Builder Confidence Index At 54 Month High

Home builder confidence rose in January
for the fourth consecutive month as builders saw more buyer traffic and
anticipated higher sales.  The National
Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) rose
four points to 25
in January to reach its highest level since June 2007.  Each of the three components of the HMI also
increased for the fourth month and the improved confidence was evident across
every region of the country.

The HMI is the result of a monthly
survey of NAHB has conducted for 20 years. 
The survey asks the Association’s home builder members their perceptions
of current single-family home sales and their expectations for such sales over
the next six months, each graded on a scale of “good,” “fair,” or “poor.”  The survey also asks builders to rate the
current traffic of prospective buyers as “high to very high,” “average,” or “low
to very low.”  Answers to each question
are used to calculate a component index and those comprise the composite
index.  For each index a number over 50
indicates more builders view conditions as good than as poor.

Each of the three component indices rose
three points in January.  The component
measuring current sales conditions is at 25 and the index measuring traffic of
prospective buyers is at 21, the highest point for each since June 2007; the
index reflecting expectations for the next six months rose to 29, the highest score
September 2009.

Bob Nielsen, NAHB chairman said of the
results, “This good news comes on the heels of several months of gains in
single-family housing starts and sales, and is yet another indication of the
gradual but steady improvement that is beginning to take hold in an increasing
number of housing markets nationwide. Policymakers must now take every
precaution to avoid derailing this nascent recovery.”

“Builders are seeing greater interest among potential buyers as employment
and consumer confidence slowly improve in a growing number of markets, and this
has helped to move the confidence gauge up from near-historic lows in the first
half of 2011,” noted NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “That said,
caution remains the word of the day as many builders continue to voice concerns
about potential clients being unable to qualify for an affordable mortgage,
appraisals coming through below construction cost, and the continuing flow of
foreclosed properties hitting the market.”

The HMI also posted gains in all four regions in January, including a
nine-point gain to 23 in the Northeast, a one-point gain to 24 in the Midwest,
a two-point gain to 27 in the South and a five-point gain to 21 in the West.

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Credit Defaults Increase, Led by Mortgage Markets

Bank cards were the only type of
consumer debt to see a decline in defaults during December according to data
released today by S&P Indices and Experian. 
The S&P Experian Consumer Credit Default Indices showed increased
defaults in both first and second mortgages and in auto loans.  Driven primarily by the increase in mortgage
defaults, the national composite index rose from 2.22 percent in November to
2.24 percent in December, the highest rate since April of 2011.  In December 2010 the Index stood at 3.01
percent.

The default rate for second mortgages increased
from 1.26 percent to 1.33 percent, auto loan defaults rose to 1.27 percent from
1.17 percent and first mortgage defaults increased to 2.19 percent from 2.17
percent.  The default rate for bank cards
however dropped from 4.91 percent to 4.60 percent.  All rates have improved from those of one
year earlier when the default rate for second mortgages was 1.74 percent; first
mortgages, 2.93 percent; auto loans, 1.69 percent; and bank cards, 6.73
percent.

“Led by the
mortgage markets, the second half of 2011 saw a slight reversal of the two-year
downward trend in consumer credit default rates,” says David M. Blitzer,
Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee for S&P Indices.
“First mortgage default rates rose for the fourth consecutive month, as did the
composite. Since August, first mortgage default rates have risen from 1.92% to
the 2.19%. The composite also rose those months, from 2.04% to 2.24%.  The
recent weakness seen in home prices is reflected in these data.  Bank card
default rates, on the other hand, were favorable, falling to 4.6% in December.
This is more than a full percentage point below the 5.64% we saw as recently as
July 2011.

S&P Experian data highlighted
five Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). 
Three of the five showed increases in default rates for the month: Miami
increased from 4.47 percent to 4.73 percent; Dallas from 1.38 percent to 1.56
percent, and Los Angeles to 2.54 percent from 2.53 percent.  Chicago was unchanged at 2.84 percent and New
York decreased from 2.21 percent n November to 2.13 percent in December. 

Blitzer said
of the MSA data, “Given what we know about the mortgage markets, it is likely
that these cities are seeing this recent weakness because their housing markets
have still not stabilized.”


