What we observed during Covid represents a radical departure from what we observed pre-Covid. To what extent do these observations impact long-term trends observed for mortgage performance? Should these data fundamentally impact the way in which we think about the effects borrower, loan and macroeconomic characteristics have on mortgage performance? Or do we need to simply account for them as a short-term blip?

The process of modeling mortgage defaults and prepayments typically begins with identifying long-term trends and reference values. These aid in creating the baseline forecasts that undergird the model in its most simplistic form. Modelers then begin looking for deviations from this baseline created by specific loan, borrower, and property characteristics, as well as by key macroeconomic variables.

Identifying these relationships enables modelers to begin quantifying the extent to which micro factors like income, credit score, and loan-to-value ratios interact with macro indicators like the unemployment rate to cause prepayments and defaults to depart from their baseline. Data observations aggregated over extended periods give a comprehensive picture possible of these relationships.

In practice, the human behavior underlying these and virtually all economic models tends to change over time. Modelers account for this by making short-term corrections based on observations from the most recent time periods. This approach of tweaking long-term trends based on recent performance works reasonably well under most circumstances. One could reasonably argue, however, that tweaking existing models using performance data collected during the Covid-19 era presents a unique set of challenges.

What was observed during Covid represents a radical departure from what was observed pre-Covid. To what extent do these observations impact long-term trends and reference values. Should these data fundamentally impact the way in which we think about the effects borrower, loan and macroeconomic characteristics have on mortgage performance? Or do we need to simply account for them as a short-term blip?


How Covid-era mortgage data differs

When it comes to modeling mortgage performance, we generally think of three sets of factors: 1) macroeconomic conditions, 2) loan and borrower characteristics, and 3) property characteristics. In determining how to account for Covid-era data in our modeling, we first must attempt to evaluate its impact on these factors.

Three macroeconomic factors have played an especially significant role recently. First, as reflected in the chart below, we experienced a significant home-price decline during the 2008 financial crisis but a steady increase since then.

Second, mortgage rates continued to decline for the most part during the crisis and beyond. There were brief periods when they increased, but they remained low by and large.

The third piece is the unemployment rate. Unemployment spiked to around 10 percent during the financial crisis and then slowly declined.

When home prices declined in the past, we typically saw the government attempt to respond to it by reducing interest rates. This created something of a correlation between home prices and mortgage rates. Looking at this from a purely statistical viewpoint, the only thing the historical data shows is that falling home prices bring about a decline in mortgage rates. (And rising home prices bring about higher interest rates, though to a far lesser degree.) We see something similar with unemployment. Falling unemployment is correlated with rising home prices.

But then Covid arrives and with it some things we had not observed previously. All the “known” correlations among these macroeconomic variables broke down. For example, the unemployment rate spikes to 15 percent within just a couple of months and yet has no negative impact at all on home prices. Home prices, in fact, continue to rise, supported by the very generous unemployment benefits provided during Covid pandemic.

This greatly complicates the modeling. Here we had these variable relationships that appeared steady over a period of decades, and all of our modeling was being done (knowingly or unknowingly) relying on these correlations, and suddenly all these correlations are breaking down.

What does this mean for forecasting prepayments? The following chart shows prepayments over time by vintage. We see extremely high prepayment rates between early 2020 (the start of the pandemic) and early 2022 (when rates started rising). This makes sense.

Look at what happens to our forecasts, however, when rates begin to increase. The following chart reflects the models predicting a much steeper drop-off in prepayments than what was actually observed for a July 2021 issuance Fannie Mae major of coupon 2.0. These mortgage loans with no refinance incentive are prepaying faster than what would be expected based on the historical data.

What is causing this departure?

The most plausible explanation relates to an observed increase in cash-out refinances caused by the recent run-up in home prices and resulting in many homeowners suddenly finding themselves with a lot of home equity to tap into.  Pre-Covid , cash-outs accounted for between a third and a quarter of refinances. Now, with virtually no one in the money for a rate-and-term refinance, cash-outs are accounting for over 80 percent of them.

We learn from this that we need to incorporate the amount of home equity gained by borrowers into our prepayment modeling.

 Modeling Credit Performance

Of course, Covid’s impacts were felt even more acutely in delinquency rates than in prepays. As the following chart shows, a borrower that was 1-month delinquent during Covid had a 75 percent probability of being 2-months delinquent the following month.

This is clearly way outside the norm of what was observed historically and compels us to ask some hard questions when attempting to fit a model to this data.

The long-term average of “two to worse” transitions (the percentage of 60-day delinquencies that become 90-day delinquencies (or worse) the following month) is around 40 percent. But we’re now observing something closer to 50 percent. Do we expect this to continue in the future, or do we expect it to revert back to the longer-term average. We observe a similar issue in other transitions, as illustrated below. The rates appear to be stabilizing at higher levels now relative to where they were pre-Covid. This is especially true of more serious delinquencies.

How do we respond to this? What is the best way to go about combining this pre-Covid and post-Covid data?

Principles for handling Covid-era mortgage data

One approach would be to think about Covid data as outliers that should be ignored. At the other extreme, we could simply accept the observed data and incorporate it without any special considerations. A split-the-difference third approach would have us incorporate the new data with some sort of weighting factor for use in future stress scenarios without completely casting aside the long-term reference values that had stood the test of time prior to the pandemic.

This third approach requires us to apply the following guiding principles:

  1. Assess assumed correlations between driving macro variables: For example, don’t allow the model to assume that increasing unemployment will lead to higher home prices just because it happened once during a pandemic.
  2. Choose short-term calibrations carefully. Do not allow models to be unduly influenced by blindly giving too much weight to what has happened in the past two years.
  3. Determine whether the new data in fact reflects a regime shift. How long will the new regime last?
  4. Avoid creating a model that will break down during future unusual periods.
  1. Prepare for other extremes. Incorporate what was learned into future stress testing
  1. Build models that allow sensitivity analyses and are easy to change/tune. Models need to be sufficiently flexible that they can be tuned in response to macroeconomic events in a matter of weeks, rather than taking months or years to design and build an entirely new model.

Covid-era mortgage data presents modelers with a unique challenge. How to appropriately consider it without overweighting it. These general guidelines are a good place to start. For ideas specific to your portfolio, contact a RiskSpan representative.