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posted: 5/9/2014 12:01 AM

A case for looser credit scores

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WASHINGTON -- Are lenders' credit-score requirements for home purchasers this spring too high -- out of sync with the actual risks of default presented by today's borrowers? The experts say yes.

What experts? The developers of the credit scores used by virtually all mortgage lenders.

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Executives at both FICO, creator of the dominant credit score used in the mortgage industry, and up-and-coming competitor VantageScore Solutions confirmed to me last week that mortgage lenders could reduce today's historically high score requirements without raising their risks of loss. In the process, many prospective buyers who now can't qualify might get a shot at a loan approval.

Consider this: Consumer behavior in handling credit is subject to change over time, often keyed to regional or national economic conditions. Credit scores that were acceptable risks in the early 2000s -- say FICOs in the 640 to 680 range -- turned into larger than anticipated losers when the recession hit. Now that the housing rebound is well underway and federal regulators have imposed tighter standards on income verification and debt ratios, the high credit score "cutoffs" that virtually all mortgage lenders imposed in the scary aftermath of the crash are stricter than necessary.

FICO scores run from 300 to 850. Lower-risk borrowers have high scores, higher-risk people low scores. Early in the last decade, a FICO score of 700 was considered good enough for an applicant to get a lender's best deals or close to it. Today a 700 FICO just barely makes the grade -- 50-plus points below the average score for home purchase loans at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the big investors.

In an interview, Joanne Gaskins, senior director of scores and analytics for FICO, said statistical studies by her company have demonstrated that "the risk of default on more recent mortgage vintages is better than at the onset of recession" -- essentially real risk has reverted back to the early 2000s. A lot more people pay on time. As a result, she said, lenders can afford to "take a look" at their current strict scoring requirements and consider lowering them without sacrificing safety.

To illustrate how consumer behavior has improved, Gaskins cited one internal study that examined mortgage default data through 2011. At a FICO score level of 700 in 2005, roughly 36 borrowers paid their loans on time for every one who went into serious default. In 2011, by contrast, for every one defaulting mortgage borrower, roughly 91 paid on time. That's a huge decrease in risk to the lender.

VantageScore Solutions has documented a similarly dramatic improvement in mortgage borrower payment behavior. In an article scheduled for publication this week in Mortgage Banking, a trade journal, Barrett Burns, president and CEO of VantageScore, offers an analysis based on scores of 680 and 620 from 2003 through 2012. VantageScore's latest (3.0) scoring model uses a high risk to low risk scale of 300 to 850.

According to Burns, the probability of default at both score levels was lowest in 2003-05, then soared between 2006 and 2008 as the economy began deteriorating. By 2012, both scores were just slightly higher than 2005.

Burns notes that while auto lenders and credit card banks have adjusted their underwriting standards to these important changes in borrower risk, "the mortgage industry has been hesitant." In an interview, Burns emphasized that mortgage lenders could expand home purchase possibilities for large numbers of people simply by lowering score cutoffs. They wouldn't have to loosen up on their standards on down payments or debt ratios -- just their scores.

A research study last year by the Urban Institute and Moody's Analytics estimated that every 10-point reduction in mandatory credit scores on mortgages increases the pool of potential borrowers by 2.5 percent. A 50-point cut in score requirements, researchers found, would increase potential home purchases by 12.5 percent -- more than 12.5 million households.

At least one major bank has concluded that lowering scores is the way to go. Wells Fargo recently announced reductions in minimum acceptable scores for conventional loans to 620 from 660. The bank had earlier lowered the acceptable score threshold for FHA loans to 600.

Could this signal the start of some fresh thinking on credit scores, a trend other large lenders will pick up on? Let's see. If they do so, it should be a win-win for everybody involved.

• Write to Ken Harney at P.O. Box 15281, Chevy Chase, MD 20815 or via email at kenharney@earthlink.net.

© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

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