Souring Mortgages, Weak Market Force FHA to Walk a Tightrope
The Wall Street Journal
By Nick Tiniraos
January 19, 2010
David Stevens bought his first home almost 25 years ago, paying just 3% down with a loan backed by the Federal Housing Administration. "I had no money in the bank," he says. "If it weren't for the FHA, I wouldn't have gotten that home."
Now, as FHA commissioner, Mr. Stevens has to decide how many others to let through that door. Souring FHA-insured mortgages are threatening the agency's finances. Congress is pressuring him to tighten the easy-money standards that once helped people like him, and he is expected to announce revisions as early as this week.
But raising the credit bar could have a dangerous side effect. In many of the nation's hardest-hit housing markets, the FHA backs around half of all new home loans. If the agency pulls back too quickly, the nascent housing recovery could fizzle, endangering the economy.
The dilemma puts the 52-year-old former mortgage banker squarely in the middle of the debate over how much the government should do to prop up the housing market, and how much risk taxpayers should take on to do it.
"How big a role do we need to play to keep the housing system functioning?" says Mr. Stevens, referring to the FHA. "Overcorrecting in either direction would be a terrible thing to do right now."
Mr. Stevens is finalizing possible revisions to credit standards. Options include raising the minimum down payment, establishing a minimum credit score, increasing the amount that borrowers have to pay for mortgage insurance, and reducing the amount of money sellers can kick in for closing costs.
The FHA, created in 1934 to heal the U.S. housing market during the Great Depression, traditionally has helped first-time home buyers and underserved segments of the market. It doesn't lend money to home buyers, but insures lenders against default on loans that meet FHA criteria, collecting fees for that backing. For decades, thanks to a stable housing market, it turned a profit for taxpayers.
When the housing market was booming, subprime lenders drew away many of the borrowers who traditionally used FHA-backed loans by offering even more favorable terms. Unlike the FHA, subprime lenders didn't require borrowers to document their incomes. The FHA saw its share of the mortgage market fall to 2% in 2006.
But when the subprime market collapsed, mortgage brokers began steering borrowers into FHA-backed loans. Politicians and policy makers encouraged the FHA to refinance at-risk borrowers into fixed-rate loans. Suddenly, the FHA had an enormous chunk of the market. Average credit scores of FHA borrowers dropped sharply at first. In last year's third quarter, the FHA insured 25% of mortgages, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, a trade publication.
"We should not play this large a role," Mr. Stevens says. "It's not healthy for the mortgage-finance system, it's not healthy for the economy, and it's certainly not sustainable for the long term."
The FHA, which is part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, isn't as nimble as private mortgage insurers. It must get approval from Congress for some major decisions. "They don't have the horsepower that they should, especially given the size of their operations," says Ann Schnare, a mortgage-industry consultant.
In testimony before Congress last month, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan acknowledged that the FHA "we inherited" was "not properly managing or monitoring its risk. Credit and risk controls were antiquated. Enforcement was weak. And our personnel resources and IT systems were inadequate."
Mr. Stevens knows the industry well. He is the first FHA commissioner in nearly two decades to bring extensive private-sector experience to the job. During the 1980s, he was a top salesman of complex adjustable-rate mortgages for World Savings Bank, a California thrift. He went on to hold senior jobs at housing-finance giant Freddie Mac and at Wells Fargo & Co.
In his off time, he plays guitar, rides his BMW motorcycle and skis the backcountry. On the job, he gets his way through sheer "force of personality," says Eugene McQuade, once Mr. Stevens's boss when they worked at Freddie and now chief executive of Citigroup Inc.'s Citibank unit.
When Mr. Stevens arrived in July 2009, the FHA didn't have anyone in charge of monitoring risk, including whether certain loan products or lenders were exposing the agency to excessive losses.
In his second week on the job, Mr. Stevens suspended the FHA license for Taylor, Bean & Whitaker Mortgage Corp., one of the nation's top lenders, amid concerns that the company was originating too many bad loans. Taylor Bean closed its doors the next day. In November, he hired the agency's first chief risk officer and five Ph.D. economists to help evaluate risk. That same month, FHA cut off Lend America, another major lender, which also closed.
But there are still signs of trouble. At about 30 FHA-approved lenders with at least 1,000 loan originations, more than 12% of loans are in default two years after origination, nearly double the national average at the end of November. Last Tuesday, HUD's inspector general served subpoenas on 15 of those lenders as part of an examination of the practices of lenders with high default rates.
The percentage of FHA-backed loans that defaulted after borrowers made just one payment—typically an indication of poor underwriting or fraud—has started to fall, but not as fast as needed to avoid future loan losses. FHA-insured mortgages made in 2007 and 2008 are largely responsible for the agency's precarious position, with default rates approaching 24%.
FHA officials concede that the agency offers today's easiest underwriting standards.
