Can Lenders Underwrite Zero Down Loans Effectively?

Zero down mortgages were a big factor in the inflation of the housing bubble. The debate now is whether or not this form of financing is inherently bad or if that bird can change. This is one Phoenix that probably shouldn’t rise from the ashes.

I wrote about the evils of 100% financing in The Great Housing Bubble:no_money_down

100% Financing is a path to destruction

Once 100% financing became widely available, it was enthusiastically embraced by all parties: the lenders suddenly had a huge source of new customers to generate high fees, the realtors and builders now had plenty of new customers to buy more homes, and many potential buyers who did not have savings were able to enter the market. It seemed like a panacea; for two or three years, it was. There was a problem with 100% financing (which was masked by the rampant appreciation brought about by its introduction): high default rates. The more money people had to put in to the transaction, the less likely they were to default. It was that simple. The borrowers probably intended to repay the loan when they got it, however they did not feel much of a sense of responsibility to the loan when the going got tough. High loan-to-value loans had high default rates causing 100% financing to all but disappear, and it made other high LTV loans much more expensive, so much so as to render them practically useless. It was all part of the credit tightening cycle.

Besides stopping people from saving for downpayments, 100% financing harmed the market by depleting the buyer pool. In a normal real estate market, first-time buyers are saving their money waiting until they can make their first purchase. This usually results in a steady stream of first-time buyers that enter the market each year. When 100% financing eliminated the downpayment requirement, it also eliminated any need to wait. Those who ordinarily would have bought 2-5 years in the future were able to buy immediately. This emptied the queue. This type of financing appears periodically in the auto industry, especially in downturns when it is necessary to liquidate inventory. The term for this is “pulling demand forward,” because it reduces demand for new cars in the next few years. This might not have been a problem if 100% financing would have been made available to everyone forever; however, once downpayment requirements came back those who would have been saving were already homeowners, so there were few new buyers available, and any potential new buyers had to start over saving for the downpayment they thought would never be required. The situation was made worse because those late buyers who were “pulled forward” from the future buyer pool overpaid, and many lost their homes. This eliminated them from the buyer pool for several years due to poor credit and newly tightened credit underwriting standards. Thus, most who thought 100% financing was a dream come true found it to be a nightmare instead.

Mortgages as Options

An option contract provides the contract holder the option to force the contract writer to either buy or sell a particular asset at a given price. A typical option contract has an expiration date, and if the contract holder does not exercise his contract rights by a given date, he loses his contractual right to do so. An option giving the holder the right to buy is a “call” option, and the option giving the holder the right to sell is a “put” option. Writers of option contracts typically obtain a price premium for taking on the risk that prices may move against their position and the contract holder may exercise his right. The holder of an options contract willingly pays this premium to limit his losses to the premium paid if the investment does not go as planned. Most options expire worthless.

Mortgages took on the characteristics of options contracts in the Great Housing Bubble. Speculators utilized 100% financing and Option ARMs with low teaser rates to minimize the acquisition and holding costs of a particular property. The small amount they were paying was the “call premium” they were providing the lender. If prices went up, the speculator got to keep all the gains from appreciation, and if prices went down, the speculator could simply walk away from the mortgage and only lose the cost of the payments made, particularly when this debt was a non-recourse, purchase-money mortgage. Another method speculators and homeowners alike used was the “put” option refinance. [viii] Late in the bubble when prices were near their peak, many homeowners refinanced their properties and took out 100% of the equity in their homes. In the process, they were buying a “put” from the lender: if prices went down (which they did,) they already had the sales proceeds as if they had actually sold the property at the peak; if prices went up, they got to keep those profits as well. The only price for this “put” option was the small increase in monthly payments they had to make on the large sum they refinanced. In fact, on a relative cost basis, the premium charged to these speculators and homeowners was a small fraction of the premiums similar options cost on stocks. Of course, mortgages are not option contracts, and lenders did not view themselves as selling option premiums to profit from the premium payments; however, speculators certainly did view mortgages in this manner and treated them accordingly.

The “put” and “call” option features of mortgages during the bubble are the direct result of 100% financing. Speculators and homeowners have too little to lose to behave responsibly when 100% financing is available. Without increasing the cost to speculators through downpayments or a loan-to-value limit on refinances, speculators are going to utilize these mortgage products in ways they were not intended. There are many expensive lessons learned by lenders concerning 100% financing during the Great Housing Bubble.

