Ability-to-repay rules put in place following the 2008 recession — the disastrous result of years of de-regulated mortgage lending — require residential mortgage lenders to make a “reasonable and good faith effort to verify that the applicant is able to repay the loan.” [12 Code of Federal Regulations §§1026.43 et seq.]

To simplify matters for lenders, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), along with other federal agencies, introduced the qualified mortgage (QM), a category of loans that automatically meet the rules.

To meet the definitions, lenders need to verify applicant criteria such as income, employment, debt-to-income ratios (DTIs) and assets. Likewise, the mortgage offered needs to meet criteria like limits on the mortgage term, points and fees and payment ratios.

The benefit for originating a mortgage that meets these criteria is, for the lender, greater protection or safe harbor if the homebuyer defaults and, for the homebuyer, a more competitive interest rate and terms.

However, one notable requirement is missing — there is no minimum down payment requirement included in the QM or QRM rule.

Before the QM was adopted as the gold standard, two categories of acceptable mortgages were floated, the QM and the qualified residential mortgage (QRM).

Originally, it was expected that the QRM rules would have stricter rules, including the need for a higher down payment. But when the rules were finalized in 2014, the agencies in charge chose to align the QRM rules with the QM. The potential down payment rule did not make it into the final QRM ruling.

Excluding a down payment requirement was a big miss for overall housing market stability. The federal agencies in charge reasoned a 20% down payment requirement would limit mortgage access for low- and moderate-income homebuyers. But at the same time, any down payment below 20% requires the added expense of private mortgage insurance (PMI), inflating overall borrowing costs for low- and moderate-income homebuyers unable to muster a 20% down payment.

The agencies’ approach — championed by trade associations like the California Association of Realtors (CAR) — was to qualify as many mortgages as QRMs, rather than actually making any changes in the mortgage market. In their words, their aim was “reducing regulatory burden.” Thus, more mortgages will be originated under the current QRM and QM, but this comes at a steep price: lower principal amounts due to PMI and a higher risk of increased defaults due to a lack of skin in the game from low-down-payment homebuyers.

Of course, the agencies were correct: imposing a down payment requirement was sure to have decreased mortgage originations at the start. But it would have meant a more stable housing market over the long-term cycles of boom and bust. Short-term discomfort for long-term stability.

A better, alternative approach would have been for the agencies to have imposed a graduated down payment requirement. first tuesday’s suggestion is to introduce this graduated down payment plan, to increase over several years, giving time for homebuyers to plan and adjust. This might start with a minimum 5% down payment, to increase gradually over the next 7-10 years, at which time the minimum down payment to qualifying homebuyers for the QRM will be set at 20%.

A graduated minimum down payment plan helps avoid the pitfall of lost homebuyers and steep drop-off of sales volume that an immediate 20% down payment requirement would cause. But, unlike the current rules, it would ensure long-term housing market stability, even during future recessions.