The Great Pandemic Mortgage Refinance Boom
Total debt balances grew by $148 billion in the first quarter of 2023, a modest increase after 2022’s record growth. Mortgages, the largest form of household debt, grew by only $121 billion, according to the latest Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit from the New York Fed’s Center for Microeconomic Data. The increase was tempered by a sharp reduction in both purchase and refinance mortgage originations. The pandemic boom in purchase originations was driven by many factors – low mortgage rates, strong household balance sheets, and an increased demand for housing. Homeowners who refinanced in 2020 and 2021 benefitted from historically low interest rates and will be enjoying low financing costs for decades to come. These “rate refinance” borrowers have lowered their monthly mortgage payments, improving their cash flow, while other “cash-out” borrowers extracted equity from their real estate assets, making more cash available for consumption. Here, we explore the refi boom of 2020-21–who refinanced, who took out cash, and how much potential consumption support these transactions provided. In this analysis, as well as the Quarterly Report, we use our Consumer Credit Panel (CCP), which is based on anonymized credit reports from Equifax.
First-Time Buyers Did Not Drive Strong House Price Appreciation in 2021
In May 2022, Sam Khater—chief economist for Freddie Mac—argued that a surge in first-time buyers had been an important driver of the housing market the previous year. In contrast, using data from the New York Fed Consumer Credit Panel, we find that the share of home purchases by first-time buyers fell in 2021. This suggests that other factors were important to the rapid increase in house prices in 2021.
First-Time Buyers Were Undeterred by Rapid Home Price Appreciation in 2021
Tight inventories of homes for sale combined with strong demand pushed up national house prices by an eye-popping 19 percent, year over year, in January 2022. This surge in house prices created concerns that first-time buyers would increasingly be priced out of owning a home. However, using our Consumer Credit Panel, which is based on anonymized Equifax credit report data, we find that the share of purchase mortgages going to first-time buyers actually increased slightly from 2020 to 2021.
Refinance Boom Winds Down
Total household debt balances continued their upward climb in the first quarter of 2022 with an increase of $266 billion; this rise was primarily driven by a $250 billion increase in mortgage balances, according to the latest Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Creditfrom the New York Fed’s Center for Microeconomic Data. Mortgages, historically the largest form of household debt, now comprise 71 percent of outstanding household debt balances, up from 69 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019. Driving the increase in mortgage balances has been a high volume of new mortgage originations, which we define as mortgages that newly appear on credit reports and includes both purchase and refinance mortgages. There has been $8.4 trillion in new mortgage debt originated in the last two years, as a steady upward climb in purchase mortgages was accompanied by an historically large boom in mortgage refinances. Here, we take a close look at these refinances, and how they compare to recent purchase mortgages, using our Consumer Credit Panel, which is based on anonymized credit reports from Equifax.
If Prices Fall, Mortgage Foreclosures Will Rise
In our previous post, we illustrated the recent extraordinarily strong growth in home prices and explored some of its key spatial patterns. Such price increases remind many of the first decade of the 2000s when home prices reversed, contributing to a broad housing market collapse that led to a wave of foreclosures, a financial crisis, and a prolonged recession. This post explores the risk that such an event could recur if home prices go into reverse now. We find that although the situation looks superficially similar to the brink of the last crisis, there are important differences that are likely to mitigate the risks emanating from the housing sector.
Does the Rise in Housing Prices Suggest a Housing Bubble?
House prices have risen rapidly during the pandemic, increasing even faster than the pace set before the 2007 financial crisis and subsequent recession. Is there a risk that another dangerous housing bubble is developing? This is a complicated question, and the answer has many components. This post, the first of two, provides a more detailed look at the recent rise in home prices by breaking it down geographically, with a comparison to the pre-2007 bubble. The second post looks at the potential risks to financial stability by comparing the currently outstanding stock of mortgage debt to the period before the financial crisis and projecting defaults should prices decline.
The Housing Boom and the Decline in Mortgage Rates
During the pandemic, national home values and housing activity soared as mortgage rates declined to historic lows. Under the canonical “user cost” house price model, home values are held to be very sensitive to interest rates, especially at low interest rate levels. A calibration of this model can account for the house price boom with the observed decline in interest rates. But empirically, we find that home values are nowhere near as sensitive to interest rates as the user cost model predicts. This lower sensitivity is also found in prior economic research. Thus, the historical experience suggests that lower interest rates can only account for a tiny fraction of the pandemic house price boom. Instead, we find more scope for lower interest rates to explain the rise in housing activity, both sales and construction.
Who Received Forbearance Relief?
Forbearance on debt repayment was a key provision of the CARES Act, legislation intended to combat the widespread economic losses stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. This pause on required payments for federally guaranteed mortgages and student loans has provided temporary relief to those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and servicers of nonfederal loans often provided forbearances or other relief on request as well. Here, using a special survey section fielded with the August 2020 Survey of Consumer Expectations, we aim to understand who benefitted from these provisions. Specifically, were there differences by age, race, income, and educational background? Did individuals who suffered job or income losses benefit differentially? Did renters receive more or less nonhousing debt relief than homeowners? Answers to these questions are not only key for understanding the economic recovery and implications for inequality and equitable growth, they can provide important insight into the expected effects of more recent and potential future legislation.
Consumer Credit Demand, Supply, and Unmet Need during the Pandemic
It is common during recessions to observe significant slowdowns in credit flows to consumers. It is more difficult to establish how much of these declines are the consequence of a decrease in credit demand versus a tightening in supply. In this post, we draw on survey data to examine how consumer credit demand and supply have changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The evidence reveals a clear initial decline and recent rebound in consumer credit demand. We also observe a modest but persistent tightening in credit supply during the pandemic, especially for credit cards. Mortgage refinance applications are the main exception to this general pattern, showing a steep increase in demand and some easing in availability. Despite tightened standards, we find no evidence of a meaningful increase in unmet credit need.
What Happens during Mortgage Forbearance?
As we discussed in our previous post, millions of mortgage borrowers have entered forbearance since the beginning of the pandemic, and over 2 million remain in a program as of March 2021. In this post, we use our Consumer Credit Panel (CCP) data to examine borrower behavior while in forbearance. The credit bureau data are ideal for this purpose because they allow us to follow borrowers over time, and to connect developments on the mortgage with those on other credit products. We find that forbearance results in reduced mortgage delinquencies and is associated with increased paydown of other debts, suggesting that these programs have significantly improved the financial positions of the borrowers who received them.