Loan Mods Amidst Rising Interest Rates

photo by Chris Butterworth

The Urban Institute’s Laurie Goodman et al. have posted Government Loan Modifications: What Happens When Interest Rates Rise?. This brief is another product of the newly formed Mortgage Servicing Collaborative. This brief

examines the current loan modification product suite for government loans insured or guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), or the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). When a delinquent borrower with a government loan obtains a modification, the mortgage rate is typically reset to the prevailing market rate, which can be higher or lower than the original note rate. When the market rate is below the original rate, providing payment reduction becomes inherently easier and less expensive for the investor. Conversely, when market rates are above the note rate, providing payment reduction becomes more expensive and challenging, making it more difficult to cure the delinquency. This can result in more redefaults and foreclosures, larger losses for government insurers, and greater distress for borrowers, communities, and neighborhoods. In addition, most government mortgage borrowers are first-time homebuyers and minorities, who tend to have limited incomes and savings, making loan modifications all the more important. (1)

Given the recent upward trend in interest rates, this is more than a theoretical exercise. And indeed, the brief “explains why FHA, VA, and USDA borrowers who fall behind on their payments are unlikely to receive adequate payment relief when the market interest rate is higher than the original note rate. ” (3)

The brief outlines some options that could increase payment relief for those borrowers, including deploying a 40-year extended term and principal forbearance to reduce the monthly mortgage payment. The brief acknowledges that there are barriers to implementing the options it has identified but it also proposes ways to overcome those barriers.

As I had stated previously, the Mortgage Servicing Collaborative is providing sorely needed guidance through some of the darker corners of the mortgage market. This brief sheds some welcome light on an obscured problem that may cause trouble in the years to come.

Understanding Homeownership


The Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute released its House Finance at a Glance Chartbook for December. It states that financial education “can help reduce barriers to homeownership.” As I argue below, I do not think that financial education is the right thing to emphasize when trying to get people to enter the housing market.

The Introduction makes the case for financial education:

While mortgage debt has been stable to marginally increasing, other types of debt, particularly auto and student loan debt have increased far more rapidly. Our calculations, based on The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, show that over the past 5 years (Q3 2012 to Q3 2017), mortgage debt outstanding has grown at an annualized rate of 1.3 percent, while non-mortgage debt (which includes credit card debt, student loan debt, auto debt, and other debt) has grown by 6.8 percent annualized rate. Student loan debt has grown by 7.3 percent per year while auto debt has been growing by 9.6 percent per year. In Q3 2012, the number of accounts for mortgage loans and auto loans are very close (84 million vs 82 million). By Q3 2017, the number of accounts for mortgages had fallen to 80 million consistent with declining homeownership rate, while the number of accounts for auto loans had increased to 110 million.

Another metric where auto loans have diverged from mortgages is delinquency rates. Over the past 5 years, mortgage delinquencies have plummeted (pages 22 and 29) while the percent of auto loans that is more than 90 days late is roughly flat despite an improving economy. However, the percent of auto loans transitioning into serious delinquency has risen from 1.52 percent in Q3 2012 to 2.36 percent in Q3 2017. While these numbers remain small, the growth bears monitoring.

When we looked at the distribution of credit scores for new auto origination and new mortgage origination, we found no major change in either loan category; while mortgage credit scores are skewed higher, the distribution of mortgage credit scores (page 17) and the distribution of auto credit scores have been roughly consistent over the period. Our calculations based off NY Fed data shows the percent of auto loan origination balances with FICOs under 660 was 35.9% in Q3, 2012, it is now 31.7%; similarly the percent of auto origination with balances under 620 has contracted from 22.7 percent to 19.6 percent. There have been absolutely more auto loans with low FICOs originated, but this is because of the increased overall volume.

So what might explain the differences in trends in the delinquency rate and loan growth between these two asset classes? A good part of the story (in addition to tight mortgage credit) is that many potential low- and moderate-income borrowers do not believe they can get a mortgage. As a result, many don’t even bother to apply. We showed in our recently released report on Barriers to Accessing Homeownership that survey after survey shows that borrowers think they need far bigger down payments than they actually do. And there are many down payment assistance programs available. Moreover, it is still less expensive at the national level to own than to rent. This suggests that many LMI borrowers who are shying away from applying for a mortgage could benefit from financial education; with a better grasp of down payment facts and assistance opportunities, many of these families could be motivated to apply for mortgages and have the opportunity to build wealth. (5)

I am not sure if financial education is the whole answer here. Employment instability as well as generalized financial insecurity may be playing a bigger role in home purchases than in car purchases. The longer time horizon as well as the more serious consequences of a default with homeownership may be keeping people from stepping into the housing market. This is particularly true if renters have visions in their heads of family members or friends suffering during the long and lingering foreclosure crisis.

