A topic of particular current interest is the state of the ARM market, particularly with respect to the factors that drive ARM lending rates. Despite the record-low levels of fixed mortgage rates, the mortgage “curve” remains fairly steep; the national average for agency 5/1 ARM rates is around 2.80%, roughly 100 basis points lower than the 30-year conforming rate. Consumer ARM rates remain fairly volatile and unpredictable, especially when compared to fixed mortgage offerings. To understand this better requires a bit of background on the ARM sector.

The popularity of ARMs has typically waxed and waned. ARMs had a burst of popularity in 2003, and remained en vogue until their poor credit performance gave the product a taint of disrespectability after the mortgage meltdown in 2007. ARM lending activity continues to be depressed; according to the MBA’s most recent report, just over 5% of applications (by loan count) were taken as ARMs last week. What is interesting, however, is the likelihood that much of ARM issuance is in the jumbo sector; the MBA data also shows that the average size of an ARM loan application is $473K, over double the size of the average fixed-rate loan ($198K).

At this time, virtually all jumbo ARM production winds up on the books of banks. In part, this is because there is currently no reliable securitization outlet for non-agency loans of any kind. However, banks and depositories are happy to hold high-quality ARM loans in their investment portfolios. Their relatively short durations means that they have less exposure to price fluctuations than fixed-rate loans; they also expose institutions to less risk of shifts in the yield curve. Lenders will often retain the loans they fund for their portfolios; there are also fairly active markets in whole-loan ARM packages, where originators sell their issuance of ARM loans (mostly jumbo loans, at this time) to banks and other depository institutions.

One reality for lenders, however, is that many buyers are small- and mid-size banks whose appetites for the product can be sporadic. The intermittent nature of whole-loan ARM demand is reflected in the prices quoted by investors for ARM loans and, ultimately, in the offerings to borrowers. By contrast, most conforming-balance ARM loans are securitized in agency MBS pools. The agency ARM market is much less liquid than the fixed-rate market, however, even during periods where ARMs lending is popular. In the current environment, liquidity is further constrained by the lack of issuance and tradeable supply (or “float”). (One paradox of trading is that a lack of issuance results in illiquidity; illiquidity results in lower prices for the resulting securities; lower prices result in reduced issuance.) In addition, ARM liquidity is also impaired by the nature of the product. Unlike in the fixed-rate MBS market, there is no TBA market that allow for the forward trading of fungible obligations.  The illiquidity of the ARM markets means that pricing for the securities tends to be sporadic and somewhat volatile, which in turn is reflected in correspondent loan pricing.

Finally, ARM loan pricing is impacted by the pricing of ARM servicing. ARMs tend to experience very high rates of prepayment, with speeds peaking around the time that ARMs experience their first rate resets. The fast and irregular prepayment speeds exhibited by the product means that ARM servicing generally is valued at relatively low multiples. As with the pricing of the other components, weak servicing valuations are reflected in the prices offered by investors for ARM loans.