Monday, October 08, 2007

Context Is Everything

by Tanta on 10/08/2007 11:30:00 AM

I've been updating some old spreadsheets of mine, and I thought some of you might be interested in having some of the numbers. Data like the following, which involve national averages over entire years, are awfully blunt instruments for a lot of analytical purposes; I'm not offering these as "proof" of any particularly detailed claim about the world, nor am I suggesting that any particular set of numbers in this table can "explain" any other set in completely reliable ways.

Nonetheless, broad-brush numbers like these do provide a kind of context for certain discussions of the mortgage market. I tend, personally, to cringe a lot when certain numbers are reported in the press, because I possess a sense of context that, frankly, non-insiders don't have. It is second nature to me, for instance, to distinguish between origination volume and level of loans outstanding at the end of a period, but you will find press reports moving back and forth from originations and outstandings in blithe disregard of the issues.

So make of this what you will. A few nerdly observations about the data:

1. Total originations are hard to pin down; there's often a lot of vapor as well as volatility in those numbers. I pick what I think is the most reliable, but you should know that data collection and reporting practices change over time, and so a lot of the older numbers are pretty approximate. That's one reason why I don't care to go back before 1988.

2. The ownership rate statistical calculation changed significantly in the early 90s. The pre-1993 numbers should be thrown around with even more caution than the 1993-2006 numbers.

3. There are a lot of different rates you can use to establish an average mortgage interest rate. I chose the FHFB conforming fixed contract rate because it can be considered an index of "refinance incentive."

4. Mortgage FOR is a statistical measure of mortgage debt, property taxes, and insurance divided by disposable personal income for all homeowners with a mortgage. As a level, it's not particularly helpful, but it does help establish trends, and it is certainly more consistently calculated than DTI.

5. Refinance percent is all refinances. I am not yet ready to try to sort out the cash-out issue over this time period, and I may never be. But general refi share is a useful bit of context for those changes that you see in the other numbers.

A couple of general observations I would make about this data:

1. Notice the volatility of origination volume compared to mortgage outstandings. A large part of some of the knotty issues we've talked about on this blog, like use of brokers, barriers to entry (or the lack thereof) for mortgage originators, and historical changes in quality of mortgage origination personnel (including loan officers and appraisers), has to do with that volatility. The short version is that originators staff up and staff down in the cycle, and that loan quality (not just borrower credit quality, but accuracy of paperwork, depth of documentation, clarity of disclosures) zigs and zags along that cycle. In the early part of those big booms, for instance, you can see a lot of novice work. In the troughs, you can see a lot of desperate commission-paid people doing desperate things. That's something to take into account when you look at, say, vintage charts of loan performance. I believe, for instance, that a lot of the problems with the (in)famous 2001 vintage had to do with a huge crop of brand-new brokers and loan officers and appraisers getting into the business to cope with the volume. A lot of the problems with the 2000 vintage is that a bunch of originators who had been, in the past couple of years, making plenty of money off the refi boom started scraping the bottom of the barrel when volume dropped off. The 1993-1994 period had a similar problem.

2. There has always been much more stability on the servicing side; the problems there in terms of expertise are more a function of technological "productivity" changes and outsourcing reducing the cadre of gray-haired veterans of past crises. The thing to notice here is the level of turnover in the outstandings. In 2003, for instance, around a third of the outstanding mortgage book turned over in refinances. Mortgage sevicers can do a lot of work to stay in the same place, let alone to grow a servicing portfolio.

3. Whatever generalizations you want to make about earlier periods, the 2004-2006 period confounds them.