Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Fannie Mae's 120% Refinances

by Tanta on 5/07/2008 04:42:00 PM

Just yesterday Fannie Mae mentioned in its Q1 2008 Earnings Release that, as part of its "Keys to Recovery" initiatives, it would offer "a new refinancing option for up-to-date but 'underwater' borrowers with loans owned by Fannie Mae that will allow for refinancing up to 120 percent of a property's current value." That, so far, is all the information I have directly from Fannie Mae on this subject.

Unfortunately it got Dean Baker worked up. I respect Dr. Baker a great deal--he was calling the housing bubble long before it was cool--but I think he's got the wrong end of this:

This is a difficult move to justify from the standpoint of either taxpayers or homeowners.

The basic point is that homeowners will start out in these mortgages hugely underwater. Fannie’s policy means that it is prepared to lend $360,000 on a home that is appraised at $300,000. This gap implies that the homeowner can effectively put $60,000 in their pocket by turning the house back to the bank the day after the loan is issued. If the price drops another 10 percent in a year (prices are currently falling at an annual rate of more than 20 percent in the Case-Shiller 20 City Index), then this homeowner will be $90,000 underwater next May. If a seller would face 6 percent transactions costs, then in this example, walking away would provide a $106,000 premium compared with the option of a short sale.

This gap provides an enormous incentive for homeowners to default on their mortgage. Many homeowners will undoubtedly choose this option rather than make excessive mortgage payments on a house that is worth far less than the mortgage. A high default rate will of course lead to large losses for Fannie Mae and increase the likelihood that it will need a taxpayer bailout.

Fannie’s policy does have the effect of aiding banks that made bad mortgages. The new mortgages will allow these mortgages to be paid off. If matters were left to the market, the banks would almost certainly suffer large losses.
Baker is assuming that Fannie Mae will allow cash-out refinances in this program; although the mention in the earnings release doesn't specify that, I certainly assumed when I read it that we were talking about no-cash out refinances. (Fannie Mae's term for those, by the way, is "limited cash out" refinances. By this they mean that the loan balance can increase, but only to pay closing costs or pay off subordinate liens. That is what the rest of world means by "no cash out"--no cash disbursed to the borrower or to pay off non-mortgage debts.)

Fannie does make it clear that we are talking about Fannie Mae-owned loans. That is significant for two reasons. First, if the loans are upside down, it's already Fannie Mae's problem. To use Baker's example, if the borrower already owes $360,000 on a $300,000 home, the situation isn't made worse by refinancing it into a new loan with a lower payment. For Fannie to purchase a refinance of loans it already owns--presumably at a lower rate or payment, which improves the borrower's position and thus the strength of the loan--is not to take on risk you didn't already have. Second, of course, this isn't bailing out banks or anyone else.

That is why I assumed--and will confirm as soon as I find the Announcement from Fannie Mae--that these are no-cash-out refis. It would, indeed, worsen the risk of an existing underwater loan to let the borrower take more cash out.

Finally, it is specifically limited to performing loans. These are borrowers who are not, generally, eligible for a "workout" because they're not delinquent. But if they have hybrid ARMs coming up on a reset, or fixed rates that are higher than current market rates, this gives them the opportunity to get into a lower rate and payment while other costs--gas, anyone?--are taking more out of their pocketbooks. It isn't clear to me why this would increase any incentive to default, or increase Fannie Mae's losses if the borrowers did subsequently default. The loans are already underwater; even putting them 5% more underwater by rolling in closing costs seems to me, under the circumstances, to be less frightening than letting performing underwater ARMs get to a reset that will be hard for the borrower to bear. Not every borrower who is upside down will default, but every borrower with an unaffordable payment will in the current environment.

So there's a whole lot wrong with a whole lot of pressure to make the GSEs bail out the problems of the mortgage and housing markets, but so far this one sounds to me like Fannie Mae "bailing out" Fannie Mae, and, well, they ought to do that if it makes sense. Fannie Mae certainly does need to get a press release out clarifying the cash-out issue right away, before more nothingburgers get supersized.