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‘High-risk borrowers are encouraged to take on debt they can’t repay’

 

Residential doors in Ireland (Image by hjrivas from Pixabay)

By Will Kessler

The Biden administration has pushed for easier home financing for higher-risk borrowers amid surging housing costs, increasing the risk of a wave of defaults, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The government-sponsored corporations Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, regulated by the Federal Home Financing Administration (FHFA), have taken a number of steps to increase financing opportunities for higher-risk borrowers under the Biden administration, including subsidizing higher-risk borrowing by hiking rates on lower-risk borrowers. Many of these actions have led to Americans taking on an increasingly large amount of debt while lending facilitated by government entities has grown in size, creating a growing possibility that a wave of foreclosures and defaults could create a shock in the housing system, according to experts who spoke to the DCNF.

“The new Fannie and Freddie mortgage pricing directive raised rates on low-risk borrowers and reduced them on high-risk borrowers,” Jason Sorens, senior research fellow at the American Institute of Economic Research, told the DCNF. “This is not really a free market to begin with, but the risk here is creating something like the subprime crisis, where high-risk borrowers are encouraged to take on debt they can’t repay. Again, this has the potential to hit the bottom line for Fannie and Freddie.”

The guidance from the FHFA to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to essentially subsidize higher-risk borrowers took effect in May 2023, according to the Congressional Research Service. For example, under the new guidance, those with credit scores between 640 and 659 who put down a down payment between 15% and 20% would have a fee rate charged of 2.250% instead of 2.750%, while borrowers with a credit score between 760 and 779 with the same down payment would have their added rate hiked to 0.625% instead of 0.250%.

Rising housing costs have also led the entities to raise how much housing debt Americans can take on through the government entities, with the FHFA announcing near the end of 2023 that it was raising the mortgage limit for single-family homes to nearly $1.15 million in some areas, compared to the standard limit of $766,550, allowing Americans to take out even larger government-facilitated loans.

To fund its rising expenses and facilitate more loans to lower-income and higher-risk borrowers, the FHFA has proposed a new rule that would allow the government entities to purchase second mortgages.

“But the reality is that you have to look at Fannie, Freddie and FHA as one big entity, its government mortgage: it’s all run by the government, and as a single entity, it’s tilting towards higher-risk loans and higher debt ratios.” Edward Pinto, senior fellow and co-director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Housing Center, told the DCNF. “So you may be able to handle that debt ratio for a period of time. It’s when economic stress increases that you find out; as Warren Buffett said, ‘It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.’ It’s not until the economic stress increases that you find out who’s over their skis in debt.”

Total debt reached an all-time high for Americans in the first quarter of 2024, with consumers holding a collective $17.69 trillion. Around $190 billion of the increase in the first quarter was in mortgage debt.

Following the 2008 financial crisis, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau set standards for private lending so that mortgages could not exceed 43% of a borrower’s income. The FHA, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae often try to meet these standards but are not required to due to their relationship with the government, meaning the entities can give riskier loans.

The Biden administration also issued a rule in 2023 seeking to prevent “racial bias” in home valuations, arguing that societal prejudice was effectively leading minorities’ properties to be valued less than their white counterparts. As a result, the price of some homes owned by minorities might be being boosted, with the left-leaning Brookings Institute findingthat the vast majority of homes in majority-black neighborhoods are already appraised at or above their contract price.

Since 2008, the Federal Reserve has also been buying mortgage-backed securities from government housing finance institutions, totaling over $2.3 trillion as of June 5, providing extra liquidity sponsored by the government to the industry.

Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were bailed out and placed in a conservatorship under the federal government after the 2008 financial crisis, where they played a key role in funding the housing bubble by buying up risky loans. As the risky loans began to inevitably default, the institutions took huge losses on the valuation of their assets, triggering the collapse of the housing market.

Pinto argues that while there is less tension in the housing system compared to 2008, an increase in the unemployment rate to around 6% from its current rate of 4% would leave enough Americans without a way to pay their debts that it could trigger a wave of defaults due to the increased number of risky loans. Stress in the system could be building in part due to the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) increasing the time frame in 2023 that mortgage holders can modify their payments, kicking the issue down the road.

“You can only do that so many times before you run out of the ability to do that and you spread that cost over everybody that has a mortgage so that those with good credits are paying for the risk of the poor credits, and what the federal government is doing through FHA, Fannie and Freddie is basically trying to eliminate risk,” Pinto told the DCNF. “You can’t have the housing finance system without foreclosure. Get the federal government through these forbearance programs, which are, in effect, eliminating the ability to foreclose.”

The cost of homes has increased rapidly under Biden amid high inflation, reaching an all-time high in March and rising 6.5% in just the last year. The average 30-year mortgage rate is also currently around 7% as of June 6, rising from under 3% when Biden first took office.

“The most dangerous FHFA proposal is a rule that would enshrine a ‘tenants’ bill of rights’ capping rents as a share of household income, providing free legal representation to tenants, and more, on any property financed by a Fannie or Freddie-backed mortgage,” Sorens told the DCNF. “This rule has not been finalized yet. If it were to go into effect, it would impose nationwide rent control on a large percentage of the multifamily market, which research has overwhelmingly shown will shrink the supply of rental housing and drive up rents for most tenants.”

The Biden administration has so far not announced concrete plans to cap rents, despite reports from the media citing unnamed administration officials in March saying that a plan to prohibit hikes of more than 10% a year on certain government-subsidized units was set to be released. The FHFA was charged at the behest of the Biden administration in January 2023 to examine putting “protections and limits on egregious rent increases for future investments.”

“It will also have the perverse consequence of driving business away from Fannie and Freddie and driving down the value of existing properties with government-insured mortgages,” Sorens told the DCNF. “As a result, the government mortgage guarantors could lose a lot of money. One major New York mortgage lender (NYCB) has already suffered credit downgrades and an investor bailout as a result of the tightening of rent control there.”

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