The Housing Chronicles Blog: Option ARMs expected to unleash the next wave of defaults

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Option ARMs expected to unleash the next wave of defaults

At first glance, the Option ARM loan seems like a great product, but only if it's used responsibly. In the past, it was tapped by astute borrowers who had a varied income (such as salespeople and the self-employed), who could elect to pay a minimum amount during some months (like on a credit card) but then make up for the shortfall when more money was available. What it wasn't intended for was as a gambit in which borrowers pay only the minimal amount and hope to refinance as housing prices rose (as least not officially). But brokers really pushed these loans, as they paid far higher commission than the traditional 30-year fixed variety.

According to an article in Business Week, the the next housing crisis -- and wave of foreclosures to hit the market -- will be the result of Option ARMs re-setting, either as the result of higher interest rates or because the borrower, through negative amortization, has added so much to the loan balance that it's triggered a re-set to a fully amortizing loan:

With the subprime mortgage crisis already crippling the U.S. economy, some experts are warning that the next wave of foreclosures will begin accelerating in April, 2009. What that means is that hundreds of thousands of borrowers who took out so-called option adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) will begin to see their monthly payments skyrocket as they reset. About a million borrowers have option ARMs, but only a fraction have already fallen due.

That was the catch to option ARMs; borrowers were offered low initial payments that would recast higher after several years. Many home buyers thought they could resell their homes before their payments increased. But instead, many of them got trapped. According to Credit Suisse (CS), monthly option recasts are expected to accelerate starting in April, 2009, from $5 billion to a peak of about $10 billion in January, 2010. Some of these loans have already started to recast. About 13% of option ARMs that were issued in 2006 were delinquent by 60 days by the time they were 18 months old, Credit Suisse said...

Among the states expected to be worst-hit is already battered California. Today, outstanding option ARM loans in the U.S. total about $500 billion, about 60% of which were sold to California homeowners, according to Credit Suisse. Option ARMs were especially popular in the state, where they were heavily marketed during the boom by such companies as Countrywide Financial (CFC) in Calabasas, Calif.; Washington Mutual (WM) in Seattle; and Wachovia (WB) in Charlotte, N.C. Moreover, on top of their ARMs, many homeowners also refinanced their homes, driving themselves even deeper into a debt they thought they could escape by flipping their homes.

But California won't be alone. Homeowners are also frighteningly vulnerable in states such as Arizona, Florida, New Jersey, and others...

The option ARM loan defaults could accelerate next year even if subprime defaults subside, said Chandrajit Bhattacharya, vice-president and mortgage strategist at Credit Suisse Securities. He said California will see the bulk of the option ARM foreclosures and the rest will be spread out across the country...

Option ARMs, which were originally designed for self-employed people with fluctuating incomes, gained popularity with other workers during the peak of the real estate boom in 2004, when rapidly rising home values would have otherwise kept many buyers out of the market.

The loans, which were generally given to borrowers with better-than-subprime credit, give homeowners the option of making a minimum monthly payment, which covers none of the principal and only a portion of the interest, the rest of which is added to the loan balance. With years of unpaid interest accumulating and house prices falling, some homeowners have seen their equity disappear and now owe even more than their initial loan balance.

The loans automatically recast after five years, but many will recast sooner as loan balances hit specific principal caps—typically between 110% and 125% of the initial loan amount. Many of these loans are expected to recast within the next two years, meaning that borrowers' monthly payments will swell to include both principal and interest...

William Purdy, a lawyer at Simmons & Purdy in Soquel, Calif., a firm that specializes in home refinance issues, said some borrowers with option ARMs are defaulting before the loans recast because they couldn't afford even marginal increases in the minimum payments.

"It's a ticking time bomb inside your house that you can't get rid of," Purdy said. "They can try to slow down the inevitable, but sooner or later their loan is going to cap. …This year is going to be a blood bath. Next year, we'll start out just about the same."...

But options are available—even if refinancing isn't possible. Lenders have been working with borrowers to reduce loan amounts and interest rates and, in some cases, simply accept the deed in lieu of foreclosure.

The Mortgage Bankers Assn. says it appears that a growing number of homeowners are avoiding foreclosure by getting help from the Hope Now hotline (888 995-HOPE), a mortgage-counseling phone line backed by lenders and the federal government that gets 4,000 calls a day. Hotline counselors help borrowers negotiate with banks and offer advice on refinancing options. Even though foreclosure rates are rising in California and Florida, they've slowed elsewhere, the bankers association said.

Some callers to the hotline have complained about long wait times, but the group says it has beefed up its counseling staff and now gets to calls quickly.

Other option ARM borrowers could benefit from government plans now in the works. A bill approved by the House in May would allow the Federal Housing Administration to guarantee up to $300 billion in new loans to help homeowners facing foreclosure. Borrowers could get more affordable loans worth no more than 90% of the home's value, meaning that participating lenders would have to take a significant loss on the loan. The bill was sponsored by House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Senate Banking Chairman Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) has a similar measure....

Many California homeowners, including some with $2 million homes, are simply making their minimum payment, waiting for the recast. Then they plan to walk away, even if it damages their credit, Bedard said.

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