The Housing Chronicles Blog: The (Slow) Housing Recovery: Tighter mortgage financing is to blame

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The (Slow) Housing Recovery: Tighter mortgage financing is to blame

I’ll never forget the time I was visiting a new home sales office near Los Angeles in the height of the boom years.  The agent was attempting to explain to the potential buyer how an Option ARM could help them qualify for a higher loan balance that could easily be refinanced into a standard 30-year fixed rate program down the road.  As the alarm bells started going off in my head, I decided to re-visit the first model rather than risk challenging the agent’s presumptuous thinking.  It was at that point that I was pretty sure our industry was firmly in bubble territory.

Fast forward to 2014, and we now have the opposite problem of not enough credit due to often overly stringent underwriters who prefer to approve only the best candidates with near-perfect credit scores and reliable W-2 income.  In fact, the problem has become acute enough that the Mortgage Bankers Association recently revised their 2014 forecast downwards due to “a combination of rising rates and regulatory implementation, specifically the new Qualified Mortgage Rule.”  The new forecast predicts annual refinancings this year to be down 60 percent from 2013 (largely due to higher interest rates) but purchase originations to still rise by 3.8 percent.  During the fourth quarter of 2013, the mortgage businesses for Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase were reportedly down by 60 and 55 percent from a year ago, respectively.

As noted in my column last month, the reasons for the tighter credit are two-fold:  an incomplete Dodd-Frank Act which means regulations are unclear, and new Qualified Mortgage Rules which went into effect on January 10th.  Qualified mortgages are those which are no longer than 30 years, charge fees and points no more than three percent of the loan amount and don’t include any negative amortization or interest-only programs.  For adjustable rate loans, underwriters now must take into consideration the potential maximum rate and payment amount over the life of the loan instead of approving based on the teaser rate alone.  This would seem to disproportionately impact younger buyers who were previously willing to take a gamble that their paychecks would improve along with their careers, thus making higher monthly payments in the future feasible.

Also now largely shut out of the mortgage market are the newly self-employed, as evidenced by nationally syndicated housing columnist Lew Sichelman’s disappointing experience to refinance a rental property despite a credit score of 760 and an LTV of 70 percent.  With less than two years of history of 1099 income, Lew’s equity in several other properties simply wasn’t relevant under today’s underwriting criteria.

There may, however, be a signs of a thaw in this somewhat frozen market.  Many eyes are now on former congressman Melvin L. Watt as director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  As opposed to Edward DeMarco, the agency’s acting director for the past four years, Mr. Watt has already indicated a clear shift in direction which includes delaying a series of higher loan fees announced in December and putting access to mortgage credit front and center ahead of other goals, especially that of scaling back the federal government’s role in propping up the residential mortgage market.

What this means in the short run is that those buyers without perfect credit and large down payments will not face higher upfront loan fees charged by Fannie and Freddie.  In the long run, there remains a larger policy disagreement on the role of private capital in our nation’s mortgage market, one that would be completely separate without any connection to government.  And yet in a lending environment of mortgage rates below five percent, private capital has stayed on the sidelines because there are too many other competing options which offer higher yields.  Add in the considerable interest rate risk that an investor takes with a traditional 30-year fixed-rate loan and it’s not surprising that lenders continue to be picky.  Eventually, however, lenders which rode the now-declining refinancing wave of 2013 will have to make up that lost business with new loan originations.

To spur lending, three things should happen.  Firstly, Fannie and Freddie will have to expand the range of mortgages they guarantee without lowering standards.  Secondly, the re-emergence of private capital should occur before government fees are raised.  And thirdly, Mr. Watt should ensure that the 30-year fixed-rate loan remains a bedrock of housing finance given its historic role as the best way for homeowners to slowly build wealth without worrying about future interest rate shocks.  

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