Subprime mortgages still around

Although they do not appear to be anywhere near the common product as they were in the 2000s, subprime mortgages are still available:

Financial Times reports that subprime mortgage bond issuance doubled in the first quarter of 2018 compared to a year ago, going from $666 million to $1.3 billion. Furthermore, it quotes a financial analyst predicting that issuance for the year will hit $10 billion, which is more than double the $4.1 billion issued last year. For context, the value of American subprime mortgages was estimated at $1.3 trillion in March 2007.

Since the financial crisis, mortgage-backed securities have been almost entirely issued by government-sponsored mortgage facilitators Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and Ginny Mae. And since the financial collapse, those organizations have refused to insure subprime mortgages. The Dodd-Frank regulation passed after the collapse put tight rules around subprime lending that for awhile effectively killed the practice.

But over the last couple years, specialty firms have jumped back into the subprime market, rebranding it as “noprime.” Investors hungry for bonds with higher yields have generated enough demand for those loans to be secularized, just as they were in the run-up to the financial collapse. The result is a rapidly expanding subprime mortgage market.

That subprime mortgages would seep back into the market right now is curious, given the current state of housing. The slow pace of new home construction and few existing homes for sale has led to an inventory shortage that has pushed home prices well out of reach for many low- and middle-income prospective homebuyers.

Subprime mortgages could be lucrative for some, even if it is now widely recognized that they are not a good idea in general for potential homeowners or the broader market and society.

I think the bigger question is whether subprime loans could once again become a mainstream product. What if the housing market continues to be sluggish or potential buyers have a difficult time securing conventional loans or the market suddenly heats up and lots of people want mortgages? Even with the fallout and the long recovery after the burst housing bubble of the 2000s, someone within the next decade will make a public plea for loosening regulations on subprime mortgages or will suggest subprimes are a necessity for serving certain portions of the market.

More evidence of discrimination in mortgages by race and ethnicity

The Center for Investigate Reporting went through 31 million records created by the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act and found disparities:

The analysis – independently reviewed and confirmed by The Associated Press – showed black applicants were turned away at significantly higher rates than whites in 48 cities, Latinos in 25, Asians in nine and Native Americans in three. In Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, Reveal found all four groups were significantly more likely to be denied a home loan than whites.

Reveal’s analysis included all records publicly available under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, covering nearly every time an American tried to buy a home with a conventional mortgage in 2015 and 2016. It controlled for nine economic and social factors, including an applicant’s income, the amount of the loan, the ratio of the size of the loan to the applicant’s income and the type of lender, as well as the racial makeup and median income of the neighborhood where the person wanted to buy property.

Credit score was not included because that information is not publicly available. That’s because lenders have deflected attempts to force them to report that data to the government, arguing it would not be useful in identifying discrimination. 

This is an ongoing pattern. While I was in graduate school, I had a little experience working with the millions of HMDA records since my advisor, Rich Williams, had published on the topic. For example, see his 2005 article in Social Problems.

And lest we think that this is just about applicants of different races or ethnicities with equal standing receiving different treatment (generally the point of audit studies), it was even worse before the housing bubble burst:

In 2006, at the height of the boom, black and Hispanic families making more than $200,000 a year were more likely on average to be given a subprime loan than a white family making less than $30,000 a year…

Relative to comparable white applicants, and controlling for geographic factors, blacks were 2.8 times more likely to be denied for a loan, and Latinos were two times more likely. When they were approved, blacks and Latinos were 2.4 times more likely to receive a subprime loan than white applicants. The higher up the income ladder you compare white applicants and minorities, the wider this subprime disparity grows.

Or another study:

According to the study’s authors, the economists Patrick Bayer, Fernando Ferreira, and Stephen L. Ross, race and ethnicity were among two of the key factors that determined whether or not a borrower would end up with a high-cost loan, when all other variables were held equal. According to them, even after controlling for general risk considerations, such as credit score, loan-to-value ratio, subordinate liens, and debt-to-income ratios, Hispanic Americans are 78 percent more likely to be given a high-cost mortgage, and black Americans are 105 percent more likely.