 

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Congress Hears Different Views on Appraisal Regulation

Among those testifying at a hearing of the House Committee on Financial Oversight’s subcommittee on
Insurance, Housing, and Community Opportunity were William B.
Shear
, director, Financial Markets and Community Investment, Government
Accountability Office (GAO) and Sara
W. Stephens, president of the Appraisal Institute.  Shear restated GAO’s earlier recommendations
that federal regulators set minimum standards for registering Appraisal
Management Companies (AMC)
before a hearing on
Thursday while Stephens countered
that non-congressionally mandated regulations are threatening to hamstring and jeopardize the real estate appraisal
profession altogether.

Shear presented results of a GAO
study on appraisal oversight which confirmed that appraisals remain the most
popular form of property valuation used by Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae (the GSEs) and
major lenders.  While other valuation
methods such as broker opinions and automatic valuation models (AVM) are
quicker and less expensive, they are also considered less reliable and are not
generally used for loan originations.   While GAO did not capture data on the
prevalence of approaches used to perform appraisals, the sales comparison
approach is required by the GSEs and FHA and is reportedly used in nearly all
appraisals.

Charges of conflict of interest have
changed the ways in which appraisers are selected and raised concerns about the
oversight of AMCs which often manage appraisals for lenders, GAO said.  The Dodd-Frank Act reinforced earlier
requirements and guidance about selecting appraisers and prohibiting coercion
and this has encouraged more lenders to turn to AMCs.  This in turn has raised questions about the
oversight of these firms and their impact on appraisal quality.

Federal regulators and the
enterprises said they hold lenders responsible for ensuring that AMCs’ policies
and practices meet their requirements but that they generally do not directly
examine AMCs’ operations.  Some industry
participants voiced concerns that some AMCs may prioritize low costs and speed
over quality and competence. The Dodd-Frank Act requires state appraiser
licensing boards to supervise AMCs and requires other federal regulators to
establish minimum standards for states to apply in registering them. Setting
minimum standards that address key functions AMCs perform on behalf of lenders
could provide greater assurance of the quality of the appraisals those AMCs
provide GAO said, but as of June 2012, federal regulators had not completed
rulemaking for such standards.

The Appraisal Subcommittee (ASC)
established in 1989 by the Title XI of the Financial Institutions Reform,
Recover, and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) has been monitoring the appraisal function
but its effectiveness has been limited by several weaknesses which include failing
to both define the criteria it uses to assess state compliance with Title XI and
the scope of its role in monitoring the appraisal requirements of federal
banking regulators.

ASC also lacks specific policies for
determining whether activities of the Appraisal Foundation (a private nonprofit
organization that sets criteria for appraisals and appraisers) that are funded
by ASC grants are Title XI-related. Not having appropriate policies and
procedures is inconsistent with federal internal control standards that are
designed to promote the effectiveness and efficiency of federal activities.

Appraisals and other types of real
estate valuations have come under increased scrutiny following the mortgage
crisis
and Dodd-Frank codified several requirements for the independence of
appraisers and expanded the role of ASC. 
It also directed GAO to conduct two studies which were the source of Shear’s
testimony before the committee.

GAO recommends that federal
regulators consider key AMC functions in rulemaking to set minimum standards
for registering AMCs, that ASC clarify the criteria it uses to assess states’
compliance with Title XI of FIRREA and develop specific policies and procedures
for monitoring the federal banking regulators and the Appraisal Foundation.  ASC and regulators are either taking steps to
implement these recommendations or considering doing so.

Although she was not speaking directly
to the GAO report, Stephens in a written statement told committee members that,
although appraising is the most heavily regulated activity within the mortgage
and real estate sectors
, regulatory agencies are planning to enact further
changes that would threaten to tie the hands of appraisers, curtail innovation
and increase regulatory burdens on appraisers and financial institutions.

Stephens was testifying directly
against The Appraisal Foundation’s creation of a new Appraisal Practices Board
delving into appraisal practice matters without Congressional authorization.
The Foundation does not have authority to codify appraisal methods and
techniques, she said, and called it a dangerous and unjustified move.  “The regulatory burden for appraisers is on
the cusp of being expanded exponentially.”

“Appraisal methods and techniques
require judgment by the appraiser. It is assumed that the appraiser has
been thoroughly trained to judge appropriate situations. The choice of methods
and techniques are the responsibility of the appraiser in the development of
his/her scope of work” she said. For instance, whether to use reproduction cost
or replacement cost or when and how to adjust for sales concessions are
dependent on the actions of the marketplace and should not be mandated by a
body such as the Appraisal Practices Board. Hard “rules of thumb” do not work
within valuation because there always is an exception to the rule, she said.

