Partners (Number 1, 2007)

Vol. 17, No. 1, 2007


Innovative Approaches Help Solve N.O.'s Housing Woes

Achieving the American Dream: Are We There Yet?

Courting the Creative Class: New Strategies for Urban Revival

GO Zone Tax Credits and Incentives

The Subprime Mortgage Market

Case Making: Building a Pathway to Implementation

Spotlight on the District—Florida



The Subprime Mortgage Market
Remarks by Chairman Ben S. Bernanke

Ben Bernanke Excerpts from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago's 43rd Annual Conference on Bank Structure and Competition, Chicago, Illinois, May 17, 2007

The recent sharp increases in subprime mortgage loan delinquencies and in the number of homes entering foreclosure raise important economic, social, and regulatory issues. Today I will address a series of questions related to these developments. Why have delinquencies and initiations of foreclosure proceedings risen so sharply? How have subprime mortgage markets adjusted? How have Federal Reserve and other policymakers responded, and what additional actions might be considered? How might the problems in the market for subprime mortgages affect housing markets and the economy more broadly?

The development of the subprime mortgage market
Let me begin with some background. Subprime mortgages are loans made to borrowers who are perceived to have high credit risk, often because they lack a strong credit history or have other characteristics that are associated with high probabilities of default. Having emerged more than two decades ago, subprime mortgage lending began to expand in earnest in the mid-1990s, the expansion spurred in large part by innovations that reduced the costs for lenders of assessing and pricing risks. In particular, technological advances facilitated credit scoring by making it easier for lenders to collect and disseminate information on the creditworthiness of prospective borrowers. In addition, lenders developed new techniques for using this information to determine underwriting standards, set interest rates, and manage their risks.

The ongoing growth and development of the secondary mortgage market has reinforced the effect of these innovations. Whereas once most lenders held mortgages on their books until the loans were repaid, regulatory changes and other developments have permitted lenders to more easily sell mortgages to financial intermediaries, who in turn pool mortgages and sell the cash flows as structured securities. These securities typically offer various risk profiles and durations to meet the investment strategies of a wide range of investors. The growth of the secondary market has thus given mortgage lenders greater access to the capital markets, lowered transaction costs, and spread risk more broadly, thereby increasing the supply of mortgage credit to all types of households.

These factors laid the groundwork for an expansion of higher-risk mortgage lending over the past 15 years or so. Growth in the market has not proceeded at a uniform pace, but on net it has been dramatic. About 7-1/2 million first-lien subprime mortgages are now outstanding, accounting for about 14 percent of all first-lien mortgages.1 So-called near-prime loans—loans to borrowers who typically have higher credit scores than subprime borrowers but whose applications may have other higher-risk aspects—account for an additional 8 to 10 percent of mortgages.2

The expansion of subprime mortgage lending has made homeownership possible for households that in the past might not have qualified for a mortgage and has thereby contributed to the rise in the homeownership rate since the mid-1990s. In 2006, 69 percent of households owned their homes; in 1995, 65 percent did. The increase in homeownership has been broadly based, but minority households and households in lower-income census tracts have recorded some of the largest gains in percentage terms. Not only the new homeowners but also their communities have benefited from these trends. Studies point to various ways in which homeownership helps strengthen neighborhoods. For example, homeowners are more likely than renters to maintain their properties and to participate in civic organizations. Homeownership has also helped many families build wealth, and accumulated home equity may serve as a financial reserve that can be tapped as needed at a lower cost than most other forms of credit.

Broader access to mortgage credit is not without its downside, however. Not surprisingly, in light of their weaker credit histories and financial conditions, subprime borrowers face higher costs of borrowing than prime borrowers do and are more likely to default than prime borrowers are. For borrowers, the consequences of defaulting can be severe—possibly including foreclosure, the loss of accumulated home equity, and reduced access to credit. Their neighbors may suffer as well, as geographically concentrated foreclosures tend to reduce property values in the surrounding area.

