The mortgage refinance business headed into 2013 on the upswing, but the pendulum swung swiftly in the other direction by year’s end. And this reversal included borrowers across the credit-score spectrum.
According to figures from Black Knight Financial Services (BKFS), which typically represent 60 percent to 70 percent of the mortgage market, the number and dollar volume of refis in the United States and Ninth District trended up in the second half of 2012, reaching a two-year high in the fourth quarter of 2012. Activity remained high in January 2013, when BKFS reported over 7,800 new refis worth almost $1.4 billion in the Ninth District.
But then refi activity began a steep slide (see Figure 1). Between January 2013 and January 2014, activity reported by BKFS fell by almost 80 percent, to about 1,600 new Ninth District refis worth less than $285 million. Most of the decline occurred after May, when mortgage interest rates began moving up from about 3.5 percent to a range of 4.2 percent to 4.5 percent in the second half of the year. By January 2014, Ninth District refi activity was at its lowest level in the past 10 years of BKFS data, even weaker than during the refinance bust of 2008 at the height of the Great Recession.
The sensitivity of refi activity to interest rates is easy to understand, since obtaining a lower rate is one of the main motives for refinancing. Big surges in refi activity have long tended to follow drops in mortgage rates, and just the reverse when mortgage rates rise.
However, grouping borrowers into low, medium and high credit score categories suggests that movements in housing prices have also influenced refi activity over the past 10 years (see Figure 2). For example, borrowers with low credit scores (below 660) have accounted for less than 10 percent of BKFS’s Ninth District refi dollar volume since the housing bust, but represented as much as a third of market volume during the housing boom (2004-06). Rising home prices at the time boosted borrowers’ home equity and made refinancing low-score borrowers seem safe to lenders and attractive to these borrowers, for whom cash-out refinancing (i.e., borrowing more than the former mortgage balance) was a cheap and accessible form of liquidity. When home prices fell and credit standards tightened after 2006, refi activity by low-credit-score borrowers crashed and has generally remained much lower.
By contrast, borrowers with high credit scores (780 or more) appear to refinance mostly to obtain lower mortgage rates. Since 2009, refi activity by these borrowers has accounted for about one-third to one-half of the value of Ninth District refinancings, a marked increase compared to the group’s share during the housing boom (less than 16 percent ), when the rate on 30-year conventional mortgages was trending up. As mortgage rates trended down over the next six years, and especially when they dipped abruptly, high-score mortgagors took advantage of these opportunities to lower their financing costs by elevating their refi activity.
Borrowers in the middle, with credit scores between 660 and 779, dominate the refi market, accounting for half to two-thirds of the value of Ninth District refinancings reported by BKFS since 2009 (compared to 65 percent to 70 percent a decade ago). These borrowers seem to have been sensitive to both interest rates and home prices. Like the low-score borrowers, their refi activity was on average higher during the housing boom than afterward. But, like the high-score borrowers, middle-score borrowers have refinanced fairly aggressively in response to post-boom interest rate dips.
Despite their varying refinance motives over the past decade, Ninth District mortgagors in all three credit score categories cut back sharply on refinancing in 2013. By January of 2014, the dollar volume of refi activity was down from January 2013 by 68 percent among low-score borrowers, 77 percent among middle-score borrowers and 85 percent among high-score borrowers. For all three groups, this represents the steepest 12-month fall over the past decade. The large scale and relative uniformity of the decline across credit score categories suggests that last year’s big rise in mortgage interest rates was indeed the main factor behind the refi crunch of late 2013.