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Must-know: Credit is easing as origination gets more competitive

Brent Nyitray, CFA, MBA

Ellie Mae is a software provider that aggregates mortgage origination activity

Ellie Mae (ELLI) puts out a monthly Origination Insight Report. The report provides monthly data and analysis from a sample of closed loan applications that flow through Ellie Mae’s Encompass 360 Mortgage Management Software. In many ways, it’s similar to the way Automatic Data Processing (ADP) reports employment data in that it mines the data it receives from its clients who use its solutions. The Origination Insight report is based off a relatively robust sample—44% of all applications initiated on its system. Ellie Mae reports on the characteristics of loans that were approved or denied, along with factors like credit scores, loan-to-value (or LTV) data, and debt-to-income (or DTI) ratios. Ellie Mae estimates that its software is used on 20% of all U.S. mortgage originations.

(Read more: Homebuilders breathe a sigh of relief as mortgage rates fall)

Is credit beginning to thaw?

Average FICO scores are finally starting to fall. After plateauing at 750 for most of late summer and fall, average FICO scores for approved loans have fallen to 734, which is approaching normalcy. During the bubble years, credit was very lax, and average FICO scores were around 720 for 2006, 2006, and 2007.  After the bubble burst, credit became very tight, and average FICOs increased to 757. Now that the refinance market is drying up, lenders are taking more risk in order to drive business.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau had hoped that the new Qualified Mortgage (or QM) rule would have eased credit conditions somewhat. The QM rule sets standards for new mortgages that codify the “ability to repay” rules. Exotic mortgages—like negative-amortizing (pick-a-pay) loans or high-cost loans—are ineligible for qualified mortgages. The CFPB has set a debt-to-income ceiling of 43%. FICO scores aren’t part of the equation. In return, borrowers are unable to sue a lender if they end up defaulting. Credit is becoming easier to get. But the question is whether that’s due to home price appreciation or due to the QM rule.

(Read more: Why you should consider the mortgage applications indices)

Implications for homebuilders

Homebuilders, like Lennar (LEN), Meritage (MTH), Standard Pacific (SPF), Ryland (RYL), and KB Home (KBH), rely on a functioning capital market in order to do business. Restricted credit not only hurts them in that some of their potential customers are unable to qualify for a loan, but their customers are also often move-up buyers who need to sell their starter homes. The first-time homebuyer has been squeezed by a difficult job market and an unforgiving credit market. Add to these difficulties the fact that the first-time homebuyer is lugging a tremendous amount of student loan debt. If they can’t put up 20%, they’re more or less stuck with FHA loans in order to buy a house. This predicament for first-time homebuyers has helped drive the rental boom and the jump in multi-family construction.

As the job market improves, it will repair credit scores and more people should be eligible for a mortgage. A number of homebuilders noted that a tight credit market remained a headwind, but that backlog and orders were strong. The West Coast builders especially noted strength. As credit conditions ease and consumer balance sheets are repaired, homebuilders can expect increased activity for the next few years.

(Read more: Bernanke’s comments send mortgage rates screaming higher)

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