Mortgage Market Still Obstructs Lower Income Borrowers

The Mortgage Corner

Earlier this month, researchers at the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center published some of their research on lending standards. Drawing on data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, they found that lower-credit applicants accounted for only 33 percent of all applicants in 2015. That compares to 62 percent in 2006, at the height of the bubble, and 50 percent in 2000, when market conditions were generally considered balanced.


Graph: Urban Institute

What determines a “lower-credit applicant’, according to the Urban Institute? A FICO score below 700, a loan-to-value ratio less than 78 percent, and debt to income ratio less than 30 percent. That means prospective homeowners and borrowers are either easily discouraged, or other factors that tighter credit criteria are at play, since 700 is still a good credit score and even a 10 percent down payment with 45 to 50 percent debt to income ratios usually mean a credit-worthy borrower in today’s housing markets.

Of course it makes sense that borrowers with “less than perfect credit” would have a more difficult time qualifying for a mortgage. But why 7 years into this recovery would so many lower credit applicants still have problems qualifying?

There are a number of factors, including higher home prices, of course. And incomes are not rising as they should even with this low inflation environment, while mortgage rates remain historically low—still below 4 percent for conforming 30-year fixed rates—an incredible boon for prospective homebuyers given the low inflation environment..

In fact, it’s not so much that lending standards are stricter. Rather, thanks to the government ownership of conventional mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, mortgages have become more expensive because of so-called fee addon’s with “less than perfect” credit scores below 700, which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have tacked on more recently.

Why discourage what are very credit-worthy borrowers in normal times? Costs go up exponentially with credit scores below 720 for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guaranteed mortgages—as much as 2.5 points, which translates to an equivalent 0.625 percent rate increase.

It seems that the US Treasury has been trying to discourage all but the most credit-worthy borrowers, all in the name of down-sizing the GSEs. In fact the Obama Treasury Department has made no secret of wanting to close down Fannie and Freddie, which is why it has been taking all of its profits since a 2012 modification to Treasury’s conservation agreement, rather than allowing them to build up their capital base.


Graph: Calculated Risk

Yet delinquency rates are almost back to historical levels. Fannie Mae reported that the Single-Family Serious Delinquency rate barely increased to 1.23 percent in November, up from 1.21 percent in October. Big Deal! The serious delinquency rate is down from 1.58 percent in November 2015. But that is close to the long term delinquency rate that is just under 1 percent. The definition of serious delinquency is mortgage loans that are “three monthly payments or more past due or in foreclosure”.  

The Urban Institute’s Laurie Goodman, co-director of the Housing Finance Policy Center, sees the decline in lower-credit applicants as clearly problematic, and symptomatic of an overly-tight mortgage market, although it’s not clear whether would-be applicants are holding back because they are aware they may not qualify, or for some other reason, such as not having enough money for a down payment or losing interest in homeownership.

Earlier Urban analysis suggested that tight lending meant that 1.1 million mortgages that would have been made in 2001 were “killed” – never written – in 2015. The real answer to this problem of what is really a defacto denial of credit to lower income homebuyers is to pry Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from the greedy grasp of Treasury and return them to the private marketplace.

There are many forms that could take, but it means Congress and the Trump Administration has to show some initiative.

Harlan Green © 2017

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About populareconomicsblog

Harlan Green is editor/publisher of, and content provider of 3 weekly columns to various blogs--Popular Economics Weekly and The Huffington Post
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