The time has come for mortgage investors to start paying attention to climate risk.

Until recently, mortgage loan and MSR investors felt that they were largely insulated from climate risk. Notwithstanding the inherent risk natural hazard events pose to housing and the anticipated increased frequency of these events due to climate change, it seemed safe to assume that property insurers and other parties in higher loss position were bearing those risks. 

In reality, these risks are often underinsured. And even in cases where property insurance is adequate, the fallout has the potential to hit investor cash flows in a variety of ways. Acute climate events like hurricanes create short-term delinquency and prepayment spikes in affected areas. Chronic risks such as sea level rise and increased wildfire risk can depress housing values in areas most susceptible to these events. Potential impacts to property insurance costs, utility costs (water and electricity in areas prone to excessive heat and drought, for example) and property taxes used to fund climate-mitigating infrastructure projects all contribute to uncertainty in loan and MSR modeling. 

Moreover, dismissing climate risk “because we are in fourth loss position” should be antithetical to any investor claiming to espouse ESG principles. After all, consider who is almost always in the first loan position – the borrower. Any mortgage investment strategy purporting to be ESG friendly must necessarily take borrower welfare into account. Dismissing climate risk because borrowers will bear most of the impact is hardly a socially responsible mindset. This is particularly true when a disproportionate number of borrowers prone to natural hazard risk are disadvantaged to begin with. 

Hazard and flood insurers typically occupy the loss positions between borrowers and investors. Few tears are shed when insurers absorb losses. But society at large ultimately pays the price when losses invariably lead to higher premiums for everybody.    

Evaluating Climate Exposure

For these and other reasons, natural hazards pose a systemic risk to the entire housing system. For mortgage loan and MSR investors, it raises a host of questions. Among them: 

  1. What percentage of the loans in my portfolio are susceptible to flood risk but uninsured because flood maps are out of date? 
  2. How geographically concentrated is my portfolio? What percentage of my portfolio is at risk of being adversely impacted by just one or two extreme events? 
  3. What would the true valuation of my servicing portfolio be if climate risk were factored into the modeling?  
  4. What will the regulatory landscape look like in coming years? To what extent will I be required to disclose the extent to which my portfolio is exposed to climate risk? Will I even know how to compute it, and if so, what will it mean for my balance sheet? 

 

Incorporating Climate Data into Investment Decision Making

Forward-thinking mortgage servicers are at the forefront of efforts to get their arms around the necessary data and analytics. Once servicers have acquired a portfolio, they assess and triage their loans to identify which properties are at greatest risk. Servicers also contemplate how to work with borrowers to mitigate their risk.  

For investors seeking to purchase MSR portfolios, climate assessment is making its way into the due diligence process. This helps would-be investors ensure that they are not falling victim to adverse selection. As investors increasingly do this, climate assessment will eventually make its way further upstream, into appraisal and underwriting processes. 

Reliably modeling climate risk first requires getting a handle on how frequently natural hazard events are likely to occur and how severe they are likely to be. 

In a recent virtual industrial roundtable co-hosted by RiskSpan and Housing Finance Strategies, representatives of Freddie Mac, Mr. Cooper, and Verisk Analytics (a leading data and analytics firm that models a wide range of natural and man-made perils) gathered to discuss why understanding climate risk should be top of mind for mortgage investors and introduced a framework for approaching it. 

WATCH THE ENTIRE ROUNDTABLE

Building the Framework

The framework begins by identifying the specific hazards relevant to individual properties, building simulated catalogs of thousands of years worth of simulated events, computing likely events simulating damage based on property construction and calculating likely losses. These forecasted property losses are then factored into mortgage performance scenarios and used to model default risk, prepayment speeds and home price impacts. 

 

Responsibility to Borrowers

One member of the panel, Kurt Johnson, CRO of mega-servicer Mr. Cooper, spoke specifically of the operational complexities presented by climate risk. He cited as one example the need to speak daily with borrowers as catastrophic events are increasingly impacting borrowers in ways for which they were not adequately prepared. He also referred to the increasing number of borrowers incurring flood damage in areas that do not require flood insurance and spoke to how critical it is for servicers to know how many of their borrowers are in a similar position.

Johnson likened the concept of credit risk layering to climate risk exposure. The risk of one event happening on the heels of another event can cause the second event to be more devastating than it would have been had it occurred in a vacuum. As an example, he mentioned how the spike in delinquencies at the beginning of the covid pandemic was twice as large among borrowers who had just recovered from Hurricane Harvey 15 months earlier than it was among borrowers who had not been affected by the storm. He spoke of the responsibility he feels as a servicer to educate borrowers about what they can do to protect their properties in adverse scenarios.