Source: Wikipedia.org article, adapted under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ license.

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In finance, subprime lending (also referred to as near-prime, non-prime, and second-chance lending) means making loans to people who may have difficulty maintaining the repayment schedule, sometimes reflecting setbacks, such as unemployment, divorce, medical emergencies, etc. Historically, subprime borrowers were defined as having FICO scores below 640, although “this has varied over time and circumstances.”

These loans are characterized by higher interest rates, poor quality collateral, and less favorable terms in order to compensate for higher credit risk. Many subprime loans were packaged into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and ultimately defaulted, contributing to the financial crisis of 2007–2008.

Proponents of subprime lending maintain that the practice extends credit to people who would otherwise not have access to the credit market. Professor Harvey S. Rosen of Princeton University explained, “The main thing that innovations in the mortgage market have done over the past 30 years is to let in the excluded: the young, the discriminated-against, the people without a lot of money in the bank to use for a down payment.”

In the United States the amount of student loan debt recently surpassed credit card debt, hitting the $1 trillion mark in 2012. In other countries such loans are underwritten by governments or sponsors. Many student loans are structured in special ways because of the difficulty of predicting students’ future earnings. These structures may be in the form of soft loans, income-sensitive repayment loans, income-contingent repayment loans and so on. Because student loans provide repayment records for credit rating, and may also indicate their earning potential, student loan default can cause serious problems later in life as an individual wishes to make a substantial purchase on credit such as purchasing a vehicle or buying a house, since defaulters are likely to be classified as subprime, which means the loan may be refused or more difficult to arrange and certainly more expensive than for someone with a perfect repayment record.

Although there is no single, standard definition, in the United States subprime loans are usually classified as those where the borrower has a FICO score below 640. The term was popularized by the media during the subprime mortgage crisis or “credit crunch” of 2007. Those loans which do not meet Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac underwriting guidelines for prime mortgages are called “non-conforming” loans. As such, they cannot be packaged into Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac MBS.

A borrower with an outstanding record of repayment on time and in full will get what is called an A-paper loan. Borrowers with less-than-perfect credit ‘scores’ might be rated as meriting an A-minus, B-paper, C-paper or D-paper loan, with interest payments progressively increased for less reliable payers to allow the company to ‘share the risk’ of default equitably among all its borrowers. Between A-paper and subprime in risk is Alt-A. A-minus is related to Alt-A, with some lenders categorizing them the same, but A-minus is traditionally defined as mortgage borrowers with a FICO score of below 680 while Alt-A is traditionally defined as loans lacking full documentation. The value of U.S. subprime mortgages was estimated at $1.3 trillion as of March 2007, with over 7.5 million first-lien subprime mortgages outstanding.

The subprime mortgage crisis arose from ‘bundling’ American subprime and American regular mortgages into MBSs which were traditionally isolated from, and sold in a separate market from, prime loans. These ‘bundles’ of mixed (prime and subprime) mortgages were based on asset-backed securities so the ‘probable’ rate of return looked superb (since subprime lenders pay higher premiums on loans secured against saleable real-estate, which was commonly assumed “could not fail”)……

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