The RiskSpan Vintage Quality Index (“VQI”) is a monthly index designed to quantify the underwriting environment of a monthly vintage of mortgage originations and help credit modelers control for prevailing underwriting conditions at various times. Published quarterly by RiskSpan, the VQI generally trends slowly, with interesting monthly changes found primarily in the individual risk layers. (Assumptions used to construct the VQI can be found at the end of this post.) The VQI has reacted dramatically to the economic tumult caused by COVID-19, however, and in this post we explore how the VQI’s reaction to the current crisis compares to the start of the Great Recession. We examine the periods leading up to the start of each crisis and dive deep into the differences between individual risk layers. Reacting to a Crisis In contrast with its typically more gradual movements, the VQI’s reaction to a crisis is often swift. Because the VQI captures the average riskiness of loans issued in a given month, crises that lower lender (and MBS investor) confidence can quickly drive the VQI down as lending standards are tightened. For this comparison, we will define the start of the COVID-19 crisis as February 2020 (the end of the most recent economic expansion, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research), and the start of the Great Recession as December 2007 (the first official month of that recession). As you might expect, the VQI reacted by moving sharply down immediately after the start of each crisis. Though the reaction appears similar, with each four-month period shedding roughly 15% of the index, the charts show two key differences. The first difference is the absolute level of the VQI at the start of the crisis. The vertical axis on the graphs above displays the same spread (to display the slope of the changes consistently), but the range is shifted by a full 40 points. The VQI maxed out at 139.0 in December 2007, while at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the VQI stood at just 90.4. A second difference surrounds the general trend of the VQI in the months leading up to the start of each crisis. The VQI was trending up in the 18 months leading up the Great Recession, signaling an increasing riskiness in the loans being originated and issued. (As we discuss later, this “last push” in the second half of 2007 was driven by an increase in loans with high loan-to-value ratios.) Conversely, 2019 saw the VQI trend downward, signaling a tightening of lending standards. Different Layers of Risk Because the VQI simply indexes the average number of risk layers associated with the loans issued by the Agencies in a given month, a closer look at the individual risk layers provides insights that can be masked when analyzing the VQI as a whole. The risk layer that most clearly depicts the difference between the two crises is the share of loans with low FICO scores (below 660). The absolute difference is striking: 27.9% of loans issued in December 2007 had a low FICO score, compared with just 7.1% of loans in February 2020. That 20.8% difference perfectly captures the underwriting philosophies of the two periods and pretty much sums up the differing quality of the two loan cohorts. FICO trends before the crisis are also clearly different. In the 12 months leading up to the Great Recession the share of low-FICO loans rose from 24.4% to 27.9% (+3.2%). In contrast, the 12 months before the COVID-19 crisis saw the share of low-FICO loans fall from 11.5% to 7.2% (-4.3%). The low-FICO risk layer’s reaction to the crisis also differs dramatically. Falling 27.9% to 15.4% in 4 months (on its way to 3.3% in May 2009), the share of low-FICO loans cratered following the start of the recession. In contrast, the risk layer has been largely unimpacted by the current crisis, simply continuing its downward trend mostly uninterrupted. Three other large drivers of the difference between the VQI in December 2007 and in February 2020 are the share of cash-out refinances, the share of loans for second homes, and the share of loans with debt-to-income (DTI) ratios above 45%. What makes these risk layers different from FICO is their reaction to the crisis itself. While their absolute levels in the months leading up to the Great Recession were well above those seen at the beginning of 2020 (similar to low-FICO), none of these three risk layers appear to react to either crisis but rather continue along the same general trajectory they were on in the months leading up to each crisis. Cash-out refinances, following a seasonal cycle are mostly unimpacted by the start of the crises, holding a steady spread between the two time-periods: Loans for second homes were already becoming more rare in the runup to December 2007 (the only risk layer to show a reaction to the tumult of the fall of 2007) and mostly held in the low teens immediately following the start of the recession: Finally, loans with high DTIs (over 45%) have simply followed their slow trend down since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, while they actually became slightly more common following the start of the Great Recession: The outlier, both pre- and post-crisis, is the high loan-to-value risk layer. For most of the 24 months leading up to the start of the Great Recession the share of loans with LTVs above 80% was well below the same period leading up to the COVID-19 crisis. The pre-Great Recession max of 33.2% is below the 24-month average of 33.3% at the start of the COVID-19 crisis. The share of high-LTV loans also reacted to the crisis in 2008, falling sharply after the start of the recession. In contrast, the current downward trend in high-LTV loans started well before the COVID-19 crisis and was seemingly unimpacted by the start of the crisis. Though the current downward trend is likely due to increased refinance activity as mortgage rates continue to crater, the chart seems upside down relative to what you might have predicted. The COVID-19 Crisis is Different What can the VQI tell us about the similarities and differences between December 2007 and February 2020? When you look closely, quite a bit. The loans experiencing the crisis in 2020 are less risky. By almost all measures, the loans that entered the downturn beginning in December 2007 were riskier than the loans outstanding in February 2020. There are fewer low-FICO loans, fewer loans with high debt-to-income ratios, fewer loans for second homes, and fewer cash-out refinances. Trends aside, the absolute level of these risky characteristics—characteristics that are classically considered in mortgage credit and loss models—is significantly lower. While that is no guarantee the loans will fare better through this current crisis and recovery, we can reasonably expect better outcomes this time around. The 2020 crisis did not immediately change underwriting / lending. One of the more surprising VQI trends is the non-reaction of many of the risk layers to the start of the COVID-19 crisis. FICO, LTV, and DTI all seem to be continuing a downward trend that began well before the first coronavirus diagnosis. The VQI is merely continuing a trend started back in January 2019. (The current “drop” has brought the VQI back to the trendline.) Because the crisis was not born of the mortgage sector and has not yet stifled demand for mortgage-backed assets, we have yet to see any dramatic shifts in lending practices (a stark contrast with 2007-2008). Dramatic tightening of lending standards can lead to reduced home buying demand, which can put downward pressure on home prices. The already-tight lending standards in place before the COVID-19 crisis, coupled with the apparent non-reaction by lenders, may help to stabilize the housing market. The VQI was not designed to gauge the unknowns of a public health crisis. It does not directly address the lessons learned from the Great Recession, including the value of modification and forbearance in maintaining stability in the market. It does not account for the role of government and the willingness of policy makers to intervene in the economy (and in the housing markets specifically). Despite not being a crystal ball, the VQI nevertheless remains a valuable tool for credit modelers seeking to view mortgage originations from different times in their proper perspective. ————— Analytical and Data Assumptions Population assumptions: Issuance Data for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Loans originated more than three months prior to issuance are excluded because the index is meant to reflect current market conditions. Loans likely to have been originated through the HARP program, as identified by LTV, MI coverage percentage, and loan purpose are also excluded. These loans do not represent credit availability in the market, as they likely would not have been originated today if not for the existence of HARP. Data Assumptions: Freddie Mac data goes back to December 2005. Fannie Mae data only goes back to December 2014. Certain Freddie Mac data fields were missing prior to June 2008. GSE historical loan performance data release in support of GSE Risk Transfer activities was used to help back-fill data where it was missing.  Note that the VQI’s baseline of 100 reflects underwriting standards as of January 2003.