Banks embracing a housing-bubble favorite: Interest-only home loans

Los Angeles TimesJanuary 24, 2014 

Most of the risky mortgages that triggered the financial crisis have disappeared from the marketplace, and lenders will have even more reason to avoid them because of a new federal crackdown on loose lending.

But one housing-bubble favorite — the interest-only loan — will remain a common offering to well-heeled home buyers, despite new rules from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The rules, which took effect earlier this month, exclude interest-only loans from “qualified mortgage” status, which protects lenders from liability over defaults.

Bankers don’t seem worried about affluent clients missing payments. With high-end home prices on the rise, they are embracing jumbo mortgage lending, including interest-only mortgages. That trend continued last week as the banks reported earnings, with Bank of America Corp. saying 36 percent of its fourth-quarter mortgages were jumbo loans, up from 23 percent of originations in the first quarter.

Because borrowers don’t pay down the principal on interest-only loans, payments are lower for as long as the interest-only period lasts. The downside is far higher payments when that period expires, typically after five to 10 years. Customers for such loans are often self-employed and capable of making big down payments and maintaining fat bank accounts. Banks believe such borrowers could afford traditional loans but want to maximize the cash available for other investments or ventures. Some borrowers just want the tax deduction available on the first $1 million a year in mortgage interest payments.

The Dodd-Frank regulatory reforms that Congress passed in reaction to the financial crisis imposed a common-sense requirement on mortgage lenders: They must ensure borrowers have the ability to repay. To ease the burden of compliance, Congress ordered the consumer bureau, also created by Dodd-Frank, to define the new class of safer and easier-to-understand loans — qualified mortgages. Such mortgages can’t include high-risk features such as negative amortization or interest-only payment provisions.

But careful underwriting of interest-only loans can ensure a low likelihood of default, said Wendy Cutrufelli, vice president of mortgage sales at San Francisco’s Bank of the West, which announced earlier this month that it would continue making such loans.

No one disputes that interest-only loans contributed to the mortgage meltdown. Like loans with initial “teaser” interest rates — or pay-option mortgages that allowed the balance to rise instead of fall — interest-only loans were mass-marketed as an affordability product during the housing boom. They then soured in large numbers when it turned out borrowers couldn’t or wouldn’t pay them over the long term. But interest-only loans made to wealthy borrowers have generally held up well, and many bankers have continued to write them for the jumbo mortgage market — loans too large for sale to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The definition of a jumbo loan varies but is never higher than $625,500.

Other banks that will continue to offer jumbo interest-only loans include Wells Fargo & Co., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and City National, which makes a point of emphasizing to analysts how its portfolio of jumbo mortgages, including interest-only loans, experienced almost no defaults during the housing bust.

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