As of the end of 2020, about five and a half percent of active mortgages—about 2.7 million loans—were in the forbearance program, down from over 8% at its peak in March. That represents a large number of borrowers for servicers to deal with as they exit the program, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that an equally large number of foreclosures will follow.
The data, in fact, suggest just the opposite: as people have exited forbearance, they’ve done so successfully. According to Mortgage Bankers Association research, from July 2020 when borrowers began exiting the program through the end of the year, about 87% of them did so with a repayment plan in place, their loans reinstated, their missing payments deferred to the end of the loan, paid off the loan, or had a loan modification in place—all positive outcomes.
The remaining 13% of homeowners who left the program without a repayment plan of some sort in place are the ones who are probably most at risk of going into default. If these numbers remain consistent, about 325,000 people will exit the forbearance program over the next six to nine months without a plan in place. Some—but probably not all—of those loans will likely default.
Prior to the pandemic, foreclosure activity was running at about half of its normal rate. In a normal year, about 1% of loans are in some stage of foreclosure. In early 2020, it was between 0.5% and 0.6%, so loan quality was very high and loan performance was twice as good as normal. There were about a quarter-million loans in foreclosure when the pandemic hit. Presumably, most of them have been protected by the moratoria but all of those will eventually be coming back into the pipeline pretty rapidly once the moratoria are lifted.
To put these numbers into perspective, if we take the 250,000 loans that were in foreclosure prior to the pandemic and assume all 325,000 of the borrowers exiting forbearance without a plan in place will default, there would be 575,000 loans in foreclosure—a foreclosure rate of 1.15%, barely above the historic average, and a far cry from the 4% of loans in foreclosure at the peak of the Great Recession.
Why Defaults May Not Lead to Foreclosures
When borrowers default on a loan, it’s not unusual for the default to be resolved before the foreclosure. Loans are re-instated or refinanced, or the property is sold and the debt retired before the foreclosure auction. For financially distressed homeowners today, market dynamics provide a much better environment than what we saw during the last recession.
A primary difference this time is that homeowner equity is at an all-time high: over $6.5 trillion. According to RealtyTrac’s parent company ATTOM Data, about 70% of homeowners have more than 20% equity. Other published research has indicated that more than 90% of borrowers in forbearance have more than 10% equity in their properties. Homeowners with ample equity in a housing market characterized by historically low inventory of homes for sale, historically low mortgage rates and strong demand should be able to sell their properties—perhaps at a modest discount—in order to avoid a foreclosure. So even as we see the number of defaults increase as the forbearance program ends and foreclosure moratoria eventually expire, the record level of homeowner equity means that the overwhelming majority of distressed assets are likely to be sold well before the foreclosure auction.
Those same market dynamics also favor mortgage servicers and noteholders who find that foreclosure is the only option for some of their borrowers. Investors are eager to purchase properties at foreclosure auctions or as REO assets on the open market, and use sites like RealtyTrac to find, analyze, and target properties they plan to fix-and-flip or buy-and-rent. Competition between traditional homebuyers, individual investors, and institutional investors should drive up sales prices and shorten hold times, which helps servicers minimize losses for their clients.
The biggest challenge for default servicing professionals is going to be effectively managing the enormous volume of borrower contacts—and the subsequent loss mitigation processes associated with millions of delinquent loans—once the government moratoria and forbearance programs expire. Staying compliant with frequently changing state and local foreclosure regulations will add a layer of complexity as well.
The bottom line is that although the number of foreclosures is unlikely to approach the levels seen in the Great Recession, there’s a huge wave of default activity coming that will wipe out servicers who don’t plan ahead and make sure they have the people, processes, and technical resources ready to meet the challenge.
Source: Rick Sharga, DS News
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