Fannie, Freddie and Climate Change

NOAA / National Climatic Data Center

The Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute issued its September 2017 Housing Finance At A Glance Chartbook. The introduction asks what the recent hurricanes tell us about GSE credit risk transfer. But it also has broader implications regarding the impact of climate-change related natural disasters on the mortgage market:

The GSEs’ capital markets risk transfer programs that began in 2013 have proven to be very successful in bringing in private capital, reducing the government’s role in the mortgage market and reducing taxpayer risk. Investor demand for Fannie Mae’s CAS and Freddie Mac’s STACR securities overall has been robust, in large part because of an improving economy and extremely low delinquency rates for loans underlying these securities.

Enter hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. These three storms have inflicted substantial damage to homes in the affected areas. Many of these homes have mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and many of these mortgages in turn are in the reference pools of mortgages underlying CAS and STACR securities. It is too early to know what the eventual losses might look like – that will depend on the extent of the damage, insurance coverage (including flood insurance), and the degree to which loss mitigation will succeed in minimizing borrower defaults and foreclosures.

Depending on how all of these factors eventually play out, investors in the riskiest tranches of CAS and STACR securities could witness marginally higher than expected losses. Up until Harvey, CRT markets had not experienced a real shock that threatened to affect the credit performance of underlying mortgages (except after Brexit, whose impact on the US mortgage market proved to be minimal). The arrival of these storms therefore in some ways is the first real test of the resiliency of credit risk transfer market.

It is also the first test for the GSEs in balancing the needs of borrowers with those of CRT investors. In some of the earlier fixed severity deals, investor losses were triggered when a loan went 180 days delinquent (i.e. experienced a credit event). Hence, forbearance of more than six months could trigger a credit event. Fannie Mae put out a press release that it would wait 20 months from the point at which disaster relief was granted before evaluating whether a loan in a CAS deal experienced a credit event. While most of Freddie’s STACR deals had language that dealt with this issue, a few of the very early deals did not; no changes were made to these deals. Both Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae have provided investors with an exposure assessment of the volume of affected loans in order to allow them to better estimate their risk exposure.

So how has the market responded so far? In the immediate aftermath of the first storm, spreads on CRT bonds generally widened by about 40 basis points, meaning investors demanded a higher rate of return. But thereafter, spreads have tightened by about 20 basis points, suggesting that many investors saw this as a good buying opportunity. This is precisely how capital markets are intended to work. If spreads had continued to widen substantially, that would have signaled a breakdown in investor confidence in future performance of these securities. The fact that that did not happen is an encouraging sign for the continued evolution of the credit risk transfer market.

To be clear, it is still very early to reasonably estimate what eventual investor losses will look like. As the process of damage assessment continues and more robust loss estimates come in, one can expect CAS/STACR pricing to fluctuate. But early pricing strongly indicates that investors’ underlying belief in these securities is largely intact. This matters because it tells the GSEs that the CRT market is resilient enough to withstand shocks and gives them confidence to further expand these offerings.

Can Downpayment Assistance Work?

The HUD Inspector General issued a report on FHA-Insured Loan with Borrower-Financed Downpayment Assistance. Downpayment assistance has a long history of failure, a history that has led to big losses for the FHA and foreclosures for borrowers. The IG audited HUD’s oversight of FHA-insured loans that were originated with downpayment assistance. The Inspector General had already determined that “lenders allowed FHA borrowers to finance their own downpayments through an increase in their mortgage interest rate as part of programs administered through housing finance agencies.” (1)

The IG found that HUD

failed to adequately oversee more than $16.1 billion in FHA loans that may have been originated with borrower-financed downpayment assistance to ensure compliance with HUD requirements, putting the FHA Mortgage Insurance Fund at unnecessary risk. Between October 1, 2015 and September 30, 2016, HUD guaranteed nearly $12.9 billion in FHA loans that may contain questioned assistance. While governmental entities are not prohibited sources of downpayment assistance, the assistance provided through these programs did not comply with HUD requirements. FHA borrowers were required to obtain a premium interest rate and, therefore, repaid the assistance through higher mortgage payments and fees. Despite the prohibition against similar seller-funded programs, HUD’s requirements appeared to have enabled the growth of these questioned programs. In addition, HUD did not adequately track these loans and review the funding structure of these programs. Despite concerns raised by OIG, HUD failed to protect FHA borrowers against the higher mortgage payments and higher fees imposed on them, which increased the risks to the FHA Insurance Fund in the event of default. (1)

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has criticized the IG’s report on methodological grounds. I will defer to the Urban Institute’s critique because they have done a lot of work in this area.

But I do think that the IG is right to pay careful attention to downpayment assistance programs. Historically, they have proven too good to be true. One of the FHA’s biggest failures resulted from the downpayment assistance program that was set forth in the American Dream Downpayment Assistance Act of 2003.

The IG recommends that HUD

(1) reconsider its position on questioned borrower-financed downpayment assistance programs,

(2) develop and implement policies and procedures to review loans with downpayment assistance,

(3) develop requirements for lenders to review downpayment assistance programs,

(4) require lenders to obtain a borrower certification that details borrower participation,

(5) ensure that lenders enter all downpayment assistance data into FHA Connection, and

(6) implement data fields where lenders would be required to enter specific downpayment assistance information. (1)

The IG’s procedural recommendations all seem reasonable enough, whether you agree or disagree with the folks at the Urban Institute.