The recent problems in the subprime mortgage sector
With this background in mind, I turn now to the recent problems in the subprime mortgage sector. In general, mortgage credit quality has been very solid in recent years. However, that statement is no longer true of subprime mortgages with adjustable interest rates, which currently account for about two-thirds of subprime first-lien mortgages or about 9 percent of all first-lien mortgages outstanding. For these mortgages, the rate of serious delinquencies—corresponding to mortgages in foreclosure or with payments ninety days or more overdue—rose sharply during 2006 and recently stood at about 11 percent, about double the recent low seen in mid-2005.3 The rate of serious delinquencies has also risen somewhat among some types of near-prime mortgages, although the rate in that category remains much lower than the rate in the subprime market. The rise in delinquencies has begun to show through to foreclosures. In the fourth quarter of 2006, about 310,000 foreclosure proceedings were initiated, whereas for the preceding two years the quarterly average was roughly 230,000.4 Subprime mortgages accounted for more than half of the foreclosures started in the fourth quarter.

The sharp rise in serious delinquencies among subprime adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) has multiple causes. "Seasoned" mortgages—mortgages that borrowers have paid on for several years—tend to have higher delinquency rates. That fact, together with the moderation in economic growth, would have been expected to produce some deterioration in credit quality from the exceptionally strong levels seen a few years ago. But other factors, too, have been at work. After rising at an annual rate of nearly 9 percent from 2000 through 2005, house prices have decelerated, even falling in some markets. At the same time, interest rates on both fixed- and adjustable-rate mortgage loans moved upward, reaching multi-year highs in mid-2006. Some subprime borrowers with ARMs, who may have counted on refinancing before their payments rose, may not have had enough home equity to qualify for a new loan given the sluggishness in house prices. In addition, some owners with little equity may have walked away from their properties, especially owner-investors who do not occupy the home and thus have little attachment to it beyond purely financial considerations. Regional economic problems have played a role as well; for example, some of the states with the highest delinquency and foreclosure rates are among those most hard-hit by job cuts in the auto industry.

The practices of some mortgage originators have also contributed to the problems in the subprime sector. As the underlying pace of mortgage originations began to slow, but with investor demand for securities with high yields still strong, some lenders evidently loosened underwriting standards. So-called risk-layering—combining weak borrower credit histories with other risk factors, such as incomplete income documentation or very high cumulative loan-to-value ratios—became more common. These looser standards were likely an important source of the pronounced rise in "early payment defaults"—defaults occurring within a few months of origination—among subprime ARMs, especially those originated in 2006.

Mortgage applications with little documentation were vulnerable to misrepresentation or overestimation of repayment capacity by both lenders and borrowers...

Although the development of the secondary market has had great benefits for mortgage-market participants, as I noted earlier, in this episode the practice of selling mortgages to investors may have contributed to the weakening of underwriting standards. Depending on the terms of the sale, when an originator sells a loan and its servicing rights, the risks (including, of course, any risks associated with poor underwriting) are largely passed on to the investors rather than being borne primarily by the company that originated the loan. In addition, incentive structures that tied originator revenue to the number of loans closed made increasing loan volume, rather than ensuring quality, the objective of some lenders. Investors normally have the right to put early-payment-default loans back to the originator, and one might expect such provisions to exert some discipline on the underwriting process. However, in the most recent episode, some originators had little capital at stake and did not meet their buy-back obligations after the sharp rise in delinquencies.5 Intense competition for subprime mortgage business—in part the result of the excess capacity in the lending industry left over from the refinancing boom earlier in the decade—may also have led to a weakening of standards. In sum, some misalignment of incentives, together with a highly competitive lending environment and, perhaps, the fact that industry experience with subprime mortgage lending is relatively short, likely compromised the quality of underwriting.

The accuracy of much of the information on which the underwriting was based is also open to question. Mortgage applications with little documentation were vulnerable to misrepresentation or overestimation of repayment capacity by both lenders and borrowers, perhaps with the expectation that rising house prices would come to the rescue of otherwise unsound loans. Some borrowers may have been misled about the feasibility of paying back their mortgages, and others may simply have not understood the sometimes complex terms of the contracts they signed.

