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Good News: Option ARM Resets Delayed


The bad news: Low home prices and high unemployment could still punish borrowers when the reset happens sometime next year

Finally, there might be some good news for struggling homeowners. Thousands of mortgage loans that were supposed to reset at a higher rate this spring won't be changing, putting off the grim threat of foreclosure or bankruptcy for many Americans by as much as a year. Unfortunately, the reprieve will only be a temporary one.

A year ago, real estate forecasters were warning that spring 2009 would be the start of a whole new wave of foreclosures. Across the country option adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs), an especially scary loan type often compared to a ticking time bomb, were set to detonate at an accelerating pace.

But something happened that few could have predicted. Interest rates dropped to historically low levels and the wave of resets could now be delayed until well into 2010. As a result, many borrowers—who have the option of making payments so low that they don't even cover the interest, which is then added to the original loan balance—now have some breathing room.

Third of Loans Deeply Delinquent

Credit Suisse (CS) estimates (click here to see the chart) that the resets will begin to accelerate next spring, rising from about $4 billion resetting in March 2010 to a peak of $14 billion in September 2011. The current level is about $1 billion. About $500 billion of option ARM loans are outstanding, according to the bank. "Things have gotten pushed out," says Chandrajit Bhattacharya, director in U.S. Mortgage Strategy for Credit Suisse. "Right now it looks like the big increase is probably going to be somewhere toward the middle of next year."

Option ARMs typically reset after five years, at which point the monthly bill increases 65% or more. About 37.5% of option ARMs originated in 2005 are still outstanding, 63% of the 2006 vintage are outstanding, and 82% of the 2007 loans remain, according to Barclays Capital (BCS). And about a third of the outstanding loans in these years are deeply delinquent.

In a given month, between 4% and 5% of borrowers who are current on their option ARMs taken out in 2006 and 2007 default in the following month, says Sandeep Bordia, Barclays' head of residential credit strategy, who also expects resets to be delayed until next year. "These things have been performing horrendously," Bordia said. "I don't know how much of it will last into the recast."

Moving Out of Option ARMs

But real estate analysts were predicting that many option ARMs would reset sooner as loan balances hit specified principal caps, typically 110% to 125% of the original principal. The decline in interest rates means that it would take much longer to hit the principal cap and many borrowers will instead face a reset only at the five-year mark.

The Mortgage Bankers Assn. is also estimating that the lower interest rates will delay the resets. But the group also expects that lenders will help borrowers move out of the option ARM products before they reset. Many of the investors who can't easily qualify for modifications and the borrowers beyond help have already lost their homes, says Michael Fratantoni, vice-president of single family research and policy development for the Mortgage Bankers Assn.

And the homeowners who are holding option ARMs when the wave of resets hits won't face as big a shock because interest rates have fallen, adds Fratantoni. "Interest rates have come down to the point where the resets that are going to occur are going to be a bit of a non-event," he says. "Very few borrowers will experience the recast." But Nicholas Chavarela, managing attorney for Orange (Calif.)-based America's Law Group, which represents borrowers negotiating modifications, says banks remain reluctant to reduce principal for underwater borrowers.

Cutting Debt-to-Income Ratios

The Obama Administration's loan modification plan, which only applies to owner-occupied homes, is a step in the right direction, Chavarela said. But lenders won't do what's needed unless they're forced to, he said.

Under the plan, taxpayers and participating lenders would share the cost of cutting borrowers' debt-to-income ratio to 31%. Loans terms could be extended to 40 years and interest rates dropped to as low as 2%. But option ARM borrowers would likely have to pay more each month, even with a modification, because they'd suddenly be required to pay both interest and principal. "The Obama plan needs to be built upon," Chavarela said.

But even if they can refinance many borrowers can't afford the higher payments. Philip Tirone, president of the Mortgage Equity Group in Los Angeles, said he reached out to borrowers with option ARMs, offering to help them refinance into a fixed-rate mortgage with a low interest rate. "For them, it's all about the payments," Tirone said.

Time to Work with Lenders

Keith Gumbinger, vice-president of HSH.com, a publisher of loan information in Pompton Plains, N.J., said the lower interest rates have helped to diminish the option ARM problem. But it remains unclear how many option ARMs are left to reset and how many borrowers will be able to get out of the loans before it's too late. Moreover, by the time they do reset it is unclear whether the economy will be better off. If home values and unemployment continue to weaken, it will become even harder to refinance. But the delay in resets gives some motivated borrowers time to work with lenders and negotiate a solution.

"I don't think this is going to be the tsunami that was forecasted a few years ago," Gumbinger said. "But it's probably bigger than a ripple in a pond."

Gopal writes about real estate for BusinessWeek in New York.

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