Why banks aren’t lending to homebuyers

By Felix Salmon
January 15, 2014

“Despite the confluence of promising signs,” write Peter Eavis and Jessica Silver-Greenberg today, “little in the vast system that provides Americans with mortgages has returned to normal since the 2008 financial crisis, leaving a large swath of people virtually shut out of the market.”

This is absolutely true, and it’s a significant problem. To get a feel for just how sluggish the mortgage market is, my favorite chart comes from the Mortgage Bankers Association. Every month, the MBA releases its Mortgage Credit Availability Index, which makes it easy to concentrate on minuscule differences: in December, for instance, the index rose to 100.9, from 110.2 in November. But in order to see the big picture you need to zoom out and look at what credit availability was like before the financial crisis. And if you do that, the chart looks something like this:

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Of course, mortgage availability was way too lax in 2006-7, and the new index doesn’t have historical data going back before the end of 2010, so we can’t really see what was normal before things went crazy. But anecdotally, it’s much harder to get a mortgage now than it used to be. In the NYT article, the Center for American Progress’s Julia Gordon says that “a typical American family” with a credit score in the low 700s is “being left out”: that’s a very long way from subprime, which is what you’re considered to be when your credit score is below 620.

Meanwhile, here in Manhattan, no one in my condo building has been able to sell or refinance for the past couple of years, thanks to an ever-shifting series of rules at various different banks, all of which are clearly designed to just give them a reason to say no.

Why are banks so reluctant to lend? It’s not because of new rules about qualified mortgages, or anything regulatory at all, really. Instead, it’s much simpler:

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To put it another way, would you lend money fixed for the next 30 years at a rate of less than 5%? Mortgage rates might still be well above the rates on mortgage bonds, but on an absolute basis, they’re still incredibly low. If you hold the loan to maturity, you’re never going to make very much money, and if you mark it to market, you run the risk of substantial losses if interest rates move back up to more historically-normal levels.

On top of that, the mortgage business is consolidating even more than the banking business more generally, with Wells Fargo being the big whale. It has the scale and the financial technology to manage all the risks and the regulations, as well as a big enough balance sheet that it can easily cope with being forced to repurchase loans it is currently selling. Most smaller banks have essentially zero competitive advantage over Wells, and it can make a lot of sense for them to get out of the game entirely, as Joe Garrett says:

One of the great myths of our industry is that a mortgage is the foundational product for consumer relationships. With many people having their mortgage payment automatically taken from their checking account, a significant number of borrowers don’t even know who their mortgage lender is. And mortgage borrowers are much more interested in getting the lowest rate than in getting a mortgage from their primary bank.

There are many commercial banks that do just fine not offering mortgages. Some offer it through a private-label mortgage company. Some refer borrowers to local mortgage bankers, and most simply don’t offer it. Mortgage banking does not generate deposits from customers, and to the extent that customer deposits are a major part of what makes a franchise valuable, mortgage banking does not help.

I cannot think of a single banker who was ever criticized for getting out of mortgage banking, but there are plenty who stayed in too long and lost their job and even lost their bank. Yes, mortgage banking can be very lucrative when times are good, but bank executives must know when to cut back, and they must also have the courage to simply exit this business when it no longer adds value to the bank and its franchise.

There are a few possible solutions to this problem, none of which are particularly hopeful. One is to simply wait for mortgage rates to rise back to say 6.5%, at which point a lot more lenders will start coming out of the woodwork. Another is to phase out the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage entirely, since it’s a product no private-sector financial institution would ever offer, were it not for the distorting influence of Fannie and Freddie. Both solutions would probably be accompanied by a decline in house prices, which no one wants right now. And then of course there’s the risk of overshoot — that if conditions loosen up, that will only serve to precipitate another bad-loan crisis.

Still, one thing is clear: for all that the Fed has been pumping billions of dollars into mortgage securities as part of its quantitative easing campaign, all that liquidity has failed to find its way to new homebuyers. I’m in general a believer in renting rather than buying, but the US is a nation of homeowners, and in such a country, a liquid housing market is a necessary precondition for economic vitality. Right now, we don’t have one — and we don’t have much hope of getting one in the foreseeable future, either.

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