The mortgage market is actually in turmoil right now. While congress passed the “CARES Act” to provide relief to families impacted by COVID-19, there were clearly some unintended consequences.
First Mortgage Market Issue: Possible Bankruptcies in the Servicer Space
The CARES Act allows homeowners and renters can stay in their homes in the case they can’t pay their monthly dues during this crisis. This establishes a 120-day mortgage payment moratorium option for borrowers with agency-backed mortgages (i.e. those loans backed by Fannie, Freddie, and Ginnie which constitute about 60% of the entire mortgage market). This created significant uncertainty in the mortgage market that I hope to walk through.
How the mortgage process works:
When a lender provides a loan for you to buy a house, odds are that lender will originate that loan, package it along with other loans into a mortgage-back security and effectively sell the risk on to investors. They will retain some mortgages on their books, but they do this so that they can continue to originate loans, possibly generate a gain on sale, and generate fees.
Typically, when a homeowner is paying interest and principal, another company called the “servicer” handles the payments and divvies it up to investors, tax authorities, etc. In exchange, they receive a small, fixed fee as a % of the principal balance they manage
The problem: Mortgage servicers are required to pay principal & interest to holders of the mortgages, even if there are missed payments. Mortgage servicers are not huge companies raking in tons of money off of this service they provide. Banks would be much better prepared to fund this gap. Therefore, if 5, 10, 15% of people with mortgages decide to defer payment, this could bankrupt the servicers and cause turmoil in the function of the mortgage market. If 10% of GSE loans are delinquent for 3 months, that would be roughly $6BN in cost – something the servicers don’t have lying around (assumed based on $4trn GSE loans @ 4% WAC). This also doesn’t include taxes and insurance. Lastly, if Ginnie borrowers can’t be brough back to current on their loans, then the servicers need to fund the buyout of those loans while modifying and re-pooling the loans.
Investors may not receive payment in securities they thought were very safe (remember, backed by government sponsored enterprises like Fannie & Freddie & Ginnie). These investors may also be levered to juice their returns on the securities which may throw them into bankruptcy as well.
Investors were trying to shore up liquidity ahead of some of these unforeseen and unknowable outcomes (i.e. they are selling securities). Agency MBS spreads over treasuries widened to ~140bps compared to ~30bps from Dec 2019 through February 2020. Then the Fed unleashed unlimited QE on agency MBS, so that helped calm the market a bit.
Still, if this is the way we are going to operate, the Fed or the servicers should come up with a liquidity facility for the servicers. Ginnie Mae announced it will launch a liquidity facility in the weeks to come (details TBD) but we need a much more encompassing rule.
Another issue here is in the originators warehouse. Let’s say you are a bank with a “warehouse”, which is like a revolving loan in which you ramp up loans before you sell them off. In a simple example, let’s say in normal times you can originate 2 loans in your warehouse per month, sell them off to investors, and start the process over with capacity in the warehouse for 2 more loans next month. If you originated a loan that isn’t performing, you cannot sell that to investors… that freezes credit. Now the originator is stuck with a bad loan and his capacity to make new loans is drastically reduced. This has me worried about the flow of credit when it is needed.
Second Mortgage Issue: Margin Calls on Mortgage REITs
Take what you know from above and apply it here: widening spreads on previously high quality assets can have negative impacts on levered vehicles.
The agency MBS spreads widened materially and since interest rates and prices move in opposite directions, that causes agency MBS to fall. Mortgage REITs (mREITs) use agency MBS as collateral to back their short-term financing in the repo market. The falling bond prices triggered margin calls on them and we saw many names were unable to meet their margin calls.
After the Fed announced it would buy unlimited agency MBS and treasuries, this helped calm the market, but clearly a lot of damage has been done. The Fed buying mortgages actually helped trigger margin calls. This is because mortgage originators protect their loan pipelines with interest rate hedges to buffer the impact of market rates moving higher than “locked in” rates. These hedges are profitable when MBS prices fall, but the Fed’s massive purchases pushed rates lower. Therefore, broker-dealers put out margin calls and stressed lenders’ liquidity positions.
This also still leaves the non-agency resi and non-agency CMBS space in turmoil, which we’ll discuss next, as names like Annaly is down 62% from the peak in late February. REM, the mREIT etf is down 70% as is MORT.
Third Mortgage Issue: Little bit of both
Fannie and Freddie have allowed multifamily landlords whose properties are financed with performing loans to defer payments by 90 days if they’ve had hardship due to COVID-19. In return, they can’t evict someone who isn’t payment. However, this is just multifamily and just agency-backed names… that leaves 75% of the commercial real estate mortgage market in trouble.
Many other landlords won’t be able to service debt if their tenants enter forbearance or cant pay interest. I’m not sure the system can handle that (i) wave of requests and (ii) that many missed payments. Ultimately, what we will and probably already are seeing is a freeze in the CRE lending market. This too, is causing margin calls on the CRE mREITs.
Its fine to think “ok well, we can get past this. People understand the credit crunch and can forgive a missed payment here and there.” But you have to remember credit drives this economy. The credit cycle = the business cycle, which is why the Fed has gone through great lengths post-2009 to keep rates low and lending on the rise. This system is more connected than ever before. What happens now when maturities come due? There are many questions still left unanswered and this is a truly unprecedented time!