The Wall Street Journal
The Federal Reserve has pushed mortgage rates to near half-century lows, but millions of U.S. homeowners haven't benefited from that because they can't—or won't—refinance.
Falling home prices have left many owners with little or no equity, making it harder to qualify for refinancing. Moreover, stricter lending standards and higher fees by banks and mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and declining incomes have made it tougher and less attractive for borrowers to seek new loans.
Around 37% of all borrowers with 30-year conforming fixed-rate mortgages—who collectively hold about $1.2 trillion of home loans—have mortgage rates of 6% or higher, according to investment bank Credit Suisse. Many could reduce their rates by a full percentage point if they refinanced at current rates, about 5%. More than half could lower their rates nearly three-quarters of a percentage point, according to Credit Suisse.
New refinance applications in January stood near their lowest levels in the past year. Weekly data compiled by the Mortgage Bankers Association also show that refinance activity has been muted, considering that rates are so low. "Traditionally, these borrowers would be aggressively refinancing," said Mahesh Swaminathan, senior mortgage strategist at Credit Suisse.
One indicator of the economic impact of refinancing: Loans that refinanced in 2009 will result in $3.4 billion in savings for consumers this year, according to a report by First American CoreLogic, a research firm based in Santa Ana, Calif. That will return an additional $17.2 billion in savings to borrowers over the next five years. That's money consumers can potentially use to help spur economic recovery.
About a quarter of all mortgage holders are "underwater"—they owe more on the house than it's worth—which normally makes it impossible to get refinancing: Banks want collateral to back the value of home loans they make. The Obama administration recently extended a program intended to help underwater homeowners refinance, but few people have tapped it so far. The program has faced logistical hurdles, delays and confusion from brokers and lenders.
Some people are so far underwater, refinancing ends up being out of the question. John Albright, a retired Navy officer in Manassas, Va., hasn't been able to refinance because the value of his home has plunged. He figures its market value is now around $275,000, but he and his wife still owe more than $500,000 on their mortgage.
Their refinance application was turned down last year because they lacked equity in the home. He says his lender told him he could refinance only if he could come up with about $200,000 to pay down his mortgage. So they are stuck with an interest rate of about 6.5% at a time when his wife's income has declined. "We're going from paycheck to paycheck, but what can you do?" Mr. Albright says.
Some mortgage bankers say higher fees by lenders have undermined the effort to encourage refinancing. Fees that Fannie and Freddie began imposing in 2008, as loan delinquencies began to rise, have made it unattractive for some borrowers to refinance. For example, a borrower with 20% down and a 695 credit score seeking to refinance must pay fees equal to 1% of the loan amount. Those fees rise for borrowers with weaker credit scores, higher loan-to-value ratios, or other risk factors.
Overcorrecting for the abuses of financial institutions "has defeated the Fed's purchase program," said Alan Boyce, a mortgage-securities-market veteran. Those loan fees, he said, are partly "responsible for why there's been no refi boom."
The higher fees and tight credit standards show the tensions facing Fannie and Freddie. As the government-controlled companies try to raise revenue to offset their losses, those efforts can conflict with their basic public-policy mission: to help stabilize the housing market.
Fannie and Freddie have to strike a balance between risk and access to credit. Figuring out "where that line is involves some trade-offs," said Edward DeMarco, acting head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie and Freddie. The last time mortgage rates were at current levels, in 2003, refinancing activity hit $2.9 trillion, according to trade publication Inside Mortgage Finance. Last year, refinance volume reached $1.2 trillion, the highest amount since 2003 but not nearly as much as expected, considering how low interest rates have fallen. Traditionally, borrowers have an incentive to refinance when they can reduce their mortgage rate by one percentage point or more.
Borrowers who are refinancing tend to be those who need it least. Fannie and Freddie refinanced 4.2 million borrowers last year. On average, borrowers who refinanced through Freddie Mac saved $2,600 annually. But the savings on the whole have gone to "very, very good credit borrowers and it really isn't going very far down the credit spectrum," said Michael Fratantoni, the head of research and economics for the MBA.
The experience of Connecticut resident Cathy Grandahl shows some of the trade-offs borrowers must grapple with in today's low-interest-rate, high-fee environment. She wanted to refinance two loans on her West Simsbury, Conn., home: a fixed-rate mortgage with a 5.75% rate and a second mortgage with an adjustable rate that she worries will rise sharply in coming years.
Refinancing would save them around $125 a month on their first mortgage while providing a fixed rate on their second loan. But extinguishing that mortgage by refinancing into one larger loan—considered a "cash-out" refinance—would trigger an additional fee.
That, plus several thousand dollars in closing costs, ultimately persuaded the couple not to refinance after all. "It's not a matter of our credit. We just can't get a good enough rate to make the refi worth it," says Ms. Grandahl, a 53-year-old land-records researcher who has three children in college.
Falling home values are one of the biggest factors raising borrowers' refinancing costs. Borrowers with less than 20% equity may have to pay for mortgage insurance.
On Monday, the Obama administration said it would extend for a year a program launched last April to help homeowners with little or no equity to refinance. That program, which had been set to expire this June, was called a "failure" last week by analysts at Barclays Capital. While the administration had said it would benefit millions, so far just 188,000 borrowers who owe between 80% and 105% of the value of their homes had refinanced through December.
Last September, it was expanded to include borrowers who owe up to 125% of their home value, but fewer than 2,000 borrowers have used that program through December.