Bills would lower costs, interest of mortgages


September 16, 2001|By KENNETH HARNEY

CONGRESSIONAL housing leaders are on the verge of announcing a new concept in home mortgages that promises to cut interest rates and application costs for homebuyers who can't afford a large down payment.

Dubbed "Choice," the plan would target borrowers who have less than 20 percent down payments to put into their home purchases. High on the list of intended beneficiaries are first-time buyers, consumers with high debt-to-income ratios, minority home buyers and consumers with slight imperfections in their credit histories.

By broadening the base of capital market sources of money available to finance such buyers, the plan would try to generate greater competition - and better terms - for low-down-payment mortgages.

Advocates of the Choice concept estimate that some borrowers would save between 1 and 1.5 percentage points off their mortgage rates, as well as hundreds of dollars in loan fees.

The technical details of the plan are complicated, but the basic idea is this: The conventional home mortgage market is dominated by two mega-investors - Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Both were chartered by Congress to purchase mortgages originated by local lenders, thereby freeing up lenders' funds for new mortgages.

The Choice plan would add another powerful mega-investor - Ginnie Mae - to the mix to compete on pricing and terms for low down payment home mortgages. Ginnie Mae, formally the Government National Mortgage Association, is part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and currently buys only federally insured (FHA and VA) loans.

Under the legislation Ginnie Mae would be allowed to buy low- down-payment, private-market mortgages. Loans covered by the legislation could go as high as $275,000 under current rules, and carry down payments ofless than 3 percent.

The bills were drafted by Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado, ranking minority member of the Senate housing subcommittee, and Rep. Marge Roukema, the New Jersey Republican who chairs the House housing subcommittee.

The entry of Ginnie Mae into the market would give lenders a new outlet for their low-down-payment mortgages, and would virtually guarantee lower rates for some borrowers, say supporters. A new study by mortgage economists Ann B. Schnare and Susan E. Woodward finds that the savings to homebuyers could be significant - even turning applications rejected for regular interest rate pricing by Fannie or Freddie into loans financed at prevailing market rates by Ginnie.

According to Woodward, the Ginnie Mae plan could provide substantial savings to a low-down-payment borrower with slightly dinged credit. For example, an 8.5 percent mortgage at Freddie Mac could be as low as a 7 percent mortgage at Ginnie under the Choice plan. Woodward's and Schnare's study, financed by a group of private mortgage insurance companies, estimates that the federal budget also would benefit by Ginnie Mae's entry to marketplace competition. If Ginnie purchased only $30 billion a year of low-down-payment loans, the federal government would gain $219 million in additional revenues over the life of the mortgages.

Private mortgage insurers would be integral to the Choice program - they would provide most of the insurance on the mortgages and protect Ginnie Mae from losses on defaults. The insurers also would gain substantial new business volume - and profits - along with the government. In fact, private insurers have been the key proponents of the Choice idea.

They point to a study of more than 150,000 loans, completed earlier this year, that found Fannie's and Freddie's composite "accept" rates on low-down-payment applications from homebuyers with moderate FICO scores in the 620-660 range to be only 61 percent, compared with 72 percent by private mortgage insurers' electronic systems.

FICO (Fair, Isaac & Co.) credit scores range from the 300s to more than 850, with 620 to 660 scores indicating an applicant with slight to moderate credit history blemishes.

The same study found Fannie's and Freddie's composite "accept" rates on African-American borrowers to be 65.8 percent versus the private insurers' 76 percent. Hispanic "accept" rates by the private systems was 77 percent versus 72 percent by Fannie and Freddie. "Accept" decisions by the private insurers and Freddie and Fannie generally qualify the borrower for the standard interest rate and terms available at the time. Applicants who are not accepted pay higher interest rates.

Working through the new Ginnie Choice plan, private insurers say they want to compete for the low-down-payment loans they say are now priced too high by the two giant investors who dominate the market. Give us a shot to fund those loans, Choice advocates say, and thousands of borrowers will pay less. Executives at Fannie and Freddie say they are "studying" the new proposal, and had no immediate comment on it last week.

Kenneth R. Harney is a syndicated columnist. Send letters in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington D.C., 20071. Or e-mail him at

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