WASHINGTON - Adjustable-rate mortgages, shunned by consumers in the early 1990s, are once again the home loan of choice.
About 55% of new mortgages in November carried adjustable rates, up from 49% in October and less than 20% a year earlier, according to the Federal Housing Finance Board.
The dramatic increase stems in part from rising interest rates. In times of higher rates, consumers typically look more closely at adjustables because their rates, at least initially, are markedly lower than those of fixed loans.
In addition, experts say, adjustables are getting a boost from a structural shift in the mortgage industry. Commercial banks have been storming into the market, often through acquisitions, and they have exhibited voracious appetites for adjustables.
As a result, some of the recent gains may prove to be permanent.
"ARMs in general will represent a larger portion of the market than they have in the past," said Arthur D. Ringwald, executive vice president of residential lending at Bank of America.
Consumer acceptance of the loans has risen, he says. And, with the increased participation of banks, "a lot of marketing muscle has been added to ARMs."
In fact, Mr. Ringwald said he expects the loans to thrive in "all economic environments."
Adjustables were hardly winners over the past several years. After grabbing nearly 65% of the market in 1988, the loans declined steadily, to 20% of all mortgages in 1993.
Why? Consumers were flocking to fixed mortgages to lock in the lowest interest rates in a generation. And mortgage banking companies, which typically specialize in fixed mortgages, aggressively supported the trend.
Now, however, rates on fixed mortgages are averaging 9.4% - up from 7.3% a year ago. Initial rates on adjustables are also up - but remain more than 2.5 percentage points below those of fixed loans. A number of homebuyers can now qualify only for adjustables, because the payments on fixed loans would be too steep.
Commercial banks, which have been boosting their mortgage activities as part of broader pushes into consumer banking, generally have found adjustables to fit well in their portfolios. As a result, observers say, banks have been joining thrifts in pricing their adjustables aggressively.
Banks "are definitely more aggressive than they were two to four years ago in acquiring mortgage assets," said Mark L. Korell, chief executive officer of GMAC Mortgage Group, Minneapolis.
And ARMs are a natural fit because they allow banks to match their assets and liabilities, Mr. Korell said.
In November, 69% of all home loans made by commercial banks were ARMs.
Luke Hayden, executive vice president of Chemical Residential Mortgage Co., agreed with Mr. Ringwald that the growing involvement of banks in home loans would bolster adjustable-rate loans over the long term.
"It's fair to say that, but I wouldn't shout it from the rooftops," said Mr. Hayden. The loans, he noted, do present some risks to banks because they typically feature periodic and lifetime caps on interest rates.
Mr. Hayden attributed the strength of adjustables last year to growing consumer comfort with the loans, the use of derivatives to hedge the funding risks, and the proliferation of investors, such as banks, thrifts, and mutual funds.
He and others, however, suggested that the popularity of adjustables may have peaked for now. Because of a reduction in the spread between short- term and long-term interest rates, the initial rates on adjustables have lost some of their consumer appeal.
At Chemical, loan applications for ARMs are now about 45% of all applications, down from the low 50s a month ago, Mr. Hayden said.