Case-Shiller Reports Continued Erosion in Home Prices

Home prices continued to fall in November according to the
S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices released this morning.  Both the 10-City and the 20-City Indices were
down 1.3 percent in November compared to the previous month and for the second
month in a row19 of the cities also saw their prices inch lower.   Phoenix was the only one of the 20 to post a
gain in November.

The year-over-year price declines in November widened from those in October.  The 10-City and 20-City Composites were down
3.6 percent and 3.7 percent respectively from November 2010 to November 2011
compared to the -3.2 percent and -3.4 percent annual rate of change in
October.  Thirteen of the cities in the
larger index also saw a large drop in annual prices than they had in October. 

Atlanta had the worst performance with its annual return down 11.8 percent.  Atlanta’s prices fell 2.5 percent in November
following a 5.0 percent decline in October, 5.9 percent drop in September and
2.4 percent loss in August.  As was the
case in October, only two cities, Detroit and Washington, DC saw an improved
annual rate, but in both cases that annual increase was lower than their
October number.

David Blizer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Indices said,
“Despite continued low interest rates and better real GDP growth in the fourth
quarter, home prices continue to fall. 
Annual rates were little better as 18 cities and both Composites were
negative.  Nationally, home prices are
lower than a year ago.  The trend is down
and there are few, if any signs in the numbers that a turning point is close at
hand.”

The 10-City Composite is now about 1.0 percent above its crisis low reached
in April 2009 and the 20-City is 0.6 percent above the low it reached in March
2011.  Both Composites are close to 33
percent off of their 2006 peak levels. 
As of November average home prices across the U.S. are back to mid-2003
levels.

“It’s not telling us much we don’t know. A lot of people fell into the trap of looking at the upturn in housing starts at the end of the year and mistaking that for a turnaround in the housing market. That’s absolutely premature.” – Andrew Wilkinson, Chief Economic Strategist, Miller Tabak & Co., New York.

 

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FHFA Answers Conflict of Interest Charges against Freddie Mac

The
Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) issued a statement late Monday refuting a
story
from ProPublic and NPR
that a complicated investment strategy utilized by Freddie Mac had influenced
it to discourage refinancing of some of its mortgages.  FHFA confirmed that the investments using
Collateralized Mortgage Obligations (CMOs) exist but said they did not impact
refinancing decisions and that their use has ended. (the NPR Story)

Freddie Mac’s charter calls for
it to make home loans more accessible, both to purchase and refinance their
homes but the ProPublica story, written by Jesse
Eisinger (ProPublica) and Chris Arnold (NPR) charged that the CMO trades “give Freddie a powerful incentive to do
the opposite
, highlighting a conflict of interest at the heart of the company.
In addition to being an instrument of government policy dedicated to making
home loans more accessible, Freddie also has giant investment portfolios and
could lose substantial amounts of money if too many borrowers refinance.”

Here,
in a nutshell, is what the story (we are quoting from an “updated” version)
says Freddie has been doing.  

Freddie
creates a security (MBS) backed by mortgages it guarantees which was divided
into two parts.  The larger portion, backed
by principal, was fairly low risk, paid a low return and was sold to investors.  The smaller portion, backed by interest
payments on the mortgages, was riskier, and paid a higher return determined by
the interest rates on the underlying loans. 
This portion, called an inverse floater, was retained by Freddie Mac.

In
2010 and 2011 Freddie Mac’s purchase (retention) of these inverse floaters rose
dramatically, from a total of 12 purchased in 2008 and 2009 to 29.  Most of the mortgages backing these floaters had
interest rates of 6.5 to 7 percent.

In
structuring these transactions, Freddie Mac sells off most of the value of the
MBS but does not reduce its risk because it still guarantees the underlying
mortgages and must pay the entire value in the case of default.  The floaters, stripped of the real value of
the underlying principal, are also now harder and possibly more expensive to
sell, and as Freddie gets paid the difference between the interest rates on the
loans and the current interest rate, if rates rise, the value of the floaters
falls. 

While
Freddie, under its agreement with the Treasury Department, has reduced the size
of its portfolio by 6 percent between 2010 and 2011, “that $43 billion drop in
the portfolio overstates the risk reduction because the company retained risk
through the inverse floaters
.”

Since
the real value of the floater is the high rate of interest being paid by the
mortgagee, if large numbers pay off their loans the floater loses value.  Thus, the article charges, Freddie has tried
to deter prospective refinancers by tightening its underwriting guidelines and
raising prices.  It cites, as its sole
example of tightened standards that in October 2010 the company changed a rule
that had prohibited financing for persons who had engaged in some short sales
to prohibiting financing for persons who had engaged in any short sale, but it
also quotes critics who charge that the Home Affordable Refinance Program
(HARP) could be reaching “millions more people if Fannie (Mae) and Freddie
implemented the program more effectively.”

It
has discouraged refinancing by raising fees. 
During Thanksgiving week in 2010, the article contends, Freddie quietly
announced it was raising post-settlement delivery fees.  In November 2011, FHFA announced that the
GSEs were eliminating or reducing some fees but the Federal Reserve said that “more
might be done.”

If
Freddie Mac has limited refinancing, the article says, it also affected the whole
economy which might benefit from billions of dollars of discretionary income generated
through lower mortgage payments.  Refinancing
might also reduce foreclosures and limit the losses the GSEs suffer through defaults
of their guaranteed loans.

The
authors say there is no evidence that decisions about trades and decisions
about refinancing were coordinated.  “The
company is a key gatekeeper for home loans but says its traders are “walled
off” from the officials who have restricted homeowners from taking advantage of
historically low interest rates by imposing higher fees and new rules.”

ProPublica/NPR says that the
floater trades “raise questions about the FHFA’s oversight of Fannie and
Freddie” as a regulator but, as conservator it also acts as the board of
directors and shareholders and has emphasized that its main goal is to limit
taxpayer losses.  This has frustrated the
administration because FHFA has made preserving the companies’ assets a
priority over helping homeowners.  The
President tried to replace acting director Edward J. DeMarco, but Congress
refused to confirm his nominee. 

The
authors conclude by saying that FHFA knew about the inverse floater trades
before they were approached about the story but officials declined to comment on whether the
FHFA knew about them as Freddie was conducting them or whether the FHFA had
explicitly approved them.”

The
FHFA statement
said that Freddie Mac has historically used CMOs as a tool to
manage its retained portfolio and to address issues associated with security
performance.  The inverse floaters were
used to finance mortgages sold to Freddie through its cash window and to sell
mortgages out of its portfolio “in response to market demand and to shrink its
own portfolio.”  The inverse floater
essentially leaves Freddie with a portion of the risk exposure it would have
had if it had kept the entire mortgage on its balance sheet and also results in
a more complex financing structure that requires specialized risk management
processes.  (Full FHFA Statement)

The
agency said that for several reasons Freddie’s retention of inverse floaters ended in
2011 and only $5 billion is held in the company’s $650 billion retained
portfolio.  Later that year FHFA staff
identified concerns about the floaters and the company agreed that these
transactions would not resume pending completing of the agency examination.

These
investments FHFA said did not have any impact on the recent changes to
HARP.  In evaluating changes, FHFA
specifically directed both Freddie and Fannie not to consider changes in their
own investment income in the HARP evaluation process and now that the HARP
changes are in place the refinance process is between borrowers and loan
originators and servicers, not Freddie Mac.

…(read more)

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Housing Market Recovery Next Year? Don’t Be Foolish. Plan For The Worst

I am generally amused at the market soothsayers who continually predict that the housing recovery is right around the corner. I suppose that all the years I have spent in the housing “ditch” have caused me to become oblivious to the information the experts use to make their predictions. I guess I could take a “let’s wait and see” attitude, but in the meantime consider the following. Let’s begin with housing starts, which are currently on an annualized run rate of approximately 550,000 new starts. This represents less than half of what is needed in a normal market. Existing home sales declined 2.2% in October and are currently tracking at an annual rate of 4.43 million. Then there are the foreclosures. According to RealtyTrac, 25% of home sales in the 3rd…(read more)

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HAMP Changes: Treasury Increases Incentives for Principal Reduction

The Federal Housing Finance Agency announced on Friday that it was extending
the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) for another year – through December
13, 2013 – and that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae would continue as financial
agents for Treasury in implementing the changes it then announced.  The press release also said the two GSEs
would “extend their use of HAMP Tier 1 as the first modification option through
2013” and that they were already in alignment with HAMP Tier 2 and no further
changes were necessary.

However, the Treasury Department, which jointly
administers HAMP, simultaneously announced what appear to be some significant
changes in the program.  Perhaps Timothy G. Massad, Assistant Treasury Secretary
for Financial Stability, was merely providing the English translation of
the FHFA press release or perhaps there is a division in the ranks.  In either case, here is the information he
provided in his blog posting.
 

The Treasury Department intends to triple the incentives offered to
investors holding distressed loans to encourage them to participate in reducing
the principal for those loans.  Under the
new guidelines, Treasury will pay from 18 to 63 cents on the dollar to
investors, depending on the degree of change in the loan-to-value ratio of the
individual loans.

While principal reduction has always been
available for modifying proprietary loans under the HAMP program (it even has
its own acronym, PRA) it has not been widely used.  Of over 900,000 permanent modifications
completed since the program began, only 38,300 are classified as utilizing principal
reduction

As we have previously reported,
FHFA has resisted all suggestions that the GSEs also include principal reduction
in their tools for dealing with distressed loans where borrowers are upside
down in their mortgages.  According to
Massad, Treasury has notified FHFA that it will pay principal reduction incentives
to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac as well if they allow servicers to forgive principal
in conjunction with a HAMP modification. 

In its press release FHFA said of the
Treasury proposal

“FHFA has
been asked to consider the newly available HAMP incentives for principal
reduction. FHFA recently released analysis concluding that principal
forgiveness did not provide benefits that were greater than principal
forbearance as a loss mitigation tool. FHFA’s assessment of the investor
incentives now being offered will follow its previous analysis, including
consideration of the eligible universe, operational costs to implement such
changes, and potential borrower incentive effects.”

Again,
according to Treasury, HAMP will be expanding its eligibility to reach a
broader pool of borrowers.  An additional
evaluation process is being implemented that will allow servicers to recognize that
some borrowers who can afford their first mortgage payments still struggle because
of other debt.  Some analyses of HAMP
have found that many borrowers could not qualify for a modification solely because
their housing expenses were already below the 31 percent ceiling allowed by
HAMP guidelines.  This ceiling will now
be flexible enough to include secondary debt such as medical expenses or second
liens in the evaluation ratio. 

Eligibility
will also be expanded to include properties that are tenant-occupied as well as
vacant properties that the owner intends to rent.  According to Massad, this will serve to
further stabilize communities with high levels of vacant and foreclosed
properties as well as expanding the rental pool as has been suggested by the
Federal Reserve and others.

…(read more)

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LPS: Mortgage Originations Among Highest Quality Ever in 2010-2011

The Lender Processing Services (LPS) Mortgage Monitor Report for December show
improvement in a number of the metrics it tracks. Many measures of delinquency
rates are down, inventories are clearing in some states, and recent loan
originations are “among the best quality on record.”

The overall delinquency rate did not
change from November, remaining at 8.15 percent but is down 7.7 percent since
December 2010.  Seriously delinquent
loans, those 90 or more days overdue or in foreclosure decreased 0.6 percent to
7.67 percent, a -5.9 percent change from one year earlier.

The foreclosure rate which was 4.16
percent in November fell to 4.11 percent in December and is down 1.0 percent
year-over-year.  Foreclosure starts
showed the most dramatic change.  There
were 159,092 starts in December compared to 165,205 in November, a -3.7 percent
change and starts were 38.7 percent below the level in December 2010.   This is the lowest level of foreclosure starts
since at least 2008.

While 90+ day delinquencies are about
the same in judicial and non-judicial states there remains a large distinction between
these states in other measures of foreclosure activity.  LPS found that half of all loans in
foreclosure in judicial states have not made a payment in more than two years
as the foreclosure process drags on.  The
foreclosure sales rate in non-judicial states is four times that in judicial
states (6.8 percent vs. 1.6 percent). 
Foreclosure inventories stand at about 3.5 percent nationwide; in
non-judicial states those inventories are about 2 percent while in judicial
states they are 2.5 times greater – over 6 percent.  Still, pipeline ratios (the time it would
take to clear through the inventory of loans either seriously delinquent or in
foreclosure at the current rate of foreclosure sales) has declined
significantly from earlier this year in judicial states while remaining flat in
non-judicial states.


Loan
originations
(month ending November 11) numbered 537,720 compared to 597,888 in
October, a decline of 10.1 percent and 29.3 percent below originations one year
earlier.  The loans originated over the
last two years
, however, are among the best quality on record according to
LPS.  2010-11 vintage originations showed
90-day default rates below those of all other years, going back to 2005.
December origination data also shows that recent prepayment activity – a key
indicator of mortgage refinances – has remained strong, with 2008-09
originations, high credit score borrowers and government-backed loans having
benefited the most from recent, historically low interest rates.

…(read more)

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