Risk-Based Pricing — NOT!

By: Tom Hannagan

The problem in the 2005 to 2007 home lending frenzy was not just granting credit to anyone who applied. It was giving loans to everyone at essentially the same price range regardless of normal credit risk scrutiny.

While “selling” financial services may be largely an art form, appropriate risk-based pricing is more of a science.

Although the financial press seemed to have discovered sub-prime lending in the last year or so, such high-risk lending isn’t new at all. It has been (and is still being) done since finance and money were invented. And, importantly, sub-prime lending has been done profitably by many lenders all along.  The secret to their success, not surprisingly, has always been risk-based pricing — even if they didn’t call it that until recent times.

Sub-prime funding has been available in many forms and from many sources. Providers range from venture capitalists to pawn shops. It includes pay-day lenders, micro loans, tax refund loans, consumer finance companies, and even dates to Shakespeare’s merchant of Venice.

We often hear complaints that the effective rates (prices) on loans from such sources are unfairly high and predatory. The cost of that credit is high, but so is the risk of that credit. Without these kinds of sources, and their high rates, there would not be any credit granted from for-profit sources to high-risk borrowers.

Listed firms that regularly provide pay-day loans or cash advances to sub-prime borrowers have very high gross margins and very high credit charge-offs, compared to banks. They also have much higher risk-based capital (or equity) positions that range from 40 percent to 60 percent of their average assets. This risk-based capital burden is much higher than the 8 to 10 percent found at commercial banks. So the sub-prime lenders have a significantly larger capital cushion than banks. Most of these financial results and ratios are examples of successful risk management where the credit risks are identified, managed, priced and backed by sufficient capital.

Then…along came the rose-colored greed of the housing bubble that resulted in aggressive building and selling of homes, loan originations to all (no-down, no-income, no-assets, no-problem mortgages), securities packaging and attractive ratings, and global leveraged investing — all by prime-oriented entities and all at prime-oriented prices. Well, obviously, it didn’t work.

Risk-based pricing of mortgages would have dissuaded many home buyers to begin with… but what would we have done with all of those shiny new homes? Realistic credit models (that took into account a full credit cycle and a huge proportion of sub-prime credits) would not have rated mortgage-backed securities as AAA. Regulators that were still focused on earnings correctness (the last major snafu) should have been looking into realistic net asset values. And highly compensated investment bankers, with 30-to-1 leverage ratios, would not have gone overboard with intuitively dodgy investments. Few of these players took risk management seriously.

The new danger is that banks are doing the whole thing in reverse. They are tightening lending standards — which is, of course, a euphemism for shutting off credit. The danger has nothing to do with so-called credit standards. It’s the general over-reaction of shutting off credit to all borrowers, again, without regard to relative risk. The latest Federal Reserve Board survey of senior loan officers paints a picture of rapid tightening to record levels.

We feel that credit standards should always improve AND that loan pricing should always proportionately reflect risk-adjusted rates and terms. Opening the flood gates and then slamming them shut is a very pro-cyclical behavior pattern on the part of bankers that doesn’t reflect a measured approach, borrower-by-borrower, using reasonable risk management at the client relationship level.