The Appraisal Institute offered a
long list of recommendations
to Congress including that they:

  • realign the appraisal regulatory
    structure with those of other industries in the real estate and mortgage
    sectors
  • Protect the independence of the
    appraisal standards-setting process and require that standards for federally
    related transactions be issued by an entity that does not develop or offer
    education for appraisers.
  • Establish limitations around the
    Appraisal Practices Board specifying that no tax dollars be used to fund the
    venture, voluntary guidance be truly voluntary, and meaningful oversight over
    the de facto regulatory action of the Foundation be established.
  • Reiterate that the Foundation does
    not have legislative authorization in the area of “methods and techniques” and
    “appraiser education.”
  • Authorize the GSEs and other agencies
    to halt purchase or guarantees of loans in states that maintain deficient
    appraiser regulatory regimes and ensure that ongoing federal support for the
    GSEs or any replacement maintains consistent appraisal rules.

The Institute said states should be restricted from
codifying voluntary guidance into state law or regulation and the Appraisal
Standards Board prohibited from specifically
referencing its works within the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal
Practice and laws should be established to empower state boards to investigate
and prosecute complaints involving appraisers.

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First Horizon’s Buybacks; Buyback Legal Chatter; Basel III and Construction Loans; Congress Snubs Small Business?

I have been subtly warning groups during speeches, and writing in this commentary, about the implications of Basel III. Most of the focus is on servicing & the value of it. But did you know that under the new Basel III rules, construction lending would likely go into the “high risk commercial real estate” category and require a 150% risk weighting? “Lenders would seek deals where a developer would contribute a substantial amount of cash equity; while banks would be less likely to let developers rely just on the equity from appraisals” per American Banker. And the government and the Fed are asking why banks aren’t lending? This is just another reason.

Last month we sold the house where my kids grew up, and I had a handyman remove the doorframe where we marked heights on birthdays. I am not mentioning this to turn the daily into a Hallmark card, but because it reminded me of one thing that the press seems to forget: a house is a home and not a share of stock. And when it comes to that, the popular press seems to forget that people need a place to live, that people want a good school district for their kids, a place to get to know the neighbors, a place to create an emotional attachment. I could go on and on, but there are very concrete reasons why people who are underwater on a house still make the payments, why many who supposedly saw the real estate decline didn’t sell their home, and why so many people don’t care about minute fluctuations in the price of housing based on the latest metric.

I’ll get off my soapbox, and get on with business: I think that the last time the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index went up was during the Eisenhower Administration – until now. Seriously, for the first time in eight months the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices rose over levels of the previous month.  Data through April 2012 showed that on average home prices increased 1.3% during the month for both the 10- and 20-City Composites. Prices are still down 2.2% for the 10-City and 1.9% for the 20-City over figures for one year earlier but this is an improvement over the year-over-year losses of 2.9% 2.6% recorded in March. This report followed Monday’s news that New Home Sales jumped 7.6% in May to 369k and was up 19.8% from a year ago, and last week’s Existing Home Sales, Housing Starts and NAHB HMI which all contained some positive signs.

How’s this to grab one’s attention: “Congressional Subcommittee REFUSES Small Business Brokers and Appraisers a Seat at the Table.” The notice from the NAIHP goes on, “For the second time in a week, the Subcommittee on Insurance, Housing and Community Opportunity, Chaired by Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Illinois), refused small business housing professionals the right to be represented during Congressional testimony.” Here you go: http://www.naihp.org/.

Yes, there are plenty of rumors that the agencies are hotly pursuing buybacks to recoup taxpayer losses, and that the agencies are losing personnel except for QA & auditing. But that reasoning doesn’t help companies like First Horizon National Corp. It “cited new information it recently received from Fannie Mae as the basis for incurring the $272 million charge this second quarter. About $250 million will go to repurchase loans made with “inadequate or incorrect” documentation, and $22 million is being charged to address pending litigation.” I don’t make this stuff up.

Last week I received a legal question about buybacks. “I was asked by a former customer of a major investor’s correspondent lending group about how others are handling repurchase/make-whole requests on older vintage loans.  His experience has been that the investor will ask to be reimbursed for losses associated with loans that have been foreclosed and disposed of without being given an opportunity to refute the alleged rep and warrant deficiency.  He has had to hire a law firm to argue each of these requests and the major investor has backed off each time. Normally, when a correspondent is still active, there is obviously leverage against the correspondent under an implied or actual threat of being terminated as a customer if a make-whole is not made, and when an investor is no longer in the correspondent business, I’ve heard rumors of it being more inclined to back down but sometimes taking a former customer to court or ‘saber rattling’. Needless to say, it is expensive to have a lawyer prepare a rebuttal to a make-whole request, just to have the investor ultimately back-off – what to do?”

