Janet Jozwik leads RiskSpan’s sustainability analytics (climate risk and ESG) team. She is also an expert in mortgage credit risk and a recognized industry thought leader on incorporating climate risk into credit modeling. We sat down with Janet to get her views on whether the current macroeconomic environment should impact how mortgage investors prioritize their climate risk mitigation strategies.

You contend that higher interest rates are exposing mortgage lenders and investors to increased climate risk. Why is that?

JJ: My concern is primarily around the impact of higher rates on credit risk overall, of which climate risk is merely a subset – a largely overlooked and underappreciated subset, to be sure, and one with potentially devastating consequences, but ultimately one of many. The simple reason is that, because interest rates are up, loans are going to remain on your books longer. The MBA’s recent announcement of refinance applications (and mortgage originations overall) hitting their lowest levels since 2000 is stark evidence of this.

And because these loans are going to be lasting longer, borrowers will have more opportunities to get into trouble (be it a loss of income or a natural disaster) and everybody should be taking credit risk more seriously. One of the biggest challenges posed by a high-rate environment is borrowers don’t have a lot of the “outs” available to them as they do when they encounter stress during more favorable macroeconomic environments. They can no longer simply refi into a lower rate. Modification options become more complicated. They might have no option other than to sell the home – and even that isn’t going to be as easy as it was, say, a year ago. So, we’ve entered this phase where credit risk analytics, both at origination and life of loan, really need to be taken seriously. And credit risk includes climate risk.

So longer durations mean more exposure to credit risk – more time for borrowers to run into trouble and experience credit events. What does climate have to do with it? Doesn’t homeowners’ insurance mitigate most of this risk anyway?

JJ: Each additional month or year that a mortgage loan remains outstanding is another month or year that the underlying property is exposed to some form of natural disaster risk (hurricane, flood, wildfire, earthquake, etc.). When you look at a portfolio in aggregate – one whose weighted average life has suddenly ballooned from four years to, say eight years – it is going to experience more events, more things happening to it. Credit risk is the risk of a borrower failing to make contractual payments. And having a home get blown down or flooded by a hurricane tends to have a dampening effect on timely payment of principal and interest.

As for insurance, yes, insurance mitigates portfolio exposure to catastrophic loss to some degree. But remember that not everyone has flood insurance, and many loans don’t require it. Hurricane-specific policies often come with very high deductibles and don’t always cover all the damage. Many properties lack wildfire insurance or the coverage may not be adequate. Insurance is important and valuable but should not be viewed as a panacea or a substitute for good credit-risk management or taking climate into account when making credit decisions.

But the disaster is going to hit when the disaster is going to hit, isn’t it? How should I be thinking about this if I am a lender who recaptures a considerable portion of my refis? Haven’t I just effectively replaced three shorter-lived assets with a single longer-lived one? Either way, my portfolio’s going to take a hit, right?

JJ: That is true as far as it goes. And if in the steady state that you are envisioning, one where you’re just churning through your portfolio, prepaying existing loans with refis that look exactly like the loans they’re replacing, then, yes, the risk will be similar, irrespective of expected duration.

But do not forget that each time a loan turns over, a lender is afforded an opportunity to reassess pricing (or even reassess the whole credit box). Every refi is an opportunity to take climate and other credit risks into account and price them in. But in a high-rate environment, you’re essentially stuck with your credit decisions for the long haul.

Do home prices play any role in this?

JJ: Near-zero interest rates fueled a run-up in home prices like nothing we’ve ever seen before. This arguably made disciplined credit-risk management less important because, worst case, all the new equity in a property served as a buffer against loss.

But at some level, we all had to know that these home prices were not universally sustainable. And now that interest rates are back up, existing home prices are suddenly starting to look a little iffy. Suddenly, with cash-out refis off the table and virtually no one in the money for rate and term refis, weighted average lives have nowhere to go but up. This is great, of course, if your only exposure is prepayment risk. But credit risk is a different story.

And so, extremely low interest rates over an extended period played a significant role in unsustainably high home values. But the pandemic had a lot to do with it, as well. It’s well documented that the mass influx of home buyers into cities like Boise from larger, traditionally more expensive markets drove prices in those smaller cities to astronomical levels. Some of these markets (like Boise) have not only reached an equilibrium point but are starting to see property values decline. Lenders with excessive exposure to these traditionally smaller markets that experienced the sharpest home price increases during the pandemic will need to take a hard look at their credit models’ HPI assumptions (in addition to those properties’ climate risk exposure).

What actions should lenders and investors be considering today?

JJ: If you are looking for a silver lining in the fact that origination volumes have fallen off a cliff, it has afforded the market an opportunity to catch its breath and reassess where it stands risk-wise. Resources that had been fully deployed in an effort simply to keep up with the volume can now be reallocated to taking a hard look at where the portfolio stands in terms of credit risk generally and climate risk in particular.

This includes assessing where the risks and concentrations are in mortgage portfolios and, first, making sure not to further exacerbate existing concentration risks by continuing to acquire new assets in overly exposed geographies. Investors may be wise to go so far even to think about selling certain assets if they feel like they have too much risk in problematic areas.

Above all, this is a time when lenders need to be taking a hard look at the fundamentals underpinning their underwriting standards. We are coming up on 15 years since the start of the “Great Recession” – the last time mortgage underwriting was really “tight.” For the past decade, the industry has had nothing but calm waters – rising home values and historically low interest rates. It’s been like tech stocks in the ‘90s. Lenders couldn’t help but make money.

I am concerned that this has allowed complacency to take hold. We’re in a new world now. One with shaky home prices and more realistic interest rates. The temptation will be to loosen underwriting standards in order to wring whatever volume might be available out of the economy. But in reality, they need to be doing precisely the opposite. Underwriting standards are going to have tighten a bit in order effectively manage the increased credit (and climate) risks inherent to longer-duration lending.

It’s okay for lenders and investors to be taking these new risks on. They just need to be doing it with their eyes wide open and they need to be pricing for it.

Speak To an Expert