The Curious Case of the Jumbo Mortgage

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by Miranda Marquiton, a writer for RateZip.com 

Though it may feel like yesterday, it's been about half a decade since the housing bubble burst and the subprime mortgage crisis hit. In September 2008, the United States government took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Since then, the mortgage industry has undergone fundamental changes, experiencing both increased regulation and a large shift toward nationalization. To give you an idea of the size of these changes, in 2006 around 30% of mortgage loans in the US were backed by a government guarantee. This number rose to around 90% in 2012.

Private vs. Government Funding

As we move further from the financial crisis, it makes sense to start asking if and when the mortgage industry will return to a world where private money plays a greater role and government institutions such as Fannie, Freddie, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) play a smaller one. Recently, our representatives in Washington have begun to discuss plans to dissolve Fannie and Freddie and bring private money back into the game, and that's a good start. In the past few months, we've also seen a few encouraging trends in the jumbo mortgage market that could point toward a mortgage industry less reliant on government guarantees.

Jumbo Mortgages

If you're not familiar with a jumbo mortgage, the entire concept revolves around the type of loans that Fannie and Freddie are willing to guarantee. Fannie and Freddie will guarantee loans only up to $417,000 in value (sometimes more, but not important for this discussion), and these are referred to as conventional mortgages. A jumbo mortgage refers to one with a higher loan amount, typically $417,000 to $750,000, and these are not backed by a government guarantee. Prior to the financial crisis, jumbo loans were priced around .25% higher than conforming. After the financial crisis, the gap has widened to as much as 1.8%, just one more indicator of the flight of private capital.

Latest Trend

In September, something changed – by some measures, the rates on jumbo mortgages actually fell below the rates on equivalent conventional loans. This phenomena was covered in many media outlets, and you can read more detail here and here. As of this writing, the rates on a few popular websites are almost too close to tell the difference, with 30 year fixed rate conventional mortgages at 4.28% and jumbo 30 year fixed rate mortgages at 4.32%. Though it's only been one month, the fact that jumbo mortgage rates did not immediately diverge from conventional rates is a sign that we may be witnessing a trend.

There are countless ways to interpret the closing spread between jumbo and conventional mortgage rates. For example, banks with excess capital to lend may feel pressure to put this money to work, which one could argue is leading to higher demand for jumbo loans and thus lower rates. Another interesting interpretation, however, ties back to Fannie and Freddie. In recent years, both institutions have raised guarantee fees, the fees that are meant to compensate them for providing a guarantee on a mortgage. This makes conventional loans more expensive, which would help close the gap with jumbo loans in the other direction.

If you're in favor of more private market involvement within the mortgage industry, you may be wondering if falling jumbo mortgage rates are the first step in a path toward private options for conventional loan amounts. After all, at some point working with Fannie and Freddie may become prohibitively expensive, and the WSJ article linked earlier mentioned a mortgage lender encouraging borrowers to borrow more money to jump over conventional limits. It's far too early to tell, but this trend certainly deserves attention over the coming months.

Credit: The KCM Blog