Yield Spread is a Beneficial Tool That Can Be Misused
If you read the papers and the congressional record on the current housing crisis, you might think yield spread is the central culprit for the entire meltdown. You would be wrong.
Yield spread is a beneficial tool, offered voluntarily by lenders, that is an alternative to consumers paying all of the costs of a mortgage themselves.
No matter who does your loan, broker or direct lender, they need to get paid for doing it. If they cannot make money at it, they won't be in the business of doing loans. There are high cost loans and low cost loans, and any number of ways of paying those costs, but there is no such thing as a free loan, and anybody who pretends otherwise is either a naive child or lying through their teeth. There are a very few loan providers out there who will finish loans on which they don't make anything in order to keep their promise about the terms of that loan to clients, but there has never been a loan in the history of the world where the provider planned not to make anything.
Yield spread arises as a by-product of the price that the lender receives on the secondary market. For thirty year fixed rate conforming loans, as of a couple days ago, at 5.5%, lenders were making about 20 cents per hundred dollars over the actual dollar value, in addition to the roughly $1.30 per hundred dollars the lowest priced lender I had was charging brokers. For a $300,000 loan, this means they were making roughly $4500 for a loan where the broker did all the work from attracting the customer onwards through the rest of the loan (the rate cost three points in the one direct branch I saw last week, so they'd be making about $9600 there). None of this covers all the fees for service, aka closing costs, or loan price adjustors. This is purely from the act of putting the money to the deal. At 6.00%, the lenders were making about $1.56 per $100 of loan amount directly, and that's about where wholesale par was, the loans that brokers could do without any explicit charge for the money. The direct branch wanted a point and a half to do that loan. Finally, at 6.5, they were making about $2.31 per hundred dollars directly from the secondary market, and they were agreeing to give brokers about seventy-five cents of that in the form of Yield Spread.
What this boils down to is that wholesale lender is looking to make about 1.5% of the loan amount, no matter what loan the consumer is put into, merely for the act of loaning the money. It is out of the difference between the number the wholesale lenders charge, and what their retail lending branches charge, that brokers make their living. If brokers can get the loan done for less than the retail branch, and still make money, the consumer comes out ahead.
There is no requirement for lenders to offer Yield Spread. They don't do so to enable brokers to hose customers that they would rather have walking into their own retail branches. They do it to compete for the business of people who have discovered that using brokers is actually a way to get the same loan cheaper. They do so because other lenders do so. Because they really want that $1.50 per hundred dollars loaned, they'll willingly give up most of any amount over that to encourage brokers to come to them, rather than the other lender. As I've said, in loans there is no difference in brand names. It's just money. So long as the terms are the same, it really doesn't matter if you're making the check for payments out to "International Megabank, Inc" or "Fifty-Third Bank of Podunk," and that really is the only difference. In fact, using brokers as a way to expand their reach is one of the ways small lenders can become major players quickly, without the expense of opening branches. More than one major household name has done precisely that. By the way, this $1.50 per hundred dollars loaned is very low by historical standards - it was roughly $2.50 twelve months ago, and twelve months before that it was more like $4.00. But there's a lot of money chasing not very many borrowers right now. Nor is any of this in any way evil. As a matter of fact, it has enabled much lower interest rates for consumers than the traditional lending model where the lenders held the loans for the duration.
Nor do lenders like paying yield spread. They'd rather have the entire secondary market premium for themselves. They offer it for one reason and one reason only: Because the brokers would otherwise take their clients to a different lender who did offer it. Most brokers operate on a set margin per loan, especially the better ones. The good ones are willing to disclose this margin, the bad ones will do everything they can to hide it. This margin may vary between loans. If borrower A is a slam-dunk A paper borrower, that loan can be done a lot more easily than a sub-prime borrower who needs to qualify based upon bank statements, and will eat up a lot less of my time and therefore, the loan should be done on a thinner margin. Whatever this margin is, it can be paid via origination (a charge for doing the application and getting the loan done), it can be paid via flat dollar charge to the borrower, it can be paid via yield spread, or it can be paid via a combination of these. But it is going to get paid. When I quote a loan, I quote it in terms of terms and total cost to the consumer, including what I make, and if I'm not going to make enough to make it worth my while to leave home, I'd rather not do the loan. Others quote higher, building a bit in that they're prepared to negotiate away if the client asks. Still others just make believe that they're going to deliver the loan on better terms than they will actually deliver it to get you to sign up with them - but the chances of anyone actually pricing the loan so as not to make anything are zero. Consumers looking to tell the difference between better and worse providers should ask for a Loan Quote Guarantee, as well as all the other Questions you should ask loan providers.