As the problems in the subprime mortgage market have become manifest, we have seen some signs of self-correction in the market. Investors are scrutinizing subprime loans more carefully and, in turn, lenders have tightened underwriting standards. Credit spreads on new subprime securitizations have risen, and the volume of mortgage-backed securities issued indicates that subprime originations have slowed. But although the supply of credit to this market has been reduced—and probably appropriately so—credit has by no means evaporated. For example, even as purchases of securitized subprime mortgages for collateralized debt obligations—an important source of demand—have declined, increased purchases by investment banks, hedge funds, and other private pools of capital are beginning to fill the void. Some subprime originators have gone out of business as their lenders have cancelled credit lines, but others have been purchased by large financial institutions and remain in operation. Importantly, we see no serious broader spillover to banks or thrift institutions from the problems in the subprime market; the troubled lenders, for the most part, have not been institutions with federally insured deposits.

What about borrowers already in distress? The Board and other federal supervisory agencies have taken actions to encourage the banks and thrift institutions we supervise to work with borrowers who may be having trouble meeting their mortgage obligations. Often, loan workouts are in the interest of both parties. With effective loan restructuring, borrowers facing temporary economic setbacks may be able to work through their problems while staying in their homes, and lenders may be able to avoid the costs of foreclosure and the losses usually associated with selling a repossessed home.

Servicers of loans aim to minimize losses, and they appear to be actively working with thousands of individual borrowers to modify their mortgages. To some extent, the dispersed ownership of mortgages may combine with legal and accounting rules to make successful workouts more difficult to achieve. For example, the "pooling and servicing agreement" associated with a given securitized mortgage pool may restrict the share of accounts that can be modified. Accounting rules that, in some cases, require substantially modified pools to be brought back on the originator's balance sheet may dissuade lenders from undertaking workouts. And extensive modifications that reallocate expected cash flows across different securities associated with the pool could trigger a review of those securities by the ratings agencies. At the same time, if workouts are economically viable, then an incentive exists for third parties to purchase distressed pools at a discount and to undertake the workout process. We see these purchases taking place in the marketplace, a development that should help to increase the number of successful workouts.

  1. This estimate is based on data from the Mortgage Bankers Association, adjusted to reflect the limited coverage of the association's sample.

  2. Near-prime loans include those securitized in "alt-A" pools and similar loans that are held on lenders' books.

  3. Estimates of delinquencies are based on data from First American LoanPerformance. The rate of serious delinquencies for variable-rate subprime mortgages also reached about 11 percent in late 2001 and early 2002.

  4. Foreclosure starts are based on data from the Mortgage Bankers Association, adjusted to reflect the limited coverage of their sample.

  5. Many mortgage brokers are subject to minimum licensing standards and bonding or net worth criteria, but these standards and criteria vary across states.

Also, local community organizations that work to promote homeownership and prevent foreclosures have stepped up their efforts. For example, NeighborWorks America advises borrowers about restructuring their mortgages. A survey conducted by this group found that many homeowners do not understand that lenders also want to avoid foreclosure. Thus, the simple step of encouraging borrowers in trouble to contact their lenders can be very productive. The Federal Reserve and the other supervisory agencies have encouraged financial institutions to identify and contact borrowers who, with counseling and financial assistance, may be able to avoid entering delinquency or foreclosure. Indeed, some lenders are being proactive in this regard—for example, by contacting borrowers to discuss possible options well before a scheduled interest-rate reset.

Possible regulatory responses
Looking forward, the Federal Reserve, other regulators, and the Congress must evaluate what we have learned from the recent episode and decide what additional regulation or oversight may be needed to prevent a recurrence. In deciding what actions to take, regulators must walk a fine line; we must do what we can to prevent abuses or bad practices, but at the same time we do not want to curtail responsible subprime lending or close off refinancing options that would be beneficial to borrowers.

The full text of Chairman Bernanke's speech is available at