With the problems of 100% financing, it is a legitimate worry that we may not want to let that genie out of the bottle.

New Program for Buyers, With No Money Down

Published: September 4, 2010

MILWAUKEE — When the housing bubble burst, one of the culprits, economists agreed, was exotic mortgages, including those that required little or no money down.

But on a recent evening, Matthew and Hannah Middlebrooke stood in their new $115,000 three-bedroom ranch house here, which Mr. Middlebrooke bought in June with just $1,000 down.

Because he also received a grant to cover closing costs and insurance, the check he wrote at the closing was for 67 cents.

“I thought I’d be stuck renting for years,” said Mr. Middlebrooke, 26, who earns $32,000 a year as a producer for a Christian television ministry.

The guy is only 26. Perhaps he could save money for a while like everyone else his age that wants to buy a house. Is a no money down house the new entitlement for twenty somethings?


As long as the borrowers are Christian ministers, I guess 100% financing is okay, right? Is this borrower more moral than the strategic defaulters who walked away from zero-down mortgages?

Although home foreclosures are again expected to top two million this year, Fannie Mae, the lending giant that required a government takeover, is creeping back into the market for mortgages with no down payment.

Mr. Middlebrooke’s mortgage came from a new program called Affordable Advantage, available to first-time home buyers in four states and created in conjunction with the states’ housing finance agencies. The program is expected to stay small, said Janis Smith, a spokeswoman for Fannie Mae.

Option ARMs were expected to stay small when they were rolled out too. A niche product with high appeal inevitably is made more widely available, and as these programs expand, buyers enter the market, prices go up, and the problems are masked by another housing bubble.

Some experts are concerned about the revival of such mortgages.

“Loans that have zero down payment perform worse than loans with down payments,” said Mathew Scire, a director of the Government Accountability Office’s financial markets and community investment team. “And loans with down payment assistance” — like Mr. Middlebrooke’s — “perform worse than those that do not.”

The evidence is clear: zero down loan programs have high default rates. Why should we pay the bad debts of the many who default to help the few that don’t?

But the surprise is the support these loans have received, even from critics of exotic mortgages, who say low down payments themselves were not the problem, except when combined with other risk factors like adjustable rates or lax underwriting.

Moreover, they say, the housing market needs such nontraditional lending, as long as it is done prudently.

Again, the Option ARM is not a bad loan when given to the right people. The problem is that these loan programs are never contained to only the right people.

“This is subprime lending done right,” said John Taylor, president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, an umbrella group for 600 community organizations, and a staunch critic of the lending industry. “If they had done subprime this way in the first place, we wouldn’t have these problems.”

At Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, Eric Belsky, the director, said the loans might be the type of step necessary to restart the housing market, because down payment requirements are keeping first-time home buyers out.

I mentioned that problem above. This is a problem the housing market is going to have to get past. You can’t give out 100% loans without having problems. The default rates will be high, and the programs will lose money. Do we really want to replace all the bad loan programs that inflated the bubble with government-run programs of the same ilk?

“If you look at where the market may get strength from, it may very well be from first-time buyers,” he said. “And a very significant constraint to first-time buyers is the wealth constraint.”

First-time buyers are really the only game in town. There is no move-up market while prices decline or stagnate.

The loans are the idea of state housing finance agencies, or H.F.A.’s, quasi-government entities created to help moderate-income people buy their first homes.

Throughout the foreclosure crisis, the state agencies continued to make loans with low down payments, often to borrowers with tarnished credit, with much lower default rates than comparable mortgages from commercial lenders or the Federal Housing Administration. The reason: the agencies did not offer adjustable rates, and they continued to document buyers’ income and assets, which many commercial lenders did not do. In 2009, the agencies’ sources of revenue dried up, and they had to curtail most lending.

Then they created Affordable Advantage. The loans are 30-year fixed mortgages, with mandatory homeownership counseling, available to people with credit scores of 680 and above (720 in Massachusetts). The buyers have to put in $1,000 and must live in the homes.

They keep out conventional investors with these requirements, but the specuvestor homeowner is strongly encouraged to buy a property with the government covering their downside risk. No risk loans are a bad idea.

All of these requirements ease the risk, said William Fitzpatrick, vice president and senior credit officer of Moody’s Investors Service. “These aren’t the loans that led us into the mortgage crisis,” he said.

