of monetary policy to households via the mortgage market. Our findings also imply that technological diffusion may reduce inefficiencies in refinancing decisions, with significant benefits to U.S. households.

Our results have to be considered in the prevailing institutional context of the U.S. mortgage market. Specifically, at the time of our study FinTech lenders are non-banks that securitize their mortgages and do not take deposits. It remains to be seen whether we find the same benefits of FinTech lending as the model spreads to deposit-taking banks and their borrowers. Changes in banking regulation or the housing finance system may affect FinTech lenders going forward. Also, the benefits we document stem from innovations that rely on hard information; as these innovations spread, they may affect access to credit for those borrowers with applications that require soft information or borrowers that require direct communication with a loan officer. (37-38)

I think that the author’s predictions are right on target.


Zoning and Housing Affordability

Vanessa Brown Calder has posted Zoning, Land-Use Planning, and Housing Affordability to SSRN. It opens,

Local zoning and land-use regulations have increased substantially over the decades. These constraints on land development within cities and suburbs aim to achieve various safety, environmental, and aesthetic goals. But the regulations have also tended to reduce the supply of housing, including multifamily and low-income housing. With reduced supply, many U.S. cities suffer from housing affordability problems.

This study uses regression analysis to examine the link between housing prices and zoning and land-use controls. State and local governments across the country impose substantially different amounts of regulation on land development. The study uses a data set of court decisions on land use and zoning that captures the growth in regulation over time and the large variability between the states.

The statistical results show that rising land-use regulation is associated with rising real average home prices in 44 states and that rising zoning regulation is associated with rising real average home prices in 36 states. In general, the states that have increased the amount of rules and restrictions on land use the most have higher housing prices.

The federal government spent almost $200 billion to subsidize renting and buying homes in 2015. These subsidies treat a symptom of the underlying problem. But the results of this study indicate that state and local governments can tackle housing affordability problems directly by overhauling their development rules. For example, housing is much more expensive in the Northeast than in the Southeast, and that difference is partly explained by more regulation in the former region.

Interestingly, the data show that relatively more federal housing aid flows to states with more restrictive zoning and land-use rules, perhaps because those states have higher housing costs. Federal aid thus creates a disincentive for the states to solve their own housing affordability problems by reducing regulation. (1)

This paper provides additional evidence for an argument that Edward Glaeser and others have been making for some time now.

Local governments won’t make these changes on their own. Nonetheless, local land-use decisions have a large negative impact on many households and businesses who are not currently located within the borders of the local jurisdictions (as well as some who are). As a result, the federal government could and should take restrictive land use regulation into account when it allocates federal aid for affordable housing.

The Obama Administration found that restrictive local land-use regulations stifled GDP growth in the aggregate. Perhaps reforming land-use regulation is something that could garner bipartisan support as it is a market-driven approach to the housing crisis, a cause dear to the hearts of many Democrats (and not a few Republicans).

Micro Apartments and The Housing Crisis

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The NYU Furman Center has posted 21st Century SROs: Can Small Housing Units Help Meet the Need for Affordable Housing in New York City? The policy brief opens,

Throughout much of the last century, single-room occupancy (SRO) housing was a commonly available type of low-rent housing in New York City, providing housing to people newly arrived in the city, low-income single New Yorkers, and people needing somewhere to live during life transitions. SRO units typically consisted of a private room with access to full bathroom and kitchen facilities that a renter shared with other building occupants. As the city fell onto hard times, so did SRO housing. During the second half of the last century, many SROs came to serve as housing of last resort, and policymakers enacted laws limiting their construction and discouraging the operation of SRO units. Many SROs were converted to other forms of housing, resulting in the loss of thousands of low-rent units in the city.

New research and analysis from the NYU Furman Center addresses the question of whether small housing units (self-contained micro units and efficiency units with shared facilities) can and should help meet the housing need previously served by SROs. In this policy brief, we present a summary of the paper, 21st Century SROs: Can Small Housing Units Help Meet the Need for Affordable Housing in New York City? We provide an overview of the potential demand for smaller, cheaper units, discuss the economics of building small units, analyze the main barriers to the creation of small units that exist in New York City, and suggest possible reforms that New York City can make to address these barriers. (1)

The policy brief makes a series of recommendations, including

  • reducing density limitations for micro units near transit hubs
  • permitting mixed-income and market-rate efficiency units
  • creating a government small unit program to promote the construction of micro apartments

There is no doubt that the lack of supply is a key driver of the affordable housing crisis across the country. Small units should be part of the response to that crisis, not just in New York City but in all high-cost cities.

