Mar032011

The US needs a home equity lockbox owners can’t raid

Lenders enabled the housing bubble, but people needed a reason to provide the demand to pay stupid prices to inflate a housing bubble. As I documented, the Desire for Mortgage Equity Withdrawal Inflated the Housing Bubble.equity stripping

In order for home price appreciation to motivate people to pay stupid prices and inflate housing bubbles, they need a way to access this appreciation. The more immediate and plentiful this access to money, the more motivated buyers are to borrow and cash out. Mortgage equity withdrawal is the doorway to appreciation; it makes houses very desirable and very valuable.

Texas shows the way

To test this premise, we need to find a market with limited access to mortgage equity withdrawal and compare the home prices there to a market like California’s where there are no restrictions at all. There is such a place: Texas.

I know Texas. I spent two and one-half years living in College Station studying real estate. Texas, along with California, was a big player in the Savings and Loan disaster. They inflated a commercial real estate bubble of epic standards, and even its residential real estate was volatile during that period. Texans are certainly not immune to the temptation to take free money from lenders. However, the delivery mechanism of the Savings and Loan disaster was through commercial lending whereas the delivery mechanism during the Great Housing Bubble was residential lending. Texas has different laws governing residential lending, and these laws prevented a housing bubble there.

I go on to discuss an article by Alyssa Katz, The Lone Star Secret. In the article, she discusses the situation in Texas:

A cash-out refinance is a mortgage taken out for a higher balance than the one on an existing loan, net of fees. Across the nation, cash-outs became ubiquitous during the mortgage boom, as skyrocketing house prices made it possible for homeowners, even those with bad credit, to use their home equity like an ATM. But not in Texas. There, cash-outs and home-equity loans can’t total more than 80 percent of a home’s appraised value. There’s a 12-day cooling-off period after an application, during which the borrower can pull out. And when a borrower refinances a mortgage, it’s illegal to get even $1 back. Texas really means it: All these protections, and more, are in the state constitution. The Texas restrictions on mortgage borrowing date back to the first days of statehood in 1845, when the constitution banned home loans entirely.

“Delinquency and foreclosure rates are significantly lower in Texas,” boasts Scott Norman, the president of the Texas Mortgage Bankers Association. “The 80 percent loan-to-value limit—that’s the catalyst for a lot of this.”

That’s were the lockbox comes in. If a house is supposed to represent financial security, it should be a place of money storage, not an endless ATM machine spitting out spending money. The Texas experience shows that if you deny people access to this money, the housing market is more stable, and everyone has tangible ownership in their property with real equity. That is the real American dream.

Regulators Push 20% Down Payments on Homes

By VICTORIA MCGRANE And NICK TIMIRAOS — MARCH 2, 2011

Banking regulators are pushing for mortgage-lending rules that require homeowners to make minimum 20% down payments on loans classified as lower-risk, according to people familiar with the matter.

The proposal is being floated as a way to rewrite the rules for mortgage lending to prevent a rerun of the housing bubble and financial crisis that resulted from years of easy credit. The Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law enacted last year enabled regulators to define a so-called gold-standard residential mortgage that would be exempt from costly new rules.

At least three agencies—the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency—back a proposal to require home buyers to put down at least 20% of the sales price in order to obtain one of these “qualified residential mortgages.” One proposal would also require borrowers to maintain a 75% loan-to-value ratio for refinances, and a 70% loan-to-value for cash-out refinances in which the borrower refinances into a larger loan, according to people familiar with the matter.

Those are great proposals. If lending is encouraged under those terms, I am all for it.

Mortgage-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would also be exempt from the rules while they remain in conservatorship, according to these people. The U.S. took over the firms in 2008, and the Obama administration has proposed eventually winding them down.

The behind-the-scenes debate over the proposal could have far-reaching implications for how Americans finance loans, because it addresses how much equity new borrowers should have in their homes.

The advantage of owning a home was the amortizing mortgage was a forced savings account, and inflation provided some additional return. Once we gave unfettered access to home equity, these features of home ownership no longer applied. As many Ponzis have proven, even after more than 20 years of ownership, a loan owner can lose their home to foreclosure.

It is unclear whether the proposal will garner support among other regulators and be acceptable to the White House and Congress. Altogether, six federal agencies—the three supporting the proposal plus the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Housing Finance Agency and the Securities and Exchange Commission—must sign off on the proposal before it is released for public comment. It could not be determined Tuesday whether all the agencies would support the 20% down-payment standard.

At a congressional hearing Tuesday, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said no deal has been reached yet, and that any plan could instead spell out options.

At a separate hearing Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said, “We’ve got to be careful that we get it right.” He added, “I’m not sure how much longer it’s going to take, but it’s going to take a bit longer than we initially expected.”

Meanwhile, some lawmakers expressed concerns that the new rules might make it too hard for homeowners to qualify for less risky, and less costly, loans.

In other words, we are worried that if risk is properly priced, people who are not qualified for home ownership may not be given a loan on which they will likely default.

Sen. Kay Hagan (D., N.C.) told Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that several lawmakers “are really concerned about not making it so restrictive that we can’t have as many well-qualified loans as possible.”

The proposal was crafted in response to a provision in Dodd-Frank that aimed to improve mortgage-lending standards. Loans that don’t meet the standards for “qualified residential mortgages” and are sold to investors as securities will be subject to a “risk retention” rule, which could raise borrowing costs for homeowners.

The risk-retention rule requires banks to keep 5% of the value of all mortgages they securitize on their books. During the housing boom, many lenders passed on all of their mortgages, and all of the risk, to investors. It was designed to force lenders to have “skin in the game” when selling groups of mortgages packaged as securities.

Critics of the risk-retention rule said it could raise costs for traditionally safer lending products such as long-term, fixed-rate loans with full income documentation. A coalition of consumer advocacy groups and the real-estate industry have warned that defining the rule too narrowly could raise borrowing costs for millions of creditworthy borrowers.

Regulators must issue a rule defining “qualified residential mortgages” by April, and had initially planned to publish a draft proposal late last year. But the process has been delayed by a disagreement about whether to include in the rule national standards for loan servicers, such as how to modify loans for troubled borrowers. The new proposal reflects a compromise among the regulators to include some standards for how and when banks modify loans.

Write to Nick Timiraos at [email protected]

If the housing market returns to 20% down except for FHA or VA buyers subject to strict underwriting guidelines, the housing market would enjoy relative stability. Perhaps you can’t roll back the clock to the 1960s, but removing mortgage equity withdrawal from the equation would return houses to their basic function of providing shelter, and we could go back to less expensive housing for everyone.