The housing collapse the U.S. has endured over the past few years has forced the industry to question some of its most basic assumptions. For decades, the market believed that housing couldn't broadly decline in value, particularly not substantially. It was wrong. We now know that a bubble can actually result in overinflated housing prices and subsequent national home price declines. As banks and lenders adjust, they may have to revisit the mortgage products they used to believe were very safe. Will the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage survive?
Look Out: Default Risk!
The big surprise the mortgage market has to cope with is default risk. Even though the government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac used to guarantee many mortgages, the private sector often didn't feel that guarantee was necessary. After all, there wasn't significant default risk. Sure, interest rates might change, and prepayments could come in more quickly than anticipated. But lenders wouldn't actually lose money on mortgages -- they just might not make as much as they thought they would.
Now that they know they could lose money, they must adjust accordingly. One way to do this would be to just have the government guarantee all mortgages. That approach is championed by some. But in this political climate, nationalizing the mortgage industry might not be easy. It's pretty likely that the government will at least want to make it possible for the private sector to originate some mortgages without a federal guarantee. In order to do so, however, what can lenders do to avoid losses if homes lose value?
Option 1: High Down Payments
The most obvious solution is a high down payment, of at least 30%. This would mean that the home could decline in value by up to that amount the day after the loan is written, and the lender would remain protected. Even though some localized markets saw prices decline more than 30%, if this was a universal standard prior to the boom, losses would have been much, much smaller. Indeed, most of the subprime loans never would have been originated, so the bubble might not have been created in the first place.
A mortgage product with an extremely large down payment could also result in a smaller term. After all, if you put down 30%, you might not need 30 years to pay off the balance -- 20 might be plenty. If the down payment was 50%, then 15 years might be long enough. Lenders and borrowers alike might find shorter maturities attractive if down payments rise considerably.
Option 2: The "DJI" Mortgage
There's a problem with giant down payments: not everyone has that kind of savings. And it's likely that public policy will dictate that home ownership should be spread more widely than to only those who can afford to save up a pile of cash to put down. So another type of new mortgage product should be sought that captures the risk of default when the loan-to-value ratio is higher than, say, 70% or whatever other value the market settles on.
I would recommend what I'll call the "DJI" Mortgage. DJI stands for Declining Jackhammer Interest. It's sort of like an option adjustable rate mortgage, but turned upside down.