The MBA Refinance Index rises despite higher interest rates
The Refinance Index fell 0.2% (from 1,693 to 1,690), as rates fell 2 basis points. Refinances have been dropping like a stone, as the people who have equity in their homes have already refinanced and the ones left with high rates are underwater.
The MBA reported that the share of refinance applications fell to 61.5%. Going forward, home price appreciation will drive refinance activity as previously underwater homeowners eventually get back to positive equity and take advantage of lower rates. Slowing refinance activity will be a negative for originators like PennyMac (PMT) and Redwood Trust (RWT). It has already taken its toll on Nationstar (NSM), which reported disappointing earnings.
Policy could have an impact, though. President Obama gave a speech regarding housing in which he said he wants everyone to be able to refinance. That means HARP 3.0 (another wave of the Home Affordable Refinance Program), which would presumably extend to non-government mortgages and would have a later cutoff date than early 2009. If this happens, expect another refinance wave. This would be music to the ears of mortgage originators, and it helps explain why the Mortgage Bankers Association endorsed Watt as the next FHFA Chair. Mel Watt’s first move was to cut planned fee increases for the GSEs, which would have increased the cost of a mortgage by a point or more on the higher LTV loans.
Implications for mortgage REITs
Refinancing activity affects prepayment speeds, which are a critical driver of mortgage REIT returns. Prepayment speeds occur because homeowners are allowed to pay off their mortgage early, without penalty, and when interest rates fall, those who can refinance at a lower rate do. This is good for homeowners. However, it isn’t necessarily good for mortgage lenders—especially REITs. When homeowners prepay, the investor loses a high-yielding asset and is forced to reinvest the proceeds in a lower-rate investment. This means lower returns going forward. A rise in prepayment speeds could negatively affect REITs, like American Agency Capital Corp. (AGNC), Annaly Capital Management, Inc. (NLY), Hatteras Financial Corp. (HTS), CYS Investments, Inc. (CYS), and Capstead Mortgage Corporation (CMO). That said, the increase in rates has basically put prepayment worries on the back burner for REITs. The lack of a reaction in the refinance index on the back of a drop in rates could mean we’re finally seeing prepayment burnout. This would be good news for REITs.
However, as rates increase, prepayments become less of a problem for REITs. But increasing rates bring their own set of problems, and REITs face mark-to-market hits on their portfolio and must adjust their hedges to a more volatile interest rate environment. Mortgage-backed securities outperform in stable interest rate environments, but they’re highly vulnerable to interest rate shocks. As we’ve seen from the mortgage REIT earnings so far, virtually everyone is reporting a substantial decline in book value, as higher rates have taken their toll. It would be ironic to see the only silver lining of increased rates (lower prepayment speeds) taken away from the REITs as well.