Prime Mortgages Going Bust at an Alarming Rate

Washington — Aftershocks from the nation’s financial crisis continue rumbling through the housing sector as fixed-rate mortgages held by the safest borrowers accounted for nearly 37 percent of new foreclosures during the first three months of this year, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported Wednesday.

Additionally, more than one in 10 homeowners were behind on their mortgage payments in the first quarter — a record, the association said. That’s up from 9.47 percent in the last three months of 2009.

Prime loans, those made to the safest borrowers with the highest credit scores, account for almost 66 percent of outstanding U.S. mortgages, so their rising foreclosure numbers are troubling.

“People with higher scores are defaulting at rates we have not seen in the past,” said Jay Brinkmann, the chief economist for the trade group.

The slide into foreclosure of the strongest borrowers is partly a function of the nation’s unemployment rate, which is now 9.9 percent. The Great Recession has mowed down white-collar and blue-collar workers alike.

In the first quarter, almost 21 percent of foreclosure starts were for adjustable-rate mortgages held by credit-worthy borrowers. Fixed and adjustable-rate prime mortgages combined accounted for more than 57 percent of all new foreclosures.

The MBA’s data also showed that more than 6 percent of fixed-rated prime mortgages were delinquent from January to March and more than 13 percent of all homeowners with adjustable-rate prime mortgages were behind on payments.

California — the most populous state, which accounts for more than 13 percent of all U.S. mortgages — seems to have turned a corner in housing problems. It held 21 percent of all foreclosure starts during the first quarter of 2009 but only 14.5 percent in the first quarter of 2010.

Florida improved but only slightly, from 16.1 percent of first-quarter 2009 foreclosure starts to 15.3 percent in the same period this year.

“We’re actually starting to see improvement in California. Florida is a little slower,” Brinkmann said.

Some analysts saw the report as a glass half full, partly because of a wide variation between the numbers when they were adjusted statistically for seasonal variation. Many numbers, when not seasonally adjusted, showed a slight improvement over the final quarter of 2009. These included a drop in delinquent loans.

“I’d say we’re probably hitting a turning point, but if you call me in six months, who knows?” said Patrick Newport, an economist who specializes in housing for forecaster IHS Global Insight. He pointed to the improving labor market and a drop in serious delinquencies reported by Fannie Mae, the mortgage finance giant.

One potentially troubling trend emerged: foreclosure starts rising in states that aren’t commonly viewed as housing-bubble states. Washington state posted the largest increase in foreclosure starts overall in 2010’s first quarter versus a year earlier, followed by Maryland, Oregon and Georgia. Washington state also posted the largest rise in foreclosure starts that involved prime and subprime adjustable-rate mortgages.

In another troubling trend, 42 states and the District of Colombia saw increased foreclosure starts for homes that were carrying FHA loans, which are considered among the safest. Only nine states, including Alaska and Idaho, saw foreclosure starts for FHA loans fall.

The rise in prime-mortgage foreclosures is important in the context of the sweeping revamp of financial regulation that’s moving through Congress. Big financial institutions are trying to defeat a provision that would require them to retain 5 percent of the mortgages that they underwrite or sell into a secondary market to be packaged into mortgage bonds. They argue that they shouldn’t have to do this for prime fixed-rate loans, but the latest data show that these loans aren’t immune to delinquency and foreclosure.

The data also suggest that the Obama administration’s efforts to reverse the rate of delinquencies and foreclosures haven’t been effective. The Treasury Department reported Monday that lenders or loan servicers had permanently modified only 68,000 mortgages in April, while more than 277,000 modification offers were canceled and presumed to be back on foreclosure tracks.

“It is jolting to see the persistence of the foreclosure epidemic,” Michael Calhoun, the president of the Durham, N.C.-based Center for Responsible Lending, said in a statement.