As banks report> robust earnings, some consumers are starting to wonder: Why is it so hard to get a mortgage?
It's a question central to both anxious home buyers and investors awaiting an economic recovery. Even as historically low rates make borrowing attractive and with the government paying first-time buyers $8,000 to take the housing plunge the number of new home purchase loans is expected to fall 4.6% this year, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, a trade industry group.
The main reason is banks are still caught in the riptide of the mortgage crisis, and have to both clean up the earlier mess and try to boost profits. It's made even trickier by the government's attempts to stem the growth of foreclosures and the Great Recession.
In general, healthier banks should be lending more, which should happen if large banks continue reporting rising net income and earnings, says Keith Gumbinger, a vice president at HSH Associates, a mortgage-data tracking firm. Consumers aren t seeing increased mortgage lending because of tight underwriting standards associated with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration. This is a constructed marketplace, says Gumbinger. The banks are not really in direct control of the underwriting standards of residential mortgages to a great degree for consumer-preferred products.
Some say the firmer lending standards now in place are a return to what it was like to get a mortgage before the housing bubble. If you couldn't get a mortgage in 2000, you probably won't get one now, says Jack McCabe, an independent housing analyst and president of McCabe Research & Consulting in Deerfield Beach, Fla., a state that's among the worst-hit regions of the crunch.
During the worst of the crisis, banks of all sizes lost billions of dollars, says Morningstar analyst Jaime Peters. Bank failures last year hit 140, up from 25 in 2008, and are expected to rise again in 2011. Certainly, the five biggest mortgage lenders, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase, Citigroup and GMAC will rely on new loans this year, even as they try to stanch the ongoing losses from subprime loans they made during the bubble. "It s a large portion of their business," Peters says of the five largest mortgage lenders. "And it's a massive portion of their losses.
For lending to increase, some experts say the government will have to play a role in softening the standards at least slightly of getting a mortgage through Fannie and Freddie, which typically require a minimum 20% down payment. That is one reason why FHA originations which require a 3.5% down payment have gone from 2% of the mortgage origination marketplace in 2006 to 35% in the present market, says Gumbinger.
One bright spot: a mild loosening of jumbo-mortgage lending relative to price. (Typically, jumbo mortgages start around $417,000). The jumbo mortgages have two advantages for lenders. The banks can both set the standards for the loans, and the loans can go on the books. The most immediate link between a financially healthier bank and increased lending will likely be seen with these mortgages since banks have full underwriting control over them, says Gumbinger.
Moving forward, mortgage lending will remain a significant portion of the large banks business; the Mortgage Bankers Association expects new mortgage originations to climb 14% in 2011.
Here's how the big five stack up:
JP Morgan Chase
At JP Morgan, which released better-than-expected earnings Wednesday morning, fewer consumers are landing mortgage loans. According to the bank s first quarter 2010 earnings report, mortgage loan originations for the first quarter totaled $31.7 billion down 16% from the first quarter of 2009, and down 9% from the last quarter of 2009.
Why the shrinkage? A Chase spokesman points to a couple of factors. For one, he says, Chase stopped working with independent brokers and third parties at the end of January 2009. That brought down the volume of loans, and to pick up the slack, Chase is now trying to generate mortgages through its own branches. Secondly, he adds, the data in the earnings report includes refinancing a tool popular with homeowners last year as they tried to lock in lower interest rates. Since rates have stabilized, fewer clients are refinancing now. Then there s the supply and demand issue: According to the spokesman, fewer people appear to be applying for new mortgages. It s still relatively weak compared to two years ago, he says.
Even though the bank is originating fewer loans, the spokesman says lending standards are where they were about a year ago. He adds that when the bank underwrites a loan, it wants to be sure the borrower can afford it over the long term. Since 90% of the mortgages that Chase originates are sold to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or the FHA, he says, the bank is following their standards. And their standards remain tight.
Wells Fargo has also pulled back on home mortgages. According to the San Francisco-based bank s most recent data -- from the fourth quarter of 2009 -- the volume of its home loan originations dropped to $94 billion, from $96 billion in the third quarter and $101 billion in the first quarter.
Like JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo could be seeing a dip in consumer demand. Although a spokesman didn t respond to a question about why mortgage loans are dropping, the company s earnings report shows a falloff: In the fourth quarter, the number of applications for home mortgages slid around 24% compared to the first quarter. The bank has also bumped up its staff to help with mortgage-loan modifications, and that could be a drag on generating new business. A Wells Fargo report states that it increased staff retention by 17% during the quarter to help with mortgage-loan modifications.
Even though it is granting fewer mortgages, Wells Fargo says it is helping consumers stay in their homes by providing those mortgage principal reductions. (Wells Fargo merged with Wachovia in October 2008, and assumed an adjustable-rate mortgage portfolio in the deal). Through the fourth quarter of 2009, Wells Fargo modified more than 52,600 Wachovia loans, and did principal reductions totaling more than $2.6 billion. The bank is scheduled to release its earnings report next Wednesday.
One of the most dramatic drops in mortgage loans over the last year has taken place at Citigroup. The bank s home loan originations peaked at $31.3 billion in volume during the second quarter of 2009, then fell to $14.2 billion and $11.2 billion in the third and fourth quarter, respectively.
Like Wells Fargo, Citi appears to be focusing more on mortgage modifications for its troubled borrowers. Its fourth-quarter earnings report states that Citi completed around 130,000 mortgage loan modifications in 2009 and established more than 119,000 trial modifications under the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) and its own modification program. Increasing volumes of trial modifications of first mortgages under the HAMP contributed to the sequential decline in losses; the loan loss reserve was increased to offset this impact, Citi reported. The bank will report first-quarter 2010 earnings on Monday.
Bank of America
Bank of America has cut its mortgage lending sharply, reflecting a mix of influences in the business. Total first-quarter mortgage banking revenue dropped 54% from the first quarter of 2009, going to $1.5 billion. First mortgage loans declined 18.4% to $69.5 billion, according to financial results released Friday. Most of the annual declines were the result of BofA's July 2008 takeover of failed mortgage lender Countrywide Financial in 2008. Countrywide's business accounted for much of BofA's mortgage activity in 2009. The bank now is adjusting to both its post-merger organization and a vastly different market.
GMAC, once the finance arm of General Motors, was the fifth-largest mortgage lender in 2009, when it lost $10.3 billion. About $7 billion of that was in its mortgage business. The recent low point may have been the last three months of 2009, when losses hit $4 billion. However, mortgage lending grew by 17% in 2009 from the previous year, and the business is stabilizing. As part of its efforts to secure federal bailout money, GMAC became a bank holding company in 2008, and eventually accepted more than $16 billion in government aid.
A company spokesman said GMAC doesn t provide origination projections. But GMAC Mortgage continues to originate prime, conforming residential mortgages and government loans, as well as jumbos. It has stopped offering mortgages through brokers and store-front offices, but on Thursday plans to launch a virtual sales network, a direct-to-consumer channel aimed at boosting its home-loan business. Its Ditech unit will roll out an advertising blitz in the coming weeks. GMAC boosted its 2009 originations to $66.2 billion from $59.4 billion in 2008.