The ARM Problem

There has been plenty of conjecture about the impact of adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) on the future of our housing market. Some people believe that if interest rates remain low that the upcoming ARM resets will not cause many foreclosures. This is wrong. Today’s post examines what will happen when these resets occur, and it will demonstrate why this problem is so big.

Adjustable Rate Mortgage Reset Chart


By now, most of you have seen the ARM reset schedule shown above. But what does it really mean, and why is this a problem? ARMs became very popular in the bubble rally because they allowed people to finance huge sums of money with smaller payments. In time, it became the only viable alternative for financing. There are two types of ARMs: interest-only and negative amortization (Option ARMs). A typical ARM has a fixed interest rate for a brief period, then the interest rate adjusts and the payment is recast. Option ARMs tend to me more complicated. They have more frequent adjustments — which are almost always to higher rates and higher payments — and they have the option to pay less than the interest-only amount which results in negative amortization (a fancy way of saying your mortgage balance goes up). There are two terms that are important to understand with respect to ARMs: reset and recast. A reset is a change in interest rate being charged on the loan. These loans are all scheduled to reset at different times, and depending upon changes in the underlying index rate, the interest rate may go up or down. When the interest rate changes, or when the amortization method changes, the payment is recast which means it changes. Any change in payment is technically a recast, but the dreaded recast, the recast that causes all the problems, occurs when the amortization changes and the loan must be repaid.

It is not the interest rate reset that is the main problem, it is the recast to a fully amortized repayment schedule that causes dramatic payment shock.

Don’t you understand, what I’m trying to say?
Can’t you see the fear that I’m feeling today?

At some point, a loan must be paid off. All loans eventually revert to fully-amortized loans requiring the borrower to pay back both the interest and the principal. During the bubble, people believed they could refinance continually from one ARM to another in a process known as serial refinancing. Most borrowers have come to believe mortgage debt is something you perpetually service and never retire. The collapse of mortgage lending that caused the bankruptcy of the subprime industry and the government to take over the GSEs has put an end to serial refinancing. Now people are going to have to pay off their debts. Most can’t afford to.

Debt-To-Income Ratio, California 1986-2006


Let’s look at a typical example. During the bubble, there was a significant increase in allowed debt-to-income ratios. People who were eager to get rich on real estate stretched themselves to buy houses. This was not a passive result of high prices, this was the driving force of the price rally. As a result, many people are putting 40% or more of their gross income toward housing. Assume a borrower who was making $120,000 a year decided to take out a 5-year fixed, interest-only adjustable rate mortgage with a 40% DTI. They would be putting $4000 a month toward their housing payment, and with a 5% interest rate, they could finance $960,000. Does borrowing 8 times income seem impossible? It was not uncommon.

Projected Irvine, California Price-to-Income Ratio 1986-2030


Let’s assume this borrower has been making this $4,000 a month payment, since 2005, and their 5-year fixed period is coming to and end in 2010. What is going to happen? Let’s look at the scenario people envision where this will not be a problem. Let’s say interest rates are still extremely low in 2010 (something that is not very likely) and that the interest rate reset does not change the borrower’s interest rate. At the end of the 5-year period, the mortgage recasts to a fully amortized payment schedule over the remaining 25 years of the loan. The payment which was $4,000 a month goes up to $5,612.06. The borrower was already putting a crushing 40% of their income toward their housing payment. How are they going to afford a 40% higher payment? Is it likely that their income rose 40% in 5 years? Can they afford a 56% DTI? You see, the problem with the interest rate reset is not the change in the interest rate, it is the recast to a fully-amortized schedule. Keep in mind; this is the best-case scenario where mortgage interest rates are still at historic lows seen during the bubble. If mortgage interest rates go up, which seems likely if risk is properly priced into them, then the payment shock at reset/recast is even worse.

So why can’t the borrower just refinance into either another ARM or a 30-year loan? Remember the credit crunch? Loan terms have gotten much tighter. Lenders are requiring 20% equity, and the allowable DTIs are falling. Did the property go up 20% in value? No, values have declined. Did the borrower save up enough money to pay down the mortgage? No, they were putting all their money toward their interest-only payment? Did the borrower’s income rise 40% or more over the last 5 years? Possible, but given the current state of our economy, it is not very likely. In short, the borrower is screwed. They will not be able to refinance, and they will not be able to support the new mortgage payment. They will end up in foreclosure.

If the button is pushed, there’s no running away,
There’ll be noone to save with the world in a grave,

This is an enormous problem. Eighty percent of loan originations in 2005 and 2006 in Orange County were interest-only or negative amortization. This isn’t just a few loans that will result in a few foreclosures. This is the bulk of our financing. You can see what these resets do to home prices by looking at the areas dominated by subprime. Santa Ana, Riverside County, Stockton, and many other markets that were dominated by subprime have been blasted back to 2001 pricing more than 50% off the peak. This did not occur because these neighborhoods were less desirable, it occurred because their loans reset in 2007 and 2008. The loans in Irvine and the more desirable areas in Orange County are set to reset from 2009-2011. The problems for the high end are in front of us, not behind us.

People who were buying or doing cash-out refinancing during the bubble were betting on 4 things: 1. Interest rates would stay low. 2. Loose loan terms would be available. 3. House prices would keep rising. 4. Incomes would keep rising. If any one of these four things did not happen, they were going to lose their house. It would only take one of these four conditions to change for disaster to occur. In the real world, all four of these things did not happen, and now we are facing a foreclosure crisis rivaling the Great Depression. Most people were not aware of the risks they were taking on, and many who were aware of them really believed everything would work out in their favor. They were tragically mistaken.