Monday, January 23, 2017

Why I like what Quicken is doing

There is a piece in the New York Times from yesterday that sort of implies that Quicken Loan's rapid rate of growth (they are now the second largest FHA lender after Wells-Fargo) must mean the lender is up to no good.  But unlike Countrywide and WAMU, whose growth in the previous decade was the result of unsound lending practices, Quicken has developed a business model that, in my view, can result in lending that is sounder than traditional lending, expanded access to credit, and reduce loan applicant frustration.

I suppose I should say here that I have no financial interest in Quicken (it is closely held, so I couldn't even if I wanted to). I met its CEO, Bill Emerson, once, and spoke to him on the phone once, and we had nice conversations, but I would hardly say we now each other socially (for all I know he wouldn't even remember talking with me).  I have also had cordial conversations with other Quicken executives, which I think gave me a little insight into how the company operates.

Yesterday's piece notes that Quicken is viewed more as a technology company than a mortgage company, but it doesn't expand on what that means.  Here is what I think it means--it uses technology to improve quality control and compliance, and to do its own underwriting.  Specifically, when a potential borrower applies for a loan using the Rocket Mortgage app, she gives permission to Quicken to download financial information from the IRS, bank accounts, and other accounts. Because the information flows directly from the source, loan applications are complete and accurate, and hence comply with an important requirement for FHA loans.

The information is then run through the FHA TOTAL scorecard, where it receives an accept or refer (a refer means that for a loan to be approved, it can be manually underwritten, but is often rejected) and through Quicken's own underwriting algorithm.  The executives I spoke with at Quicken told me that the algorithm is updated frequently.  My guess--I don't know this for a fact--is that the algorithm's foundation is the sort of regression that I discussed in a previous post.

As noted in that post, statistically based algorithms can both improve access to credit and the performance of loans.  As the pool of potential borrowers becomes less and less like previous borrowers (in terms of source of income, credit behavior, family participation in loan repayment, etc.), using data to continuously improve and refine underwriting will be important for sustaining the mortgage market.  To the extent that Quicken is doing this, it makes the mortgage market better.

This is not to say it would be good for Quicken ultimately to dominate the market (such dominance is never healthy).  It would be nice to see fast followers of Quicken to enter the market.  But I suspect the reason the company has grown so rapidly is that it has built a better mousetrap.

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