So far Idaho, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Wisconsin are offering the loans. The Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority has issued 500 loans since March, making it the first state to act. After six months, there are no delinquencies so far, said Kate Venne, a spokeswoman for the agency.

The agencies buy the loans from lenders, then sell them as securities to Fannie Mae. Because the government now owns 80 percent of Fannie Mae, taxpayers are on the hook if the loans go bad.

The US taxpayer is covering the losses of a new breed of speculator-homeowners.

The state agencies oversee the servicing of the loans and work with buyers if they fall behind — a mitigating factor, said Mr. Fitzpatrick of Moody’s.

“They have a mission to put people in homes and keep them in homes,” not to foreclose unless other options are exhausted, he said. The loans have interest rates about one-half of a percentage point above comparable loans that require down payments.

Ms. Smith, the spokeswoman for Fannie Mae, distinguished the program from loans of the boom years that “layered risk on top of risk.”

With the new loans, she said, “income is fully documented, monthly payments are fixed, credit score requirements are generally higher, and borrowers must be thoroughly counseled on the home-buying process and managing their mortgage debt.”

That probably does help.

For Porfiria Gonzalez and her son, Eric, the loan allowed them to move out of a rental house in a neighborhood with a high crime rate to a quiet street where her neighbors are retirees and police officers.

So this mortgage saved her and her son from the evils of drug dealers, gangs, and random violence. Pity the poor renters who have to continue to live in those crappy neighborhoods with pimps and prostitutes.

Ms. Gonzalez, 30, processes claims in the foreclosure unit at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage; she has seen the many ways a mortgage holder can fail.

On a recent afternoon in her three-bedroom ranch house here, Ms. Gonzalez said she did not see herself as repeating the risks of the homeowners whose claims she processed.

I learned to stay away from ARM loans,” or adjustable rate mortgages, she said. “That’s the No. 1 thing. And always have some emergency money.”

When she first started shopping, she looked at houses priced around $140,000. But the homeownership counselor said she should keep the purchase price closer to $100,000.

A 40% reduction in price must have reduced the quality of the property she obtained a great deal. There is a tradeoff when deciding to purchase less.

“They explained to me that I don’t need a $1,200-a-month payment,” she said.

The counselor worked with her real estate agent and attended her closing. On May 28, Ms. Gonzalez bought her home for $90,500, with monthly payments of $834. After moving expenses, she has kept her savings close to $5,000 to shield her from emergencies.

“If I had to make a down payment, it would have wiped out my savings,” she said. “I would have started with nothing.”

Good thing she had some money to go shopping for furniture, right? How much of that emergency fund do you think she spent? If she didn’t, I give her credit for great self-discipline. Most people would blow it on crap for the new house.

Now, she said, she is in a home she can afford in a neighborhood where her son can play in the yard. A neighbor brought her a metal pink flamingo with a welcome sign to place by her side door.

“My favorite part is the big backyard,” said Eric, 10. “And that’s pretty much it.”

“You don’t like it that it’s a quiet, safe neighborhood?” his mother asked.

“Yeah, I do.”

“He didn’t go out much with kids in the old neighborhood,” she said.

“Because they were bad kids,” he said.

Ms. Gonzalez said that owning a house was much more work than renting, and that when the basement flooded during a heavy rain, her heart sank.

“But I look at it as an investment,” she said, adding that a similar house in the neighborhood was on the market for $120,000.

That’s a great attitude for zero-down buyers to have. Not. What would she be saying if comps were selling for $85,000?

Prentiss Cox, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School who has been deeply critical of the mortgage industry, said the program met an important need and highlighted the track record of state housing agencies, which never engaged in exotic loans.

“It’s not a story people want to hear, because it won’t bring back the big profits,” Mr. Cox said. “The H.F.A.’s have shown how the problems of the last 10 years were about having sound and prudent regulation of lending, not just whether the loans were prime or subprime.”

He added, “One of the great and unsung tragedies of the whole crisis was the end of the subprime market.”

What? One of the great virtues of the crash has been the elimination of the subprime market. Why is it a good idea to loan money to people who have proven they cannot save money or make a consistent payment? Subprime borrowers are not stuck in poverty. Subprime borrowers suffer from the consequences of their own life’s choices. Unless they prove they can make different choices, they cannot sustain home ownership, and loaning them money is only going to result in losses to the lender.

What do you think? Can no money down mortgages be underwritten prudently?