Yield spread is nota cost paid by consumers. It doesn't show up anywhere in the list of charges they pay. Were its disclosure not mandated by federal law, the consumer would have absolutely no evidence of its existence except, possibly, the absence of other charges or the fact that they have been paid without the consumer having to shell out a dime. I agree with the disclosure law, by the way. Indeed, I want to expand it to require lenders to disclose the secondary market premium they would be paid assuming they sold the loan. Now consumers do pay for yield spread indirectly, of course, with increased interest charges during the life of the loan. But they pay those same charges whether incurred as a result of a broker earning yield spread or a lender being able to make the money on the secondary market. Furthermore, paying those charges will be to the consumer's benefit if the increased charges for interest offset or more than offset the higher fees they would have to pay in order to get a lower rate. Most consumers do not keep their loans long enough to justify the higher fees for a lower interest loan. Similarly, if the loan is going to go to from a fixed or set rate to a variable rate loan before the higher costs for a lower rate have been recouped, whatever wasn't recovered before that happens has been wasted, as all the loans of a given type reset to the same rate when they adjust - doesn't matter whether you got a zero cost loan out of Yield Spread, or you paid five points to buy the rate down, and therefore the payment. But the 4.875% 3/1 that closes today will in three years reset to the exact same rate and payment as they 6.25% 3/1. Well, not exactly. Because assuming they did what most borrowers do and roll those costs into the loan, that 4.875% loan will have a higher balance owed than the one that was initially 6.25%, and therefore will have a higher payment when they both reset. So yield spread has done the latter borrower a favor by helping them control overall loan costs.
Let's look at what happens if we count yield spread as part of the costs of the loan. First off, it makes it appear as if loans including yield spread are more expensive than ones without. This gives direct lenders an advantage over brokers. Let's consider an actual real world example: A few days ago, a retail lending branch offered one of my prospects a 6.125% loan for one point, while he came back to me and I locked him into for 6.125% for ZERO points, a price which included me making about nine tenths of a point in yield spread. Assuming closing costs are the same (in fact, mine are lower than theirs), here's what the client sees now on a loan with a $300,000 loan payoff. (I'm also going to assume anything other than actual costs, such as prepaid interest, are paid out of pocket)
This reflects reality. The client ends up with a loan balance $3060 lower, and a payment $18.59 lower, through getting exactly the same thirty year fixed rate loan through me as he would have gotten through that lender.
But if I have to count yield spread as a part of the cost of the loan to the consumer despite the fact that he's not paying it, here's what the sheet looks like:
Note that it now looks like the consumer is paying almost as much for the broker loan as for the lender loan. They're not. Keep in mind that this is for exactly the same thirty year fixed rate loan at 6.125% - except that the consumer's loan balance if they go through the broker ends up $3000 lower. That $2726.10 in yield spread is not a cost to the consumer. Indeed, Yield Spread is only a cost to the lender. Note that the consumer's balance and payments in no way reflect yield spread, and my client has been told about it, but really doesn't care. Being a rational consumer, he shopped for the loan on the best terms to him and his family. He doesn't care if I'm making ten cents or ten million dollars. All he cares about is I get him the exact same thing for a cost that is thousands of dollars less. But if Yield Spread is listed as part of the cost on the Good Faith Estimate (or MLDS in California), then it appears as if that lender's loan is a lot more competitive than it really is, i.e. $5950 to $5626, not the reality of $5960 to $2900. Furthermore, this was an uncommonly broad difference, that still looks like the broker is offering a better loan. Far more common is a differential spread of half a point or so. If the price differential were only half a point, the broker's loan would look more expensive, while being in fact less expensive to the consumer who doesn't know yield spread is an accounting phantom as far as they are concerned. The consumer would still be saving money with the broker - about $1500, a full 25% of the actual costs of the loan, but listing yield spread as a cost makes it appear as if the lender's loan is cheaper when it is in fact more expensive.
Furthermore, listing yield spread as a cost has some other effects. Suppose you live in an area where the cost of housing is about $60,000 to $80,000 or less. Under the same bill in congress proposing to count yield spread as a cost to consumers even though it is not, is a provision limiting total costs of loans to six percent. Six percent of $60,000 is $3600. Six percent of $80,000 is $4800. There literally is not a loan that a broker can do under these limits. I can't keep the doors open on $700 per loan, which is all that's left after those $2900 of fixed closing costs at the low end. It's not like I get to spend every dollar the company makes on my family. Even at the higher end, it's probably not worth my while to accept a loan on which I can only make $1900. Effect: Brokers in those areas go out of business, but direct lenders are still in business, lessening competition. They can jack up the rates until the secondary market will pay them enough, and secondary market premiums aren't part of costs, even in the artificial environment of this new bill. Result: Rates rise, lending margins rise, competition is less. Big Winner: direct lenders, who clean up with all the extra money they make. Big Loser: brokers, who go out of business. Of course, consumers lose, too, as do real estate agents because prices are lower as a direct result of higher rates, but hey, that's okay because the bankers who bundle million dollar campaign contributions made out!
