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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Mortgage Rates Slightly Higher Despite Bond Market Improvements

After setting new record lows yesterday, Mortgages Rates
rose slightly today, though 3.875% best-execution remains intact.  Rather than affect the prevailing rates being quoted, today’s weakness is most likely to be seen in the form of slightly higher borrowing/closing costs for the same rates quoted yesterday (learn more about how we calculate Best-Execution in THIS POST).  The increases run counter to today’s market movements as well.  

Treasury yields are lower again today, and MBS (the “mortgage-backed-securities” that most directly govern interest rates) are slightly improved as well.  One reason that loan pricing hasn’t adjusted to match that fact is that MBS weakened late in the trading session yesterday.  Not all lenders priced that in by issuing adjusted rate sheets, instead reflecting the changes in this morning’s rates.  The MBS market was indeed weaker this morning, so if we’re comparing the time of day that most lenders put out their first rate sheets, today was indeed worse than yesterday.  Beyond that objective explanation, we also have to consider the fact that continued rate improvements from all-time lows are going to continue to be slow and hard-fought.  Lenders have little incentive to offer lower rates if current offerings are generating more-than-sufficient demand.  (read more on this topic in this previous post)

Finally, and although it’s not the only other potential factor, this Friday’s Employment Situation Report (aka “jobs report,” or “NFP”) represents a high-risk situation, ESPECIALLY with mortgage rates at or near all-time lows.  NFP, which stands for the the reports chief component “Non-Farm-Payrolls” is generally regarded as the single most important piece of economic data each month.  Even against the current backdrop of European headlines exerting more and more influence on domestic markets, it’s immensely important.  Based on where markets sit right now, we think that rates are somewhat vulnerable if the report is better-than expected.  In other words, there’s a certain natural level of “push-back” at current rate levels anyway, and a bullish jobs report would probably accelerate that. 

This, of course, is contingent on the report coming in with better-than-expected results.  If the opposite happens, rates could still improve.  It’s just that those improvements would likely be slower and smaller than the losses would be in the opposite scenario.  It’s also very much contingent on rates not moving much between now and Thursday afternoon, which may or may not be the case.

Today’s BEST-EXECUTION Rates

  • 30YR FIXED –  3.875% mostly, with a few lenders on either side of this
  • FHA/VA -3.75%
  • 15 YEAR FIXED –  3.25%, some lenders venturing lower, some completely stuck at 3.25%
  • 5 YEAR ARMS –  2.625-3.25% depending on the lender

Ongoing Lock/Float Considerations

  • Rates and costs continue to operate near all time best levels
  • Current levels have experienced increasing resistance in improving much from here
  • There are technical reasons for that as well as fundamental reasons
  • Lenders tend to get busier when rates are in this “high 3’s” level
    and can throttle their inbound volume by raising rates or costs.
  • While we don’t necessarily think rates are destined to go higher,
    given the above facts, there seems to be more risk than reward regarding
    floating
  • But that will always be the case when rates
    operating near historic lows
  • (As always, please keep in mind
    that our talk of Best-Execution always pertains to a completely ideal
    scenario.  There can be all sorts of reasons that your quoted rate would
    not be the same as our average rates, and in those cases, assuming you’re following along on
    a day to day basis, simply use the Best-Ex levels we quote as a
    baseline to track potential movement in your quoted rate).

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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.

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Mortgage Rates Hit New All-Time Lows!

It’s happened before and it happened again today: Mortgages Rates
hit new all time lows today.  Please note, that the actual interest rate you would have been quoted last week and this week may not have changed, but based on raw data from more than 20 leading lenders as well as feedback from the MBS Live community, the average Best-Execution rate, before rounding to the nearest eighth, hit its lowest level on record, 3.81%.  Although 3.81% is closer to 3.75% than 3.875%, we won’t declare 3.75% to be the Best-Execution champ until the average from our lender survey falls to 3.75 or lower, and we’re not there yet.  (if the last paragraph is confusing, we went into some more detail on these methodologies in THIS POST).

 

Last week, we noted a high degree of stratification in rates as lenders responded to the bond market rally at different
paces.  This continues to be the case today, but perhaps to a slightly smaller extent.  When we say that rate offerings are more stratified, we’re
talking about various lenders offering increasingly different rates to
the same type of borrowers.  Among some lenders in our survey,
best-execution rates are still at 4.0%, while the bulk have moved down
to 3.875% and 3.75%.  The important point here is to not believe everything you read about mortgage rates these days, unless the source examines multiple lenders and offers the caveat that they can only report averages while individual experiences may vary. 

For instance, several lenders are priced WORSE today than Friday.  It’s far more important to be working with someone you trust in a process that is more likely to hit its deadlines than to go overboard in pursuing the lowest possible quotes.  In the current market, overfocus on lowest possible rates can lead to delays which can result in a higher rate than the one from which you were originally trying to avoid!

Today’s BEST-EXECUTION Rates

  • 30YR FIXED –  3.875% mostly, with a few lenders at 3.75%.  Less 4.0’s today
  • FHA/VA -3.75%
  • 15 YEAR FIXED –  3.25%, some lenders venturing lower, some completely stuck at 3.25%
  • 5 YEAR ARMS –  2.625-3.25% depending on the lender

Ongoing Lock/Float Considerations

  • Rates and costs continue to operate near all time best levels
  • Current levels have experienced increasing resistance in improving much from here
  • There are technical reasons for that as well as fundamental reasons
  • Lenders tend to get busier when rates are in this “high 3’s” level
    and can throttle their inbound volume by raising rates or costs.
  • While we don’t necessarily think rates are destined to go higher,
    given the above facts, there seems to be more risk than reward regarding
    floating
  • But that will always be the case when rates
    operating near historic lows
  • (As always, please keep in mind
    that our talk of Best-Execution always pertains to a completely ideal
    scenario.  There can be all sorts of reasons that your quoted rate would
    not be the same as our average rates, and in those cases, assuming you’re following along on
    a day to day basis, simply use the Best-Ex levels we quote as a
    baseline to track potential movement in your quoted rate).

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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.

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