Scaling back housing finance: fallout feared

Flaws in Obama's mortgage reform plan

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 7, 2011

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Flaws in Obama's mortgage reform plan

Jack Guttentag
Inman News™

Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a multipart series.

The document the administration recently sent to Congress outlining its game plan for housing finance has both scale-down and ramp-up thrusts. The scale-down thrust, comprising most of the report, involves shrinking the federal government's involvement in the market.

The ramp-up thrust would create a new federal program designed to support the private market. This article is about the scale-down.

Backdrop

The point of departure for this proposal is a post-crisis housing finance system in which only about 10 percent of all new home loans are strictly private. The remaining 90 percent are either acquired by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

Further, qualification requirements set by the strictly private market are far more restrictive than they were before the crisis, which is the reason their market share is now so low. Before the crisis, risk-based pricing was widely practiced, making loans available over a wide range of risks.

Today, only a sliver of risk-based pricing remains. For the most part, risk-based pricing has been replaced by risk cutoffs. At many lenders, borrowers with a credit score of 800 have to put 20 percent down, and borrowers who put 40 percent down still need a 700 score to qualify. Some lenders will go to 10 percent at 680, but limit the loan size.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have tightened their requirements, but by much less than the strictly private sector. The agencies today will accept a credit score of 620 at 20 percent down, and 680 at 5 percent down. However, risk-based pricing is extensive and many borrowers with mediocre credit, small down payments or both, choose to opt out.

The average down payment on new loans is about 35 percent, and the average FICO is about 765. The agencies have also tightened their documentation and appraisal requirements significantly.

FHA has the most liberal requirements, which are little changed from what they were before the crisis. FHA accepts 3 percent down with a credit score of 580, though many lenders require higher scores so that they won't be tarred with originating too many loans that default. FHA has also increased its insurance premiums.

What scale-down means

The crux of the Obama administration's scale-down plan is a gradual phaseout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, combined with a reduction in the scope of FHA operations. The ultimate goal seems to be a system in which the strictly private market would account for about 85 percent of the traffic, and FHA would have about 15 percent.

The report suggests a number of ways of accomplishing this, including reductions in the maximum qualifying loan size at all three agencies, and increases in insurance charges. The first reduces the number of borrowers who qualify, while the second forces price increases by the agencies that would make the strictly private market more price-competitive.

Implications and consequences

The volume of risky loans, already down sharply from the post-crisis tightening of qualification requirements, will shrink further as the scale-down proceeds. Because a large proportion of risky mortgages are generated by disadvantaged groups, this approach constitutes a reversal of what had been public policy for at least four decades, which was to encourage homeownership among such groups.

Sometime this year, the regulatory agencies will promulgate new rules implementing provisions of the Dodd-Frank bill that require them to define "qualified residential mortgage" (QRM).

These are low-risk loans that exempt originators from having to assume 5 percent of the risk of loss. The split in the market following implementation of this rule will further disadvantage weaker borrowers, since non-QRM loans will carry a higher price if they are available at all.

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