Suppose you live in an area, such as I do, where the cost of housing and loans is enough higher for this not to be a danger. One cold hard fact is that there are still people who bought years ago that bankers have a free field with because brokers cannot legally do their loans and still make enough money to keep the doors open. Consider a $200,000 loan, where 6% is $12,000, so the maximum loan cost just isn't a factor. Such a person, realizing that they've owned this property ten years and refinanced five times, decides they want a zero cost loan, because they'll come out better. Well, a broker can still get them a loan that doesn't really cost them anything, but brokers no longer are legally capable of calling it a zero cost loan, because legally, yield spread is a cost. All we can do is call it by some name that sounds like a legalistic way to lie. So now lenders can advertise "true zero cost loans," and brokers are breaking the law if they try, despite the fact that they offer the same loan at zero real cost to the consumer with a rate a quarter of a percent less than the lender will. Indeed, for all the low cost options, the lenders now appear to be cheaper than brokers even though they are not. Also found in this same legislation currently in Congress is a provision to make it illegal for brokers to get part of their compensation via yield spread and part via origination. This is the vast majority of my current loan business, because it's the range where the Tradeoff between rate and cost is best for consumers. Say I figure I need eight tenths of a point to make a loan worthwhile for me to do. If the yield spread for the rate the customer chooses is three tenths of a point, I need a half point of origination to make it work. But now I can't do this loan the simple way. I have to charge eight tenths origination, and even though I agree to rebate the three tenths of a point of yield spread to the consumer - in other words, it's going into the borrowers pocket, not mine or anyone else's, it still legally counts as a cost of the loan. So the new accounting with the requirement of adding double counting the yield spread to the official cost of the loan makes it look like the broker's loan costs 1.1 points, even though the consumer is only paying five tenths net, getting three tenths of a point in their pocket. If the trade off was seven tenths of yield spread to one of origination, it looks like a 1.5 point loan by this new accounting, even though the consumer is only paying one tenth of a point. Result: Consumers are going to have to have an accounting degree to realize that the broker's loan, which looks more expensive, is in fact the cheaper loan.
Needless to say, this is the exact opposite of what the government should be looking to do. But the mortgage banking industry has much bigger pockets than the mortgage broker industry, and they realized quite early on in this whole meltdown that if they painted brokers and yield spread as bad and controlled the narrative and their bought friends in congress controlled congressional testimony, they could make this entire housing meltdown for which they were more responsible than any other group into a public relations opportunity to restore the dominance of residential lending they had forty years ago. Bankers don't like paying yield spread, and they don't like competing with brokers, whose costs are lower because nobody expects brokers to have flawlessly landscaped offices with three inch think carpet, security guards, and armored bank vaults, or to wear $2000 suits. They do so only through what they saw as a tragedy of the commons type mechanism, where they could compete for broker's business at the costs of lessening their own margins, or not get any. Of course, this tragedy for lenders was a boon for consumers, but their responsibilities are to their own bottom line, and if they can legally shackle brokers, not to mention legally keeping their competition among other lenders from competing for broker business, those lenders are all better off.
Who's not better off? Well, basically everyone. Lessened competition, loan documents that make it appear as if one provider's loans are more expensive than actual while not making equivalent disclosures about other provider's loans, all of this translates into higher loan prices for consumers. It may seem penny ante to object to consumers paying a few hundred dollars extra here, a few thousand dollars extra there, but when you put it together across 100 million units or more, this translates into hundreds of billions per year, all sliced into fewer pie portions because the lending industry just effectively got a lot smaller, and with brokers diminished the costs of entry just got a lot steeper for any new lenders who want a piece of the action.
Yield spread is a tool, and a highly beneficial one from consumer's point of view. It has been one of the largest contributing factors in the rise of brokers, and through brokers, of making mortgages more affordable to consumers. It is not a cost to the consumer, and should not be treated as such, although it should be disclosed, as it is required to be. It can be misused, as it was in the case of negative amortization loans, but the ultimate indictment there goes back to the lenders who offered the loans and the high yield spreads, with regulators and mortgage brokers solely in supporting roles. Indeed the best way to fix this entire problem for the future would be to fix the disclosure rules to make the process clear to the consumer, as I wrote last month in How to Avoid A Repeat of the Housing Market Mess - but if Congress starts to fix those, nobody would be able to hose the consumers, and (sarcasm on) we can't have that, can we?
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