Or see the $175 million fine leveled at Wells Fargo for steering minorities to worse loans.

This reminds of the conclusion of American Apartheid where the sociologists Doug Massey and Nancy Denton argue that Americans lack the will to enforce existing laws about housing discrimination. Even with a variety of laws and regulations intended to eliminate discrimination in housing, there is not a completely level playing level field.

Chicago’s 29 year old white flight reassurance program has paid 5 homeowners

A Chicago program to help protect homeowners on the Northwest side has collected millions of dollars since 1988 and only been used 5 times:

The Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program was enacted via public referendum in 1988 in a bid to prevent white flight in a handful of bungalow belt neighborhoods. A tax-based fund was created to guarantee homeowners within its boundaries they would at least get paid the assessed value of their houses when they sold them.

In the years since, every one of the roughly 48,000 homes within its boundaries has kicked in a few extra dollars each year on its property tax bills to the equity fund. As the Chicago Tribune reported in May, the program has paid just five claims by homeowners who couldn’t sell their houses for the assessed value while amassing $9.57 million in two accounts…

Bucaro, who like other board members receives no salary, cautioned against starting to make home loans. The organization has neither the expertise nor the staff to figure out how much money it’s appropriate to lend people or to assess the risk of such loans…

Bucaro said the Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program has somewhat been a victim of the housing success in the neighborhoods it covers, since most people simply get more than the assessed value of their homes when they sell. Maybe the program has outlived its usefulness as a bulwark against white flight, he said.

I do not know the details of this program but it sounds like the money was simply not necessary. Even as Chicago still feared white flight in the 1980s – and the decades after World War II led to a significant population decrease in the city – the home prices in these neighborhoods did not fall. Even as numerous Chicago neighborhoods changed from white to black after 1950, the Northwest side did not. The neighborhoods in this area are still primarily white (though the Latino population has grown).

One ongoing issue is what will happen to this money but another is when the city of Chicago will officially put an end to a white flight deterrence program.

Two new options for those aspiring to a mortgage: take on an investor or list on Airbnb

Axios highlights two businesses trying out some models that could help potential homeowners acquire a home:

James Riccitelli, CEO of Unison Home Ownership Investors, says in an interview with Axios that he is consistently surprised that nobody in the decades-long history of U.S. housing finance had thought of the company’s business model. Unison co-invests with prospective homebuyers—typically putting 10% down along with a bidder’s own 10%, helping them qualify for a standard 20%-down home loan. Depending on the lender Unison partners with, a homebuyer can end up putting as little as 5%:

  • Unison’s investors—who Riccitelli says are typically large pension funds with long investment time horizons—realize a profit only when the home is sold. The product is attractive to such investors because they need assets that match their liabilities, i.e. pension payments sometimes 30 or 40 years away.
  • Other than a few private equity funds that bought up cheap single family homes at the housing market’s bottom between 2010-2012, there are few ways for investors to own a diversified pool of residential real estate, a market that at $30 trillion is more valuable than the U.S. stock market
  • A homeowner can buy Unison out at any point after three years—as long it recoups its original investment. A homeowner can sell the home to another party at any point, however, even if it results in Unison taking a loss.
Loftium has an alternative strategy. It will will contribute $50,000 for a down payment, as long as the owner will continuously list an extra bedroom on Airbnb for one to three years and share most of the income with Loftium.

This strategy might be particularly appealing in booming markets like Seattle, where rent prices are rising even faster than home values themselves, and which are popular tourist destinations.

These present alternatives to the traditional mortgage market with one emphasizing long-term payoffs (and assuming that housing values continue to rise at investment-level rates) and the other trying to capitalize on rental opportunities in the next few years. It will be interesting to see if such options (1) become popular (and if so, how traditional lenders fight back) and (2) whether there are negative consequences to such alternatives (and reactions to them including regulation).

