Federal Regulators Floating the Idea of 20 Percent Downpayment Mortgages

Is a 20 percent downpayment on a house or condominium on the horizon?  If some federal regulators get their way, buyers may have to put down $60,000 on a $300,000 house to get the best possible mortgage interest rate.  Although this sets the bar high, regulators believe it will prevent the risky lending practices that ended in a rash of foreclosures.

Numerous groups immediately announced their opposition to the proposal, contending that a 20 percent downpayment is too burdensome for many working class would-be homebuyers.  If the proposal goes into effect in summer, it is not likely to have a major impact on the housing market for a while because the majority of mortgages are insured by federal agencies and are exempt from the rule.  John Taylor, chief executive of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, said “If we require 20 percent downpayments to get a loan, we will ensure broad swaths of working- and middle-class people will not be able to get a loan.”  According to Tom Deutsch, executive director of the American Securitization Forum, believes the 20 percent requirement will do little to encourage banks to make loans without federal backing.  “The extremely rigid proposals…will further prolong the U.S. government’s 95 percent market share of the credit risk of newly originated mortgages,” he said.

Sheila C. Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, disagrees.  “Properly aligned economic incentives are the best check against lax underwriting,” she said.  The Federal Reserve and Treasury Department also support the move, and other federal regulators are expected to get behind the new requirement.  The move comes as the Obama administration is working to end Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage companies, by reducing the competitive advantage they have over banks.  One proposal is to require the agencies to charge higher fees to draw private firms back into the mortgage market.

Mortgage Bankers Association CEO John Courson warns that the 20 percent downpayment requirement would further damage already sluggish housing demand.  “We believe that such a narrow construct of the risk retention exemption would limit mortgage opportunities for qualified borrowers more than it would reduce the number of problem loans,” Courson said.  Ron Phipps, president of the National Association of Realtors, said the new rules will further restrict mortgage credit and housing recovery overall.  “Adding unnecessarily high minimum downpayment requirements will only exclude hundreds of thousands of buyers from home ownership, despite their creditworthiness and proven ability to afford the monthly payment, because of the dramatic increase in the wealth required to purchase a home,” Phipps said.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who is leading the regulatory effort, said “Risk retention will help promote better standards for underwriting and securitizing mortgages, which is good for the long-term health of the housing market and for our nation’s economy.”  An element of the Dodd-Frank Act that impacts the residential market, known as “risk retention”, is a rule that requires that mortgage lenders and securitizers to invest a minimum of five percent of the risk on qualified residential mortgages. The rule will play a crucial role in determining how much risk banks have to retain from mortgages they originate or package into bonds known as mortgage backed securities (MBS) and then subsequently sell into the market.  “If this proposal goes through, the way it’s written, I think the housing market will not recover for years to come,” says Joe Murin, chairman of consulting firm The Collingwood Group.

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