The Housing/Income Affordability Gap

We need affordable housing

The Urban Institute has issued a policy brief, The Housing Affordability Gap for Extremely Low-Income Renters in 2013. The brief opens,

Since 2000, rents have risen while the number of renters who need low-priced housing has increased. These two pressures make finding affordable housing even tougher for very poor households in America. Nationwide, only 28 adequate and affordable units are available for every 100 renter households with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income. Not a single county in the United States has enough affordable housing for all its extremely low-income (ELI) renters. The number of affordable rental homes for every 100 ELI renters ranges from 7 in Osceola County, Florida, to 76 in Worcester County, Maryland.

*     *     *

This brief is the first publication on housing affordability to combine detailed county-level data on ELI renter households (those with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median) and the impact of US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rental assistance. Its four key findings:

  • Supply is not keeping up with demand. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of ELI renter households increased 38 percent, from 8.2 million to 11.3 million. At the same time, the supply of adequate, affordable, and available rental homes for these households increased only 7 percent, from 3.0 million to 3.2 million.
  • The gap between ELI renter households and suitable units is widening over time. From 2000 to 2013, the number of adequate, affordable, and available rental units for every 100 ELI renter households nationwide declined from 37 to 28.
  • Extremely low-income renters increasingly depend on HUD programs for housing. More than 80 percent of adequate, affordable, and available homes for ELI renter households are HUD-assisted, up from 57 percent in 2000.
  • The supply of adequate, affordable, and available units varies widely across the country. Among the 100 largest US counties, Suffolk County, which includes Boston, comes closest to meeting its area’s need, with 51 units per 100 ELI renter households.Denton County, part of the Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan area, has the largest housing gap,with only 8 units per 100 ELI renters. Rust Belt areas (e.g., Detroit, MI; Chicago,IL, and Milwaukee, WI) have seen large declines in adequate, affordable, and available units. Most counties had fewer units available in 2013 than 2000. Notable exceptions to this trend include Suffolk, MA; Los Angeles, CA; and Miami, FL, which have expanded their number of available units since 2000. (1-2, footnote omitted)

The brief concludes, “Simply put, virtually no affordable housing units would be available to ELI households absent the continued investment in federally assisted rental housing.” (14)

This is an affordable housing story, but it is just as much an income story — low-income households are getting left behind in the race between rising income and expenses. One solution is to expand housing assistance for low-income families. Another is to increase income, one way or another. The bottom line, though, is that low-income households don’t have enough to make a go of it in these United States.

Homeowners Heading to Pottersville?


Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life

The Urban Institute has issued a report, Headship and Homeownership: What Does The Future Hold? The report opens,

Homeownership rates averaged around 64 percent until about 1990, when they began to climb dramatically, reaching 67.3 percent in 2006. The housing crisis that began in 2007 and the ensuing recession, from which the US economy is recovering slowly, resulted in a fall in the homeownership rate to 63.6 percent, according to the latest ACS numbers. Such a trajectory has generated important questions about the future of homeownership at all ages. The issues with young adults seem particularly acute. Will young adults want to own houses? Even if they do, will they be able to afford homeownership? The answers to these questions are still unclear, especially because millennials are not just slower to start their own households and purchase homes: they also are more likely to live in their parents’ homes than any generation in recent history. The rapidly changing racial and ethnic composition of the population also has profound implications for household formation and homeownership.

In this report, we dive deeply into the pace of household formation and homeownership attainment—nationally and by age groups and race/ethnicity over the past quarter-century—and project future trends. Considering the great uncertainty about household formation and homeownership, single-point forecasts of homeownership rates and housing demand could seriously mislead policymakers and obscure the potential implications of their decisions. Instead, we offer plausible competing scenarios for household formation and homeownership that generate a range of future national housing demand projections. (1)

I am not in a position to evaluate how well the report projects future trends, but some of its conclusions are worth considering together:

  • the homeownership rate will decline from 65.1 percent in 2010 to 61.3 percent in 2030; (46)
  • the rapid growth of the renter population will create significant demand for new rental housing construction and encourage shifting of owner-occupied dwellings to rentals; (47)
  • very tight credit availability standards will retard homeownership attainment and may exacerbate the growing shortage in rental housing; (48) and
  • the erosion of black homeownership needs to be addressed by more than mortgage policy. (48)

Taken together, these conclusions all point to a backsliding in the housing market: the American Dream disappearing for millions of Americans, particularly African Americans, who will end up living in overcrowded Pottersvilles straight out of It’s A Wonderful Life. Just like George Bailey, we have choices to make before that nightmare becomes a reality. But before we decide anything too hastily, we should consider the fundamental goals of housing policy.

I have argued that a “fundamental goal of housing policy is to assist Americans to live in a safe, well-maintained and affordable housing unit.” I am less convinced than most housing scholars that homeownership, given the state of today’s economy, is such a sure road to stable housing and financial well-being. So, instead of blindly focusing on increasing the homeownership rate, I would focus on increasing opportunities for sustainable homeownership. I believe the report’s authors would agree with this, but I think that housing scholars in general need to focus on policies that keep households in their housing, given how much income instability they now face.

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.