Mortgage Debt to Keep Growing, Fueling More Servicing Volume

During the past 18 months, residential servicers have been slammed by runoff - thanks to the refinancing boom - but it appears the industry is finally in for some good news.

According to economists at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, mortgage debt outstanding (which translates into servicing rights) will continue to grow at a strong clip this year and interest rates might start rising in the second half.

An increase in rates, even a modest 25 to 50 basis points, could stem the barrage of refinancings.

Many mortgage bankers have posted strong earnings (thanks to their production units), but have had to set aside money for impairments on their investment (holdings) of residential servicing rights.

Fannie Mae chief economist David Berson predicts that mortgage debt (outstanding mortgages in the U.S.) will increase by about 8% this year, compared to gains of 11% in 2002 and 10% the year before.

Currently, there is about $6.1 trillion in mortgage debt in the

U.S., according to the Quarterly Data Report, an affiliate of Mortgage Servicing News. (Mortgage debt represents residential loans outstanding, including both first and second liens.)

Mr. Berson and Fannie anticipate that "cash-out" refinancings likely will remain strong during the first half of 2003.

Both Mr. Berson and Freddie Mac's Frank Nothaft believe home price appreciation will slow, but not collapse. (And neither, as reported several times already, think the U.S. is facing a house price bubble.)

"I think we're looking at 3% to 5% long-term growth in housing prices," said Mr. Nothaft at a recent Freddie Mac press briefing.

The economist thinks the Federal Reserve will start tightening credit in the second half. He said the refi boom has saved families, on average, about $100 a month in mortgage payments, or about $1,200 a year.

"That's the same stimulus as a tax cut," he said.

Mortgage default rates have risen a bit of late, he noted, but Freddie Mac does not anticipate that residential delinquencies will become a problem anytime in the near future.

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