260,000 trees a year for mortgage documents

Mortgages are important documents given how much money they involve yet they also consume a lot of trees according to one estimate:

According to the report, those seeking a mortgage encounter scores of paperwork — in some cases, more than 50 loan documents — including everything from an appraisal report to the loan application, topping out at an estimated 252 pages. Add in another 28 pages, approximately, for documents borrowers must provide such as pay stubs and bank statements…

Multiply 280 pages per mortgage by an average of 7.8 million mortgages a year — a figure from a recent Federal Reserve Bulletin — and what have you got?

That’s right: almost 2.2 billion sheets of paper annually from mortgages alone. That equals more than 41,000 tons of wood and over 260,000 trees…

A FreeandClear survey conducted in February polled homeowners ages 22 to 49 who have a mortgage. In one question, on the most taxing part of the mortgage process, 56 percent of respondents pointed to excessive paperwork.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. Remember all those predictions that we would move away from the world of paper? Even with the disadvantages it may have, it is pretty useful to have paper documents in a number of situations.
  2. I assume “excessive paperwork” is relative to “typical” amounts of paperwork people have to fill out. Is it a bit unrealistic to expect that a mortgage – a significant contract for the average borrower – shouldn’t have little paperwork?
  3. The 260,000 trees figure is supposed to be shocking and help us think more about the social problem of tree removal. All those trees just for mortgages?!? But, how many trees are cut down each year for paper? One source from a few years suggests it is over 4 billion trees each year. Time says 15 billion trees – for all uses – are cut down each year but this is out of a base of roughly 4 trillion trees overall. How about a look at how many trees are used for newspapers each year in the United States? Is this a more acceptable use of paper?

Closing on a house feels like…

Based on my limited experience and scholarly interests, here are some possibilities for what closing on a house can be:

Fulfilling the American Dream of homeownership. On the positive side, owning your own property and providing space for a family. On the less positive side, establishing your class status.

-Agreeing to a sizable debt to a large financial institution. On one hand, you probably couldn’t buy that home without a long mortgage (thank goodness for the 30 year loan). On the other hand, you don’t really own your property for a long time and those mortgage payments just keep coming. Overall, a home is going to be the single largest investment/outlay of money for many.

-The end of a complicated process. I’ve seen several surveys suggesting many Americans dislike applying for mortgages (here is one example). It is one of those things in life many people don’t do more than a few times and it often requires a lot of paperwork (both to submit and to read).

-The start of a new era. (1) Even with the mobility of Americans and our relatively low attachment to places, we get used to the physical structures in which we live. (2) A new home often means new social arrangements as we navigate changing families and new neighborhoods and communities.

-Keeping another house occupied. Obviously, no one wants a lot of vacant properties – with lots of discussions of this in recent years involving foreclosures and particular locations like Detroit – but we can push the idea further: just how long will American homes last? Will post-war suburban homes be worth rehabbing when they hit 40-80 years of existence?

-Helping a community continue to exist. With your home purchase, you are making a commitment, if not socially (you could just retreat to the private world of your new home), then at least through your taxes. Even if we put too much emphasis on high population growth as a sign of success, communities can’t afford to lose too many residents and taxpayers.

Older Americans with growing amounts of mortgage debt

One impediment to retirement for many Americans will be what they owe on their home:

The proportion of homeowners over 55 with housing debt has climbed, the Boston College group recently reported. Dr. Sanzenbacher provided the numbers: 50 percent still had mortgages, home equity loans or lines of credit in 2013, compared with 38 percent in 1998.

An Urban Institute study published this month, based on data from the national Health and Retirement Study, found a similar pattern among homeowners over 65. The proportion with housing debt rose to 35 percent in 2012 from 23.9 percent in 1998.

Moreover, the median amount they owed nearly doubled, to $82,000 from $44,000…

Her work has shown that older people with mortgage debt tend to stay in the labor force longer, and to delay receiving Social Security benefits.

In other words, the consequences of the burst housing bubble are still working their way out. If older Americans owe more money on their homes, they are likely to work longer and stay in their homes longer, making it more difficult for younger Americans to move into the work force and purchase a starter home. And if both older and younger Americans are still struggling in the housing market, who is actually coming out ahead? The truly wealthy who aren’t as hampered by mortgages.

Comparing HMDA 2014 data to previous years

The Home Mortgage Disclosure Act requires lenders to report on mortgage applications. Here is what the 2014 data on over 9 million applications reveals about mortgages:

How difficult was it to obtain financing last year? “While mortgage credit stayed generally tight, conditions appeared to ease somewhat over the course of the year as the fraction of mortgage lending to lower-credit borrowers increased,” according to the Fed. “However, growth in new housing construction was slow throughout the year, suggesting some persistent softness in new housing demand.”

What percentage of the nearly 10 million applications in 2014 actually became mortgages? About 6 million. The dollar volume of those loans totaled almost $1.4 trillion, which is lower than 2013’s volume, but somewhat higher than most industry pundits predicted…

Of the $2.5 trillion in applications made to lenders last year, about 59 percent came from whites, and just over 20 percent came from minorities (blacks, Latinos, Asians, American Indians, native Hawaiians or people of mixed race). More than 1 in 5 applications were in the “unknown” or “N/A” categories, because many people do not fill in the “race” blank. But with minorities now around 38 percent of the American population, it appears that they continue to be underserved…

Beyond those figures, HMDA also offers a wide-angle snapshot of the country’s appetites for home loans. Of the 10 million applications, 89 percent were for owner-occupied units, with just 10 percent non-owner-occupied. Applications to purchase homes were just slightly more popular (51 percent) than those to refinance loans (41 percent), with just seven percent seeking home-improvement lending.

This data can be very interesting in itself but it helps to be able to take a longitudinal view to know how 2014 compares to prior years. This sort of data is available in a Federal Reserve report:

 

 

HMDAData2014

As this table shows, the number of applications is still down dramatically. Also note the number of refinance loans in the late 2000s compared to today – much of the mortgage activity in the last decade has actually involved refinancing.

Here is a table regarding the applicants:

HMDAData2014Borrower

As noted above, the data on race/ethnicity suggests small declines among non-white groups and an increase for whites. Borrower income has not changed much though the neighborhood income has increased a bit compared to 2004.

What politician would kill the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage?

The second to last chapter of Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the U.S. Mortgage Giants includes this summary of the American housing industry:

But there is widespread agreement among policy makers on at least this element of investors’ argument, which is that you cannot keep a cheap, long-term, fixed-rate mortgage available to the wide swath of Americans through big economic ups and downs without some sort of government backstop. There is a reason no other country has such a product. For all the supposed ideological purity in today’s Washington, no politician wants to be responsible for the loss of something Americans have come to see as a right. Indeed, despite Alan Greenspan’s admonition years ago that many Americans would do better with adjustable-rate mortgages, in November 2014 a stunning 87 percent of Americans who took out a mortgage to buy a house chose a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, according to data from the Urban Institute.

As the rest of the book argues, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage today the result of particular arrangements involving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Americans after World War II may have thought they were after owning a single-family home but less attention was paid to what was undergirding all of this: a particular financial instrument – the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage – that made some people a lot of money and helped dictate other areas of policy and social life.

Xmas gifts: America has socialized mortgages, free market health care

The preface to Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the U.S. Mortgage Giants includes this fascinating section:

The big banks have at least superficially paid back the money the government gave them; General Motors and Chrysler are out of bankruptcy; but Fannie and Freddie are still in conservatorship. Even more significant, most of the mortgage market in this country is now supported by government agencies, more so that it was before the financial crisis. The former governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, told me this: “Most countries have socialized health care and a free market for mortgages. You in the United States do exactly the opposite.”

Americans of all political stripes have long supported the idea that residents deserve to own a home. This is reflected in government policy, as Bethany McLean argues, where politicians suggest they want Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac out of the mortgage business yet let them become a more and more integral part of the process.

It would be interesting to know how the money poured into the GSEs might be used elsewhere to support other things Americans like to have.