Mr. Stevens, nevertheless, lashes out at critics who say the FHA is repeating the mistakes of subprime lenders. At a conference in November, Robert Toll, chief executive of luxury-home builder Toll Brothers Inc., referred to the FHA as "the new subprime" and "a definite train wreck" that will soon need a bailout, according to a transcript of his remarks.
Mr. Stevens, in an interview, called the comparison "ludicrous," and said Mr. Toll has "no clue" about the agency's finances.
The agency is required by Congress to hold enough capital in reserve to cover 30 years of projected losses. An independent audit said reserves at the end of September exceeded projected losses by just $3.6 billion, about 0.5% of the $685 billion in loans outstanding, down from 3% a year earlier. Congress requires the agency to maintain a 2% capital-reserve ratio.
FHA officials say they have enough cash to cover the current level of losses, and that the agency risks running out of money only if home prices take another big dive. "We've learned from recent history that the market is fragile, and we have to plan for the unexpected," Mr. Donovan, the HUD secretary, said last month.
But some analysts say the agency's assumptions about home prices and foreclosures are too optimistic.
"FHA is, at best, running on empty, and probably is facing a negative capital situation," Ms. Schnare, the industry consultant, told a congressional panel last month. If the agency were to run short of cash to cover projected losses, it likely would have to ask Congress for money for the first time ever.
The bad-loan problem stems, in part, from controversial programs that allowed home builders and other sellers to fund down payments for home buyers through nonprofit groups. After a lengthy effort, the FHA prevailed on Congress to shut the programs down in October 2008, but the damage already was done. The FHA's independent audit concluded that were it not for such programs, the agency's capital-reserve ratio would have stayed above the 2% mandated by law.
In another troubling practice, by late 2007, institutional investors were identifying at-risk mortgages in their portfolios and refinancing the borrowers into FHA-backed loans, thereby offloading their risk onto the agency. "It was an unintentional bailout of financial institutions," says David Lykken, a partner at Mortgage Banking Solutions, an Austin, Texas, consulting firm.
One of the raft of measures Mr. Stevens is considering to protect and replenish the agency's reserves is raising the minimum down payment. The current minimum of 3.5% is far lower than what private lenders offer, making FHA-backed loans one of the last low-down-payment options left. Last year, through August, nearly seven in eight new FHA-backed loans carried down payments of less than 5%.
Home builders are worried. "It would be a game changer for the industry" if down payments were raised, says Eric Lipar, chief executive of LGI Homes, a Texas-based builder of entry-level homes.
Not everyone believes that such low down payments are good. In markets where home values are still falling, buyers who put little money down could see their equity wiped out quickly. The FHA is "just manufacturing more upside-down homeowners by the truckload in Arizona, California, and Nevada," says Brett Barry, a Phoenix real-estate agent who specializes in selling foreclosed homes.
If the agency were to raise down payments sharply in those markets, price declines would become a "self-fulfilling prophecy," says Mr. Stevens. "If you stop lending, you're going to perpetuate the declines."
Mr. Stevens says first-time buyers are key to clearing inventory in markets such as Las Vegas. James Smith, a 42-year-old air-conditioning repairman, might not have been able to buy a $188,000 home out of foreclosure recently in Henderson, Nev., were it not for the low FHA down payments. To make the 3.5% payment, he used around $4,300 of his own money and borrowed the rest from this father-in-law.
"It was actually a great thing," he says. He repaid his father-in-law after receiving an $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers. Mr. Smith, who earns around $50,000 annually, makes monthly payments of $1,466.
Mr. Stevens says he expects to get heat from industry and consumer groups no matter what he decides to do to tighten credit standards.
Even as the FHA considers how to scale back, some members of Congress are pushing it to expand its role. In 2008, in the midst of the credit crisis, Congress temporarily raised the maximum FHA loan from $362,790 to as high as $729,750 for the most expensive housing markets. Lawmakers have introduced a bill to make that increase permanent.
"A $500,000 loan in Massachusetts is like a $300,000 loan in Nebraska," says Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, who favors raising limits to $800,000 in the most expensive markets. "All we're trying to do is control for geography."
Mr. Stevens argues the expanded limits should stay temporary, in keeping with the FHA's traditional focus on first-time buyers.
The FHA says the loans it is guaranteeing these days will turn a profit because the credit profile of its borrowers has improved. The average credit score for FHA borrowers has risen to 681, from 630 two years ago. The median U.S. score is about 720. Much of the improvement came as the FHA's lenders raised their own credit standards.
Mr. Stevens, for his part, is painfully aware of how far the housing market is from recovery. He listed his northern Virginia home for sale last fall and already has slashed the asking price by $100,000, to $1.4 million. Before Christmas, he pulled the five-bedroom colonial off the market with plans to relist it later this year. He says he wants to live closer to Washington. "The commute is very hard," he says, "and the hours are very long."
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