Late Mortgage Payments at 3 1/2-Year High; Foreclosures at Record High

A national crisis in the home mortgage industry cast a dark shadow that stretched from Wall Street to Main Street as foreclosures hit a record high in the last quarter of 2006, and the number of Americans failing to make their monthly mortgage payment hit a 3 1/2-year high during the same period.

The Mortgage Bankers Association, in its quarterly snapshot of the mortgage market released Tuesday, reported that the percentage of payments that were 30 or more days past due for all loans tracked jumped to 4.95 percent in the October-to-December quarter.

The association's survey covers 43.5 million loans.

That marked a sharp rise from the third-quarter's delinquency rate of 4.67 percent and was the worst showing since the spring of 2003, when the late-payment rate climbed to 4.97 percent.

The percentage of mortgages that started the foreclosure process in the final quarter of last year rose to 0.54 percent, a record high. The previous high, 0.50 percent, occurred in the second quarter of 2002 as the economy was recovering from the blows of the 2001 recession.

The nationwide percentage of mortgages now in foreclosure rose to 1.19 percent.

Delinquency and foreclosure rates were considerably higher for higher-risk "subprime" borrowers, especially those with adjustable-rate mortgages.

Lenders to subprime borrowers — people with blemished credit histories — have been battered. Rising interest rates and weak home prices have made it increasingly difficult for these borrowers — especially those with adjustable-rate mortgages — to keep up with their mortgage payments. Delinquencies and foreclosures in the subprime mortgage market are spiking.

The late-payment rate for all subprime loans jumped to 13.33 percent in the fourth quarter, up from 12.56 percent in the prior period and the highest in four years. The delinquency rate for subprime borrowers with adjustable-rate mortgages was even higher — 14.44 percent, also the highest in four years.

The association's report comes as mounting worries about risky mortgages are making investors jittery. Those fears also contributed to a worldwide stock meltdown on Feb. 27, where the Dow Jones industrials suffered a 416-point plunge.

Worried about defaults on high-risk mortgages, federal bank regulators earlier this month called on lenders to use caution in making subprime loans and strictly evaluate borrowers' ability to repay them.

New Century Financial Corp. (NEW), which was the nation's second-largest subprime mortgage maker, is scrambling to stay afloat after all its bank lenders cut off funding or informed the company of their intent to do so because of its failure to make payments. The Irvine, Calif.-based company already has stopped accepting all new loan applications.