I turned this over to attorney Brian Levy, who wrote, “Your question about investor willingness to sue originators over repurchase claims is difficult to answer with specificity.  My clients have been able to settle and/or avoid litigation in every engagement that I have undertaken in this area. That does not mean, however, that the threat of investor repurchase litigation over individual loans is not real or that litigation is not occurring, but it has been my experience that these disputes can be resolved (or dismissed) through extensive and detailed settlement negotiations and information exchange.  Litigation over individual repurchase claims may be fairly unusual now, but so were repurchase claims entirely prior to 2007-2008. Due to the unique nature of each originator’s position and the facts around applicable repurchase claim(s), however, it would be reckless to assume one will not be sued on specific claims based on what is generally occurring in the industry or based on what may have been past investor appetite for litigation (although these are important elements to consider in one’s strategy).”

Brian goes on. “For example, much depends on the facts and circumstances of the loan(s) in question, whether there are any other relationships between the parties that can be leveraged (loans in the pipeline, warehouse lines etc.) the overall quality, stability and reputation of the originator and, significantly, the parties’ tolerance for risk, availability or need for reserves and the desire for finality.  Moreover, investor and originator appetite for lawsuits may change over time as strategies can change in organizations and as the few cases that have been filed begin to yield decisions that are more or less favorable to one side or another. Even the tenor of discussions or lack of attention to the matter can impact a party’s willingness to file a lawsuit. All of these issues should be explored with legal counsel as part of an originator’s comprehensive repurchase management strategy.” (If you’d like to reach Brian Levy with Katten & Temple, LLP, write to him at blevy@kattentemple.com.)

Here are some somewhat recent conference & investor updates, providing a flavor for the environment. They just don’t stop. As always, it is best to read the actual bulletin.

Down in California, it is time again for the CMBA’s Western Secondary conference. (I’ve been wandering around that San Francisco conference since 1986 – if those halls could talk…) The CMBA has presentations on “QM, QRM, the CFPB, Agency Direct Delivery – Reviving the Lost Art of Servicing Retained Execution, Compliance issues Facing State Licensed Mortgage Banks Today and How Regulatory Change will Impact Your Business and the Secondary Market, Manufacturing Quality – Steps to Produce a Quality Loan (Operation Focus),” and several other topics. Check it out.

In light of the increasing number of non-conforming transactions where the departure residence is retained by the borrower and is in a negative equity position, Wells Fargo issued a reminder that underwriters must weigh any and all risk factors evident in the loan file.  Each case should be weighed individually, as there are only so many situations underwriting guidelines can predict.  The Wells Seller Guide now states that, in a case where the departure residence won’t be sold at the time of closing and is in a negative equity position, paying down the lien or using additional reserves to cover the negative equity may be required to reduce overall risk.

Wells has issued another reminder that a signed Borrower Appraisal Acknowledgement is required for all loans.  The Acknowledgment, whether it’s the Wells-issued form or a custom document, must include the property address, complete lender name, borrower name, borrower signature, and borrower signature date.  If the form has checkboxes where the borrower can make a choice, these boxes must be ticked.

Due to changes to FHA Single Family Annual Mortgage Insurance and Up-Front Mortgage Insurance Premiums announced by HUD back in March, one of which requires lenders to determine the endorsement/insured date of the FHA loan as part of a Streamline Refinance transaction, Refinance Authorization results will need to be submitted to Wells with the closed loan package.  These results are necessary to ensure that the accurate MIP was applied.  This applies to all FHA Streamline Refinances with case numbers assigned on or after June 11, 2012, while loans purchased through Pass-Thru Express are excepted.

Wells’ government pricing adjusters are set to change on July 2nd.  For VA loans with scores between 620 and 639, the adjuster will go from -0.750 to -1.500.  The adjuster for loans with scores between 640 and 679, currently at -0.250, will change to -0.500.  This affects Best Effort registrations, Best Effort locks, Mandatory Commitments, Assignments of Trade, and Loan Specified Bulk Commitments.

How sensitive are our markets to European news? Sure, instead of buying our 10-yr yielding 1.65% you could buy a Spanish 10-yr yielding 6.74%. But there is instability, evidenced by this note from an MBS trader yesterday: “News of Merkel stating Europe would not have shared liability for debt ‘as long as she lives’ caused Treasuries to immediately surge higher, only to be met by better real money selling of 7s.  While the selling did help to stall the rally, the true relief didn’t come until Reuters posted a correction to its initial release, re-quoting Merkel as having said Europe would not have ‘total shared’ liability for debt as long as she lives.  The amendment took Treasuries off the highs ahead of the 2yr auction…”

Say all you want about the market, bond prices and yields are not doing a whole heckuva lot. Tuesday the 10-yr closed at 1.63%, very close to where it’s been all week, although there was some intra-day volatility blamed on Europe. (European problems will be with us for years, and paying attention to intra-day swings can become wearisome after years…) For agency mortgage-backed securities, volume has been around “average” all week, with the usual buyers (the Fed, hedge funds, money managers, overseas parties) absorbing it. Up one day, down another – yesterday was down/worse by about .250, which was about the same as the 10-yr T-note. We could have been helped by the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence index which dropped for a fourth straight month, to 62 from a revised 64.4 in the prior month, but nope.

No one is getting any younger… (Part 1 of 2)
I very quietly confided to my best friend that I was having an affair. She turned to me and asked, “Are you having it catered?” And that, my friend, is the definition of ‘OLD’!

Just before the funeral services, the undertaker came up to the very elderly widow and asked, “How old was your husband?”
“98,” she replied. “Two years older than me.”
“So you’re 96,” the undertaker commented.
She responded, “Hardly worth going home, is it?”

Reporters interviewing a 104-year-old woman:
“And what do you think is the best thing about being 104?” the reporter asked.
She simply replied, “No peer pressure.”

I feel like my body has gotten totally out of shape, so I got my doctor’s permission to join a fitness club and start exercising.  I decided to take an aerobics class for seniors. I bent, twisted, gyrated, jumped up and down, and perspired for an hour. But, by the time I got my leotards on, the class was over.

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Case-Shiller: Seven Months of Price Declines Comes to an End

For the first time in eight months the S&P/Case-Shiller
Home Price Indices rose over levels of the previous month.  Data through April 2012 showed that on
average home prices increased 1.3 percent during the month for both the 10- and
20-City Composites.

Prices are still down 2.2 percent for
the 10-City and 1.9 percent for the 20-City over figures for one year earlier
but this is an improvement over the year-over-year losses of 2.9 and 2.6
percent recorded in March.  Improvements
in the annual figures were also recorded by 18 of the 20 cities when compared
to March with only Detroit and New York faring worse.  The 10-City Composite now has an index of
148.40 and the 20-City 135.80; the base of 100 was set in January 2000.

Nineteen of the 20 cities and both
Composites posted positive monthly returns, with Detroit being the only
exception.  Phoenix continues to lead
cities with improving trends and had a 2.5 percent increase in April and the
highest annual rate of return among all 20 cities.  Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, and Ls Vegas
continue to have average home prices below their January 2000 levels while both
Composites have returned to levels in the early and mid 2003 period.

David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index
Committee at S&P Indices said, “With April 2012 data we finally saw some
rising home prices.  While one month does
not make a trend, particularly during seasonally strong buying months, the combination
of rising positive monthly index levels and improving annual returns is a good
sign.”

 “We
were hoping to see some improvement in April,” Blitzer said.  “First, changes in home prices are very
seasonal, with the spring and early summer being the most active buying months.  Second, while not as strong, and we believe
less reliable, the seasonally adjusted data were also largely positive, a
possible sign that the increase in prices may be due to more than just the
expected surge in spring sales. 
Additionally, the last few months have seen increased sales and housing
starts amidst a lot of talk of better housing markets, so some price gains were
anticipated.”

Atlanta posted the only double-digit
negative annual return at -17.0 percent, its 22nd consecutive month
of negative annuals returns.  Ten of the
20 cities saw positive annual returns – Boston, Charlotte, Dallas, Denver,
Detroit, Miami, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Tampa, and Washington, DC.  There were no new city lows in April.”

Atlanta and Phoenix, two markets we
have followed closely in 2012 for their contrasting trends, have continued
along their opposite paths,” Blitzer said. 
“Atlanta continues to be the only city with double-digit negative annual
returns – 17.0 percent, whereas Phoenix fared the best in terms of annual
returns at +8.6 percent in April.”

Case-Shiller Home Prices

Click Here to View the Case Shiller Chart

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