Real Estate Will the Mortgage Lending Market Hit the Wall

At a distance, it is hard to tell when a freight train is about to hit a wall. You might hear screeching, whistle blowing or even screams just minutes before. But what about the drunken mortgage lending market? What sounds should we expect to hear as this market speeds toward the proverbial wall? Some believe that the sounds can already be heard in the distance.

Although many market watchers predicted that higher rates and a slowing housing market would bring the furious pace of mortgage lending to a halt, their predictions have not panned out. Higher mortgage rates and a slowing housing market have not yet translated into the significantly higher foreclosures and bank losses that these pundits predicted. But what do rising mortgage delinquency rates foretell? Here is where the plot gets interesting. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, mortgage delinquency rates rose an eye-popping 7% to 4.7% in the fourth quarter of 2005. Most market experts would agree that this kind of rise in delinquencies, if unchecked, will give lenders a severe case of indigestion.

Despite the higher delinquency rates and other red flags, mortgage lenders are speeding ahead undaunted. They continue to ignore former Fed Chairman Greenspan’s warning that their market has become too aggressive. As a group, most mortgage lenders seem unfazed by the notion that borrowers are taking on too much debt, that loan to value ratios are too high and that too many loans are being done with scant documentation.

Both banks and consumers appear to be stretching. In California, lenders have allowed over 20% of homebuyers to pay more than half of their pre-tax earnings for housing. HUD recommends that buyers pay less than 30%. Exacerbating the situation is that a large number are either higher risk variable-rate or interest-only mortgages.

A growing worry of the Fed is the sub-prime mortgage market. Lenders in this market cater to borrowers with sub-par credit profiles. Sub-prime loans now represent roughly 23% of new mortgages versus only 5% in the mid 1990s. If delinquencies and defaults balloon, the sub-prime mortgage market could easily implode. Although many of these lenders repackage their loans to sell to investors, many maintain their own portfolios. Some of these lenders are especially vulnerable since they retain mortgages that are too difficult to sell.

Other looming red flags for the sub-prime segment are: many of these lenders do big business in California, where the median house price jumped 16% during 2005 to over $548,000; many of these lenders require only limited documentation from borrowers, practically inviting fraud; and this segment has aggressively pushed interest-only, adjustable rate, and negative amortization mortgages to weaker borrowers. As rates continue to rise, these loans will put the squeeze on unsuspecting borrowers who will probably see their monthly payments skyrocket.

Analysts at CIBC believe that, in the face of rising rates, up to 10% of U.S. households could face financial crisis as a result of the aggressive loans that they have taken. Many of these borrowers will be in for sticker shock as more that $1.3 trillion in mortgages will face adjustable rate increases. Some borrowers will face payment increases over 150%.

What sound does a freight train make when it is about to hit a wall? Ask mortgage lenders who worked for some of the banks during the early 1990s. A number of those banks collapsed after writing very aggressive loans during the preceding few years. Some lenders made loans that were as much as 125% of home values, thinking that the real estate boom would continue forever. Some accuse mortgage lenders of moving ahead mindlessly like a group of lemmings. Perhaps that metaphor should be modified. Lemmings rarely develop Alzheimer’s disease and they are rarely spotted hitting walls.

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