Tag: housing

The Paradox of Strategic Defaults

Real Time Economics and Calculated Risk both discuss new research by Paola Sapienza, Luigi Zingales, and Luigi Guiso on homeowners defaulting on mortgages even though they have the money to pay them. According to their research, 17% of households would default when their negative equity reaches 50% of the house’s value. The argument is that public policy has not sufficiently addressed this problem, focusing instead on homeowners who cannot afford their mortgages.

Let’s make this a little more concrete. Let’s say you bought a house with zero money down for $300,000 in early 2006. A few years later, the house is now worth $200,000, so your negative equity is 50% of the market value. Yet only 17% of people in your situation would walk away from the house. The other 83% would continue to pay the mortgage,  essentially throwing money away. Apparently people value the transaction costs of moving and the damage to their credit ratings at $100,000 (I think my numbers are approximately on the right scale – if anything they are probably low) – even after the fact that you can live in a house for free for several months before being evicted.

Or people are not as rational as economists would assume.

By James Kwak

Modifying Securitized Mortgages

Amidst the gallons of ink spilt, here and elsewhere, over the nationalization debate, the AIG collateral payments, and the AIG bonuses, I neglected to comment on the details of the new housing plan, which were released on March 4. When the initial plan was announced in February, I was concerned about the seeming lack of any provision that would enable servicers of securitized mortgages to modify those mortgages without being sued by the investors who bought the securities. (In brief, the problem is that the pooling and servicing agreements (PSAs) that govern those securitizations may not allow loan modifications, or may require the servicer to gain the consent of all of the investors, which is practically impossible.) People who know housing better than I said there was something in there.

If it is, I still can’t find it in the March 4 documents (fact sheet, guidelines, modification guidelines). In any case, an important question is whether the plan will do enough to encourage servicers to modify securitized mortgages, as opposed to mortgages they own. “A New Proposal for Loan Modifications,” a short (13-page) paper by Christopher Mayer, Edward Morrison, and Tomasz Piskorski that will appear in the next issue of the Yale Journal on Regulation, describes the problem clearly and makes three proposals to solve it. (A longer version with appendices is available here.)

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A Step in the Right Direction

I don’t have a lot to add to Simon’s article about the housing plan in The New Republic – as you might imagine, we did talk about it – but I do want to take issue with the title, “Insufficient Boldness.” One quirk about writing for other publications is that you usually (not always) have complete control over the body of the article, but no control of the title (and often you don’t know what the title will be  until you see it printed).

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We Have a Winner?

After seeing dozens of mortgage proposals emerge over the past several months, there are news stories that Larry Summers and the Obama economic team are converging on an unlikely candidate: the proposal by Glenn Hubbard and Christopher Mayer first launched on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal on October 2. Hubbard and Mayer published a summary of the plan in the WSJ last week; a longer version of the op-ed is available from their web site; and you can also download the full paper, with all the models.

Continue reading “We Have a Winner?”

Community Reinvestment Act Makes Bankers Stupid, According to AEI Research

One might have hoped that one collateral benefit of the end of the election season would be the end of the attempt to pin the financial crisis on the Community Reinvestment Act, a 1970s law designed to prohibit redlining (the widespread practice of not lending money to people in poor neighborhoods). Unfortunately, Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute (thanks to one of our commenters for pointing this out) has proven that some people will never give up in their fight to prove that the real source of society’s ills is government attