Subprime mortgages make a comeback—with a new name and soaring demand

They were blamed for the biggest financial disaster in a century. Subprime mortgages – home loans to borrowers with sketchy credit who put little to no skin in the game. Following the epic housing crash, they disappeared, due to strong, new regulation, and zero demand from investors who were badly burned. Barely a decade later, they’re coming back with a new name — nonprime — and, so far, some new standards.

California-based Carrington Mortgage Services, a midsized lender, just announced an expansion into the space, offering loans to borrowers, “with less-than-perfect credit.” Carrington will originate and service the loans, but it will also securitize them for sale to investors.

“We believe there is actually a market today in the secondary market for people who want to buy nonprime loans that have been properly underwritten,” said Rick Sharga, executive vice president of Carrington Mortgage Holdings. “We’re not going back to the bad old days of ninja lending, when people with no jobs, no income, and no assets were getting loans.”

A home improvement contractor works on a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

All loans will not be the same

Sharga said Carrington will manually underwrite each loan, assessing the individual risks. But it will allow its borrowers to have FICO credit scores as low as 500. The current average for agency-backed mortgages is in the mid-700s. Borrowers can take out loans of up to $1.5 million on single-family homes, townhomes and condominiums. They can also do cash-out refinances, where borrowers tap extra equity in their homes, up to $500,000. Recent credit events, like a foreclosure, bankruptcy or a history of late payments are acceptable.

All loans, however, will not be the same for all borrowers. If a borrower is higher risk, a higher down payment will be required, and the interest rate will likely be higher.

“What we’re talking about is underwriting that goes back to common sense sort of practices. If you have risk, you offset risk somewhere else,” added Sharga, while touting, “We probably are going to have the widest range of products for people with challenging credit in the marketplace.”

Carrington is not alone in the space. Angel Oak began offering and securitizing nonprime mortgages two years ago and has done six nonprime securitizations so far. It recently finalized its biggest securitization yet — $329 million, comprising 905 mortgages with an average amount of about $363,000. Just more than 80 percent of the loans are nonprime.

A ‘who’s who of Wall Street’

Investors in Angel Oak’s nonprime securitizations are, “a who’s who of Wall Street,” according to company representatives, citing hedge funds and insurance companies. Angel Oak’s securitizations now total $1.3 billion in mortgage debt.

Angel Oak, along with Caliber Home Loans, have been the main players in the space, securitizing relatively few loans. That is clearly about to change in a big way, as demand is rising.

“We believe that more competition is positive for the marketplace because there is strong enough demand for the product to support multiple originators,” said Lauren Hedvat, managing director, capital markets at Angel Oak. “Additionally, the more competitors there are, the wider the footprint becomes, which should open the door for more potential borrowers.”

Big banks are also getting in the game, both investing in the securities and funding the lenders, according to Sharga.

“It’s large financial institutions. A lot of people with private capital sitting on the sidelines, who are very interested in this market and believe that as long as the risks are managed well, and companies like ours are particularly good at managing credit risk, that it’s a good investment opportunity,” he said.

As the economy improves, and rents continue to rise, more Americans are trying to become homeowners, but the scars of the Great Recession still stand in the way. One-fifth of consumers today still have very low credit scores, often disqualifying them from obtaining a mortgage in today’s tight lending market.

Relaxed lending standards

Last summer, Fannie Mae announced it would relax its lending standards for prime loans, allowing borrowers with higher debt and lower credit scores to obtain loans without additional risk overlays, such as large down payments and a year’s worth of cash reserves.

Fannie Mae raised its debt-to-income (DTI) limit from 45 percent to 50 percent. DTI is the amount of total debt a borrower can have compared to his or her income. As a result, demand from buyers with higher debt exceeded all expectations. The share of high DTI loans jumped from 6 percent in January 2017 to nearly 20 percent by the end of February 2018, according to a study by the Urban Institute.

“From January to July 2017, Fannie purchased 80,467 loans with DTI ratios between 45 and 50 percent. But from August 2017 to February 2018, Fannie purchased 181,911 loans in the same DTI bucket. This increase of more than 100,000 loans in just seven months exceeded our estimate (85,000 additional Fannie loans annually) and Fannie’s expectations.” – Urban Institute

The mortgage industry expectation was that Fannie Mae would mitigate the additional risk with other factors, like a higher necessary credit score, but that was not added. The mortgage insurers balked, since they would be on the hook for the risk, so last month Fannie Mae “recalibrated” its risk assessment criteria again.

“We got a bigger response than we thought we were going to, so we dialed back to make sure we were in the right spot where our governance kicks in to make sure we’re not taking excessive risk,” said Doug Duncan, Fannie Mae’s chief economist.

Millennials carry more debt

The outsized demand from borrowers with more debt as well as demand for nonprime mortgages in the private sector show just how many borrowers today would like to become homeowners but are frozen out of the mortgage market.

Millennials, the largest homebuying cohort today, have much higher levels of student debt than previous generations. Members of older generations who went through foreclosures during the housing crisis or other hits to their credit are still struggling with lower FICO scores.

In addition, credit tightened up dramatically. In fact, between 2009 and 2015, tighter credit accounted for just more than 6 million “missing” loans, according to research by Laurie Goodman at the Urban Institute. These are mortgages that would have been granted under more normal historical underwriting standards.

The rebirth of the nonprime market is focused on these missing mortgages. The hope is that the industry will also focus on better standards of underwriting and not take risk to the levels it once did, levels that resulted in disaster.

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