An old saying declares that every cloud has a silver lining. After last week's torrent of miserable news, one can be forgiven for questioning the sanity of the saying's originator.
Let's start with the heaviest downpour: According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, more than 2% of the nation's 46 million mortgage loans were in the foreclosure process in the fourth quarter of 2007, with 0.83% of loans entering the process during the quarter. Both figures are the highest they've been in 35 years.
What's more, neither figure is likely to improve soon. The delinquency rate for home loans hit 5.82% in the fourth quarter, up almost a quarter percentage point from the previous quarter and the highest since 1985, when the rate topped 6%. The latest increases affected all loan types, but were most pronounced for subprime, adjustable-rate mortgages (no surprise).
The data explain the growing attention paid to proposals aimed at encouraging lenders to write down the value of troubled loans. "Principal reductions that restore some equity for the homeowner may be a relatively more effective means of avoiding delinquency and foreclosure," commented Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. With low or negative equity in their home, a stressed borrower has less ability – because there is no home equity to tap – and less financial incentive to try to remain in the home, so the reasoning goes.
It's a tough sell; the last thing lenders want now is to become ensnared in an uncontrollable, morally hazardous spiral of debt forgiveness.
Meanwhile, the number of people who can afford houses has decreased. Payrolls fell by 63,000, the biggest drop since March 2003, after a decline of 22,000 in January, the Labor Department reported on Friday. The jobless rate also declined to 4.8%, reflecting a shrinking labor force, as more people gave up seeking work.
The silver lining in these pessimism-heavy clouds is that prime-mortgage rates reversed course and dropped, with the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaging 6.32%, the 15-year fixed-rate mortgage averaging 5.79% and the five-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage averaging 5.72% last week, according to Bankrate's weekly survey. (But even this lining is tarnished; Bankrate admits rates spiked after collecting its data.)
Eric P. Egeland