The mortgage market has been roiled by a sharp increase in bad loans made to borrowers with weak credit. Now there are signs that the pain is spreading upward.
At issue are mortgages made to people who fall in the gray area between "prime" (borrowers considered the best credit risks) and "subprime" (borrowers considered the greatest credit risks). A record $400 billion of these midlevel loans – which are known in the industry as "Alt-A" mortgages – were originated last year, up from $85 billion in 2003, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, a trade publication. Alt-A loans accounted for roughly 16 percent of mortgage originations last year and subprime loans an additional 24 percent.
The catch-all Alt-A category includes many of the innovative products that helped fuel the housing boom, such as mortgages that carry little, if any, documentation of income or assets, and so-called option adjustable-rate mortgages, which give borrowers multiple payment choices but can lead to a rising loan balance. Loans taken by investors buying homes they don't plan to occupy themselves can also fall into the Alt-A category.
Borrowers who take out Alt-A mortgages are considered less risky than subprime borrowers because of their higher credit scores. But as the housing market cooled and loan volume declined, some lenders lowered their standards for Alt-As. Now a rising number of borrowers who took out these loans are running into trouble.
Data from UBS AG show that the default rate for Alt-A mortgages has doubled in the past 14 months. "The credit deterioration has been almost parallel to what's been happening in the subprime market," says UBS mortgage analyst David Liu. The UBS report contrasts with testimony Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke gave to Congress Wednesday. "Our assessment is that there's not much indication that subprime issues have spread into the broader mortgage market," Bernanke said.
To be sure, defaults have remained very low in the prime market – and despite the uptick in bad loans, the problems in the Alt-A sector aren't as severe as those that have roiled the subprime market. Some 2.4 percent of Alt-A loans are at least 60 days past due, according to UBS, which looked at mortgages that were packaged into securities and sold to investors. That is well below the 10.5 percent delinquency rate for subprime mortgages. (During the housing boom, delinquencies were low for all types of loans because borrowers who wound up in trouble could refinance or sell.)
Some borrowers who took out Alt-A loans in recent years are starting to feel the strain. Johnny and Shirley Johnson, retirees in Cleveland, took out an option ARM when they refinanced their $92,700 mortgage in July 2005. The loan carried a 3.5 percent introductory rate that began moving upward a few months later. The couple, who live on a fixed income, are currently making the minimum payment on their loan. But they are afraid they won't be able to keep up with their loan and other debts once their monthly mortgage payment adjusts upward later this year.
"We don't want to lose our home," says Ms. Johnson. The couple is working with Acorn Housing Corp., a nonprofit group that provides housing counseling, in an effort to refinance into a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. Though the monthly payment would be higher, the new loan would protect them against future increases.
Housing counselors and bankruptcy attorneys say they are seeing an increase in troubled borrowers who previously had good credit. "We have clients with 720-plus credit scores, and they are in awful products," says Jennifer Harris, executive director of the Home Loan Counseling Center in Sacramento, Calif. Some of these borrowers took out option ARMs with low introductory rates and are likely to fall behind when their monthly payment resets at a higher level, she says.
Thomas Gorman, a bankruptcy attorney in Alexandria, Va., says he is seeing more financially strapped borrowers who "probably bought more house than they could afford and then took on more credit-card debt" to furnish the house and pay for the move. When the housing market cooled, they were "caught in the middle," unable to sell their home or refinance and make their debt load more manageable.
Lenders are also tightening their standards. At a meeting with investors last week, IndyMac Bancorp Inc., the nation's largest Alt-A lender, said it had raised the minimum credit score at which borrowers could finance 100 percent of a home's value and took a number of other steps to tighten lending guidelines.
This week Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.'s Aurora Loan Services unit raised the minimum credit score and reduced the maximum amount homeowners could borrower without documenting their income and assets.
Impac Mortgage Holdings Inc., which specializes in Alt-A loans, said recently that it had tightened its lending standards 17 times last year. The company cut back on riskier loans and began relying more on analytical tools to verify a borrower's income and creditworthiness. Other lenders were quick to scoop up many of those loans, but now they are also pulling back, says Impac President Bill Ashmore.
Lou Barnes, a mortgage banker in Boulder, Colo., says a client with a good credit score was turned down this week for a mortgage to buy an investment property with a small down payment and no documentation. That same borrower was approved for a "nearly identical" loan in August and November, he says. Still, Barnes calls the tightening "modest." Alt-A lenders are "nibbling at the edges," he says.
The UBS study found that the problems are greatest for Alt-A borrowers who took out interest-only adjustable-rate mortgages, which allow borrowers to pay interest and no principal in the loan's early years, with 3.71 percent of interest-only ARMs originated in 2006 at least 60 days past due. As in the subprime sector, the riskiest loans are those made to home buyers who put little, if any, money down and don't document their income or assets.
As delinquencies rise, some investors who bought lower-rated securities backed by these mortgages are likely to face losses, according to Mr. Liu of UBS. While defaults are expected to be lower than in the subprime sector, so are the reserves set aside to cushion bond investors against such losses.
Defaults are much lower for option ARMs. But the problems with these loans could be "backloaded," says Mr. Liu, because borrowers with these loans are still making the minimum payment.
Glenn Costello, a managing director at Fitch Ratings Inc. in New York, expects the foreclosure rate for Alt-A loans to ultimately be only 10 percent to 20 percent of the rate for subprime borrowers.
Yet investor concerns about Alt-A loans are rising, according to Walter N. Schmidt, a mortgage investment strategist at FTN Financial Capital Markets in Chicago. A report from mortgage analysts at Barclays Capital in New York this week pointed to fraud as one reason for early defaults on Alt-A loans. The mortgage industry is battling a rash of cases in which borrowers, loan officers and appraisers collude in providing false information to induce lenders to advance more money than homes are worth.