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.
The adoption of new technologies is transforming the mortgage industry. For instance, borrowers can now obtain a mortgage entirely online, and lenders use increasingly sophisticated methods to verify borrower income and assets. In a recent staff report, we present evidence suggesting that technology is reducing frictions in mortgage lending, such as reducing the time it takes to originate a mortgage, and increasing the elasticity of mortgage supply. These benefits do not seem to come at the cost of less careful screening of borrowers.
Since the onset of the housing crisis, a focus of policymakers has been to help underwater homeowners lower their monthly mortgage payments by refinancing, principally through the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP).