Thursday, May 22, 2008

Comptroller Dugan on "Unprecedented Home Equity Loan Losses"

by Bill McBride on 5/22/2008 05:21:00 PM

From the Comptroller of the Currency: Comptroller Dugan Tells Lenders that Unprecedented Home Equity Loan Losses Show Need for Higher Reserves and Return to Stronger Underwriting Practices (hat tip Steven)

Comptroller of the Currency John C. Dugan said today that accelerating losses in the home equity business show the need to build reserves and to return to the stronger underwriting standards of past years.

Home equity loans and lines of credit grew dramatically in recent years, more than doubling, to $1.1 trillion, since 2002. In part, that’s because of the rapid appreciation in house prices, the tax deductibility feature of home equity loans, and low interest rates.

“But another contributing factor was perhaps not so obvious: liberalized underwriting standards,” Mr. Dugan said, in a speech to the Financial Services Roundtable’s Housing Policy Council. “These relaxed standards helped more people to qualify for loans, and more people to qualify for significantly larger loans.”

These relaxed standards included limited verification of a borrower’s assets, employment, or income; higher debt to equity ratios; and the use of home equity loans as “piggyback” loans that helped borrowers qualify for first mortgages with low down payments and without mortgage insurance, resulting in ever-higher cumulative loan-to-value ratios.

Consequently, once house prices began to decline in 2007, home equity lenders began to experience unprecedented losses. While losses have traditionally run at about 20 basis points, or two tenths of a percent of loans, they shot up to nearly 1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2007 and to 1.73 percent in the first three months of 2008.

Looked at in dollar terms, losses on all home equity loans, including HELOCs and junior home equity liens, rose from $273 million in the first quarter of 2007 to almost $2.4 billion in the first three months of 2008 – a nine-fold increase. And the largest home equity lenders are now saying that they expect losses to continue to escalate in 2008 and beyond, Mr. Dugan said.

The Comptroller said these loss numbers need to be viewed in perspective. Though accelerating quickly, they are still much lower than the loss rates for other types of retail credit, such as credit card loans.

“It’s true that home equity credit was priced with lower margins than these other types of credit, and it’s true that the product has become a significant on-balance sheet asset for a number of our largest banks,” he said. “Nevertheless, the higher level of losses and projected losses – even under stress scenarios – are what we at the OCC would describe generally as an earnings issue, not a capital issue. That is, while these elevated losses, depending on their magnitude, could have a significant effect on earnings over time, with few exceptions they are not in and of themselves likely to be large enough to impair capital.”

For the near term, Mr. Dugan said, the OCC expects national banks to continue to build reserves.
emphasis added
It appears HELOC losses are accelerating rapidly in Q2, and will definitely impact earnings. Dugan's comment that HELOC losses are "not likely large enough to impair capital" might be a tad optimistic.