Fair Lending Another Casualty of the Subprime Meltdown?

You'd have to do a lot to avoid discussion of the subprime mess and the effects that it is alleged to be having on the housing and financial markets (although we think there are more reasons for optimism than many, but more on that in another article). One area where we do have concerns is in the effect of the subprime cleanup on fair lending.

Fair lending compliance requires that regulated entitites (which includes essentially all retail mortgage lending institutions) provide government regulators specific facts on the mortgage applications they did and did not approve. These data are then examined statistically to determine if there is an observable pattern of discrimination in underwriting practices based on the treatment of members of protected groups.

In a recent article, the Washington Post describes the actions that lenders are taking to correct the underwriting excesses of the subprime boom. While the industry experts offer somewhat differing accounts of actions that are expected to be taken, all agreed that credit scores are going to lose some of their weight in the underwriting process, at least in the near term. To quote from the article,

But income matters now, and so does cash, said Sean O'Boyle, a vice president at SunTrust Mortgage in Chevy Chase. Lenders expect borrowers to have several month- worth of mortgage payments in reserve and a steady job. 'Job stability. Credit. Cash,' O'Boyle said. 'They're all equally important. Not one of them overshadows the other.'

Unfortunately, moving to a broader set of measures of creditworthiness, while intended as a means of tightening underwriting, could achieve just the opposite, and cause fair lending compliance issues to boot. Remember that the pressure to maintain and increase loan volumes fueled the use of exotic mortgages to increase the number of eligible borrowers. In the same way there will be pressure to use additional information to cherry pick borrowers with borderline credit scores.

Here's where fair lending compliance comes in - cherry picking borrowers based on any information not included in the compliance data provided to regulators introduces the risk that correlations will be found between protected group status and the probability of receiving a loan, even if no mortgage discrimination was ever intended. Is the value of cherry picking worth the potential compliance issues it might cause? We don't think so.

Here's a much less problematic solution to tightening underwriting requirements - demand higher credit scores from all borrowers and stick close to the information reported for fair lending compliance when making the underwriting decision. This would have none of the potential downside of including non-reported information and would require few changes to underwriting processes. It will be interesting to see if the pressure to maintain loan volumes or the need to assure regulatory compliance wins out.