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Confusing A Housing Bubble For A Lending Bubble

Much of the housing boom can be attributed to the current lending environment. Housing prices are an indicator of where things are going. But its tough to analyze lending since the stats are few and far between.

In other words: the cart before the horse.

I have long vented about the perils of weak underwriting standards and the pressures placed on appraisers by the structure of the lending system, namely collateral valuation (appraisals). A double hat tip to Barry Riholz for articulating this point so clearly in his post Is a Housing Crisis Approaching? [Big Picture] [1] via the very good Roger Nusbaum post in SeekingAlpha [2].

Barry’s post is based on a seminal piece in Barrons about loosening underwriting standards by Lon Witter [subsc] [3]. Roger adds another related link with great info [RGE Monitor] [4] as well.

the U.S. has is a lending bubble. His evidence is how loose the lending standards have become, and why not? The banks ultimately just flip the loans to the Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association, on the NYSE: FNM), where foreclosures and defaults become the headache of buyers looking for greater risk and return.

(And if that doesn’t make you squeamish, simply look at the recent accounting scandals at Fannie Mae. [5])

Traditionally, Mortgages have been low risk lending, as the loan is securitized by the underlying property. When banks were lending less than the value of the property (LTV), to people with good credit, who also were invested in the property (substantial down payments) you had the makings of a very good business: low risk, moderate, predictable returns, minimal defaults.

Lenders have encouraged people to use the appreciation in value of their houses as collateral for an unaffordable loan, an idea similar to the junk bonds being pushed in the late 1980s. The concept was to use the company you were taking over as collateral for the loan you needed to take over the company in the first place. The implosion of that idea caused the 1989 mini-crash.

The problem here is: what happens if the values of homes begin to decline as inventory builds and rates rise? What does the lender do? They had better decide to start caring about values as well as credit in order to make intelligent loans. Underwriting standards have to rise to avert a lending crisis.

WAMU is the posterboy for weak underwriting. They built their growth and aquisition engine around mortgage lending during the housing boom. As mortgage rates increased and the housing market started to cool in the way of lower transaction volume, what department did they cut to save money? You guess it: The appraisal department. Recently they pulled completely out of the valuation process [Soapbox] [6] and have begun to rely on appraisal management companies [Soapbox] [7] exclusively, which are notorious for attracting the worst element in valuation. The appraiser who work for them are usually form-fillers and provide no analytical service. [Disclaimer: My firm worked for WAMU from the first days of their expansion in New York and saw the problems first hand. They recently jettisoned every appraisal firm across the country (we were one) as part of their cost-cutting move.]

Barry’s post analyzes WAMU’s market position in his post.

Right now, many mortgage lenders are still hanging in there, any way they can. I yearn for the day they actually want to understand what their risk is. Unfortunately, only a select few actually get this point.