By Stephane Fitch, Forbes.com
Did you think the housing collapse killed off “liar loans”–those infamous bubble-era mortgages for which people were allowed to get creative in portraying their ability to make the payments? Well, they’re back, and that may be a good thing.
All the rage during the peak of the housing boom, these mortgages went by names like “no-doc” (meaning no documentation of income required), “low-doc” or “stated-income” mortgages. In all cases, banks set aside their underwriting standards based on what borrowers could prove they were earning with pay stubs, tax returns and the like. Instead, lenders started trusting borrowers to “forecast” future income and underwrote loans based on those projections (using as a fallback the house itself as collateral).
In the height of the housing boom in 2006 and 2007, low-doc loans accounted for roughly 40% of newly issued mortgages in the U.S., according to mortgage-data firm FirstAmerican CoreLogic. University of Chicago assistant professor Amit Seru says that for subprime loans, the portion exceeded 50%.
Then came the housing collapse, with subprime loan defaults playing a leading role, particularly the low-doc “liar” variety. The delinquency rate for subprime loans reached 39% in early 2009, seven times the rate in 2005, according to LPS Applied Analytics.
Ashlyn Aiko Nelson, a public policy lecturer at Indiana University, studied the low-doc loan craze. She and two of her colleagues concluded that low-doc borrowers exaggerated their incomes by 15% to 19%. “Our sense was that investors knew that people were lying, but figured it was OK because house prices would keep going up and the homeowners could refinance,” says Nelson.
The most outrageous types of no-doc lending disappeared entirely in 2009. Many mortgage pros say they’re unaware of banks making any low-doc loans in recent months. (A Forbes editor was, however, approached by a leading bank recently with an offer to refinance his home without documenting his income.)
In fact, the financial reform package passed by the House of Representatives recently, and under consideration by the Senate, discourages them. It requires lenders who offer mortgages to borrowers without full documentation to post a reserve equal to 5% of the loan’s value before they are securitized. That rule, they say, will make low-doc loans even less appealing for banks going forward.
“There’s no large-scale bank that’s a real player in them,” says Tom Meyer, chief executive of Kislak Mortgage, a Florida-based residential mortgage lender.
Forbes has learned that banks are quietly reestablishing the no-doc and low-doc mortgage market. In fact, low-doc loans accounted for 8% of newly originated loan pools as of this February, FirstAmerican Corelogic reports.
Wall Street Funding of America, a mortgage lender based in Santa Ana, Calif ., was recently circulating offers to make low-doc loans to borrowers with credit scores as low as 660 on the Fair Isaac Corp. (FICO) scale, as long as the borrower was self-employed, seeking no more than 60% of the value of a home and had six months of mortgage payments in reserve. The lender was offering interest rates 1.5 to 2 percentage points over the going rate on conventional mortgages. A borrower with a credit score over 720 might get a slightly better rate, perhaps just 1.25 percentage points over.
On June 23 Wall Street Funding’s fliers caught the attention of Zillow.com blogger Justin McHood. Forbes’ calls to Wall Street Funding were not returned. (We’ll update you if they are.)
In New York City mortgage broker GuardHill Financial tells Forbes that it is making no-doc loans on behalf of four of the 50 lending mortgage lenders it represents (whose names GuardHill declines to disclose). Perhaps $100 million of the $2 billion in loans GuardHill handles this year will be low-doc, says Dave Dessner, its sales director. The banks extending these loans are small community and regional outfits attracted to their relatively high interest rates (anything from 25 basis to 200 basis points over a conventional loan’s interest rate). The lenders intend to keep the loans in their portfolios rather than securitize them.
Dessner insists it would be a mistake to associate the loans GuardHill and its bank network are originating with the doomed liar loans that lenders stuffed into mortgage pools between 2004 and 2007. “I’d be on my soapbox railing against those loans,” says Dessner. “The people in government who are now screaming about liar loans aren’t looking at the quality of the loans we’re making.”
GuardHill serves all kinds of borrowers, including a goodly number of self-employed folk, successful artists and financiers who tend to garner wealth in windfalls but don’t have a sheaf of pay stubs to staple to a conventional loan application. Case in point: One of Dessner’s people is toiling now on a loan application from a hedge fund manager wishing to borrow $800,000 against a $4 million home purchase. The hedge’s fund did poorly last year, so as a sign of good faith for his investors he’s drawing no salary. Good for his business, perhaps, but rotten for a conventional mortgage application.
“This guy made $5 million in 2007 and 2008. He’s liquid for $10 million, and he’s borrowing 20% LTV (loan-to-value),” says Dessner. A no-doc loan to that kind of borrower shouldn’t be political dynamite, especially at a time when the Federal Housing Administration is making 95% LTV loans to low-income borrowers with poor credit and little savings, he argues.
Indiana University’s Nelson says the return of a sensible level of low-doc lending may be a good sign. “The market may have overcorrected a bit by shutting these down entirely,” she says. “If the lenders are hewing to the original idea, where they could get a better spread making loans to insanely wealthy people who don’t mind paying a little higher rate, that may be a good thing for everybody.”