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Raising Conforming Loan Limit Not a Simple Task

February 12, 2008

By Matt Carter
Inman News

Raising conforming loan limit not a simple task

Fannie, Freddie may have to tiptoe into 'jumbo light' market

Monday, February 11, 2008

By Matt Carter Inman News

While Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration will soon be allowed to dive into what until now has been the jumbo loan market, it remains to be seen how many borrowers will benefit.

Congress and the Bush administration have agreed to raise the $417,000 conforming loan limit until the end of the year, under a provision of the $150 billion economic stimulus package approved by Congress last week (see Inman News story).

But the devil, as they say, will be in the details. The new formula for determining the conforming loan limit will allow Fannie, Freddie and FHA to guarantee loans of up to 125 percent of the median home price of an area.

While housing markets where the median home price exceeds $216,840 will benefit from higher limits for FHA loan guarantee programs, one analysis suggests Fannie and Freddie will be able to tiptoe into the jumbo loan business in only 19 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs).

The first step to be taken to implement the changes will be determining median home prices. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has been given 30 days to publish median-home-price data once President Bush signs the stimulus package into law.

But where will HUD get the data? And with prices falling rapidly in many markets, will the data be updated monthly, quarterly or annually?

HUD spokesman Lemar Wooley said FHA will use a combination of existing government data sets and available commercial information to determine the median sales price. He said FHA loan limits are based on the county a property is located in, except when the county is part of a larger MSA, in which case the county with the highest loan limit determines the limit for the entire MSA.

Not only does HUD have to come up with median-home-price numbers for every housing market in America, but Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will have to come up with credit guidelines for a class of loans that, until now, has mostly been off-limits. The government-chartered mortgage financiers will have to decide what their standards will be for the loans they will purchase, or securitize and guarantee.

As they venture into the jumbo loan market, Fannie and Freddie will have to decide if they need to be more cautious about the minimum down payments they will accept, borrower's credit histories, and the fees they charge for taking on more risk. The task will be complicated by the fact that the maximum loan size will vary from market to market, instead of the uniform $417,000 limit in place today in 48 states other than Alaska and Hawaii.

In high-cost markets, the $417,000 conforming loan limit for loans eligible for purchase or guarantee by Fannie and Freddie will be raised to 125 percent of the median home price, with an upper cap of $729,750. That formula means that the $417,000 conforming loan limit will remain in place in markets where the median home price is $333,600 or less.

While there's no time limit for Fannie and Freddie to publish guidelines for the new class of loans, the companies have promised to work with regulators to expedite the process. James Lockhart, director of the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, told members of the Senate Banking Committee Thursday that the process could take months.

The temporary increase in the conforming loan limit is likely to have a bigger impact on FHA loan guarantee programs, because the current limits for FHA are lower. In high-cost markets, the current ceiling for FHA loan programs is $372,790, and $200,160 in other markets.

The new ceiling for FHA loan programs in normal markets will be $271,050 -- meaning that even borrowers in housing markets where the median home price is below $216,840 may be eligible for FHA-backed purchase or refinance loans up to that amount. In areas where the median home price is above $216,840, the limit for FHA loan programs will be 125 percent of the median home price, all the way up to $729,750.

Fannie and Freddie will be allowed to buy and securitize jumbo loans originated any time between July 1, 2007 and Dec. 31, 2008. That means jumbo lenders may be able to sell some of the loans they've made in the last seven months to Fannie and Freddie, freeing them up to make more loans.

One reason Congress and the Bush administration agreed to raise the conforming limit, at least for now, is that Wall Street investors will no longer buy most mortgage-backed securities that don't carry the backing of Fannie, Freddie or FHA. That means borrowers are paying about 1 percent more for jumbo loans that exceed the $417,000 conforming loan limit.

But there's no guarantee investors will accept the jumbo loans backed by Fannie and Freddie -- which are private, publicly traded companies that face potentially billions of losses in the current mortgage morass -- as safe investments. They may also need some time to familiarize themselves with how FHA is handling the larger loans, said Jaret Seiberg, an analyst with Stanford Group Co. who follows the secondary mortgage market.

"Investors understand the risk characteristics of conforming mortgages that are securitized by Fannie and Freddie, and they understand FHA-backed loans securitized through Ginnie Mae," Seiberg said. "But they don't have experience with jumbo loans coming out of those channels. In a market with so much uncertainty, it's a real question whether investors are going to have an appetite for a new product."

If Wall Street investors don't snatch up the larger loans backed by Fannie, Freddie and FHA after they are securitized, that would limit the benefits to the secondary mortgage market and do less to ease the credit crunch than backers of the move have hoped.

As Fannie's and Freddie's losses mount and they bump up against minimum capital requirements, their capacity to purchase and guarantee loans is not unlimited. And as Lockhart noted, it takes three times as much capital to guarantee one $600,000 loan as it does one $200,000 loan.

While Seiberg is confident that HUD can implement higher loan limits for FHA programs, he said Fannie and Freddie have technological and capital issues to overcome before they become "meaningful players" in the "jumbo light" market.

As to which housing markets might benefit from higher conforming loan limits, Seiberg said Stanford Group used median-home-price data from the National Association of Realtors to analyze where Fannie and Freddie might be able to purchase or guarantee loans above the current $417,000 limit.

Stanford Group identified 19 markets -- more than a third of them in California -- where Fannie and Freddie could enter the jumbo light market.



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