High Rents and Land Use Regulation

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The Federal Reserve’s Devin Bunten has posted Is the Rent Too High? Aggregate Implications of Local Land-Use Regulation. It is a technical paper about an important subject. It has implications for those who are concerned about the lack of affordable housing in high-growth areas. The abstract reads,

Highly productive U.S. cities are characterized by high housing prices, low housing stock growth, and restrictive land-use regulations (e.g., San Francisco). While new residents would benefit from housing stock growth in cities with highly productive firms, existing residents justify strict local land-use regulations on the grounds of congestion and other costs of further development. This paper assesses the welfare implications of these local regulations for income, congestion, and urban sprawl within a general-equilibrium model with endogenous regulation. In the model, households choose from locations that vary exogenously by productivity and endogenously according to local externalities of congestion and sharing. Existing residents address these externalities by voting for regulations that limit local housing density. In equilibrium, these regulations bind and house prices compensate for differences across locations. Relative to the planner’s optimum, the decentralized model generates spatial misallocation whereby high-productivity locations are settled at too-low densities. The model admits a straightforward calibration based on observed population density, expenditure shares on consumption and local services, and local incomes. Welfare and output would be 1.4% and 2.1% higher, respectively, under the planner’s allocation. Abolishing zoning regulations entirely would increase GDP by 6%, but lower welfare by 5.9% because of greater congestion.

The important sentence from the abstract is that “Welfare and output would be 1.4% and 2.1% higher, respectively, under the planner’s allocation.” Those are significant effects when we are talking about  real people and real places. The introduction provides a bit more context for the study:

Neighborhoods in productive, high-rent regions have very strict controls on housing development and very limited new housing construction. Home to Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area is the most productive and most expensive metropolitan region in the country, and yet new housing construction has been very slow, especially in contrast to less-productive large cities like Houston, Texas. The evidence suggests that this slow-growth environment results from locally determined regulatory constraints. Existing residents justify these constraints by appealing to the costs of new development, including increased vehicle traffic and other types of congestion, and claim that they see few, if any, of the benefits from new development. However, the effects of local regulation extend beyond the local regulating authorities: regions with highly regulated municipalities experience less-elastic housing supply. (2, footnotes omitted)

The bottom line, as far as I am concerned, is that localities that are attempting to deal with their affordable housing problems have to directly address how they go about their zoning. If the zoning does not support housing construction, then no amount of affordable housing incentives will address the demand for housing in high growth places like NYC and San Francisco.

The Economic Implications of the Housing Supply

Ed Glaeser and Joe Gyourko posted The Economic Implications of the Housing Supply which is forthcoming in The Journal of Economic Perspectives. In it, they

review the basic economics of housing supply and the functioning of U.S. housing markets to better understand the impacts on home prices, household wealth and the spatial distribution of people across markets. Section II documents the state of housing affordability in the U.S., and begins with three core facts about housing supply. First, when building is unrestricted by regulation or geography, housing supply curves seem relatively flat, meaning that we can approximate reality by referring to a single production cost. Second, both geography and regulation severely restrict the ease of building in some parts of the country. These constraints raise building costs both directly, by increasing time delays and reducing the amount of available land, and indirectly, by ensuring the homes are produced more on a one-by-one basis rather than in bulk. Third, the supply of housing is kinked and vertical downwards because housing is durable. (2, citation omitted)

These are themes that Glaeser and Gyourko have touched on before, but this essay does a service by updating them ten years after the financial crisis.

Glaeser and Gyourko have consistently hit on some important points that can garner attention at the national level , but there has been no real action on them as of yet:

  • where supply is regulated, housing costs more;
  • heavy land use regulation in places like NYC and SF reduces the nation’s overall economic output; and
  • existing homeowners tend to oppose new projects, which is consistent with their financial self-interest.

Glaeser and Gyourko do not give up hope that policymakers can craft solutions that deal with the political economy of housing construction. One first step would be to develop a toolkit of carrots and sticks that can be employed at the national and state level to incentivize local governments to take actions that are in the interest of their broader communities and the nation as a whole.

We know we need more housing in highly productive regions. We just need to figure out how to build it.

Buyer’s or Seller’s Market?

puppy-tug-of-war quoted me in Is This a Buyer’s, Seller’s, or Balanced Housing Market? It reads, in part,

When buying or selling a home, everyone wants the most advantageous situation. Both buyers and sellers want “the best price,” but this definition varies: Home buyers want to purchase the desired property at a good deal, while sellers want to receive their asking price. But how does the housing market determine who wins this tug of war? Is this a buyer’s housing market, a seller’s market, or a balanced market?

What are the signs of each housing market, and how does each affect buyers and sellers?


Eric D. Berman, director of communications at the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, tells GoodCall that the country is currently in a seller’s market. “We have near record-low inventory, which means the market benefits sellers,” Berman says.

Adam DeSanctis, economic issues media manager at the National Association of Realtors, agrees that most of the country is in a seller’s market. So what does this mean? “Given the imbalances in demand in relation to supply in most of the country, homes are selling quicker than a year ago and prices continue to rise,” DeSanctis explains.

While a balanced market would usually have a six-month supply, DeSanctis says the last time this happened was in June 2012. “Furthermore, total housing inventory has decreased year-over-year for 16 straight months.”

*     *     *


Whether it’s a buyer’s, seller’s or balanced market, experts agree that some decisions should be made independently of the housing supply. Berman warns that consumers should not take on more debt than can afford – the monthly payment should always be an amount they’re comfortable paying. “On the other hand, sellers should understand there price is not the only factor when it comes to selling a home, and the highest offer may not always be the best offer,” Berman says.

David Reiss, professor of law and academic program director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at the Brooklyn Law School in New York, agrees that buying or selling a home is a personal decision.

“Does a new home work for you and your family in terms of its size, its cost, and the length of time you expect to live in it?  Does selling make sense in terms of changes in your family, your work expectations, your retirement plans?” Reiss says these are the types of questions that will produce the best answers. “But if you try to ride a wave in the market, you may set yourself up for a lot of disappointment.”

2-4 Unit Properties: Housing’s Middle Child

photo by Kgbo

The Urban Institute’s Laurie Goodman and Jun Zhu have posted Do Two- to Four-Unit Properties Have Higher Credit Risk? An Analysis of Default and Loss Experience to SSRN. The abstract reads,

Two- to four-family properties make up 19% of all rental housing but receive almost no attention. Using a unique dataset from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, we show that, for any given set of loan characteristics and compared with one-unit properties, two- to four-unit properties are more likely to default, its owner-occupied (investment) properties are less (more) likely to liquidate, and all two- to four-unit properties are more likely to have a higher loss severity upon liquidation. Historically, these patterns have led to higher losses on two- to four-unit loans. Current tighten credit results in loss rates much closer to those on one-unit owner-occupied properties, indicating that policymakers can relax the credit requirements of two-to-four properties to better serve affordable rental housing.

It is great that the authors are looking at the neglected, middle child of the rental housing market. Providing 19% of the rental housing stock is nothing to sneeze at, even if other segments of the housing stock provide more.

It is particularly interesting to me that owner-occupied 2-4s do better than investor-owned 2-4s in terms of liquidation, even while overall 2-4s are roughly on par with 1-unit owner occupied properties in that regard. There are a lot of other interesting tidbits about this housing stock in the paper, such as the fact that these properties are more likely to be owned by lower-income households and that 2-units have the highest default rates of 1-4 unit properties.

The authors make the case that

though predicted losses on two- to four-unit production are now on par with one-unit owner-occupied properties, the low volume suggests that many borrowers (who are disproportionately likely to be low and moderate income and minority) are getting squeezed out. In the interest of expanding credit to these underserved populations and expanding, or at least preserving, the supply of affordable rental housing, the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) could relax the current loan-to-value requirements. If this relaxing were coupled with counseling for landlords, we believe it would make financing more available for this critical part of the market, with little additional risk to the GSEs. (3)

This all sounds good, although I am somewhat skeptical of the claim that reduced financing costs for owners will be passed onto tenants in the form of lower rents or rent increases. There are a lot of factors that go into rent levels, and costs are just one of them. The local demand for housing as well as the competing supply cannot be ignored. Owners may be able to keep all of those reduced financing costs as additional profits, depending on those local conditions.

The main question I am left with after reading the paper is — why haven’t Fannie and Freddie, whose data the paper is based upon, already reached the same conclusion about loosening credit for this type of housing? Do they know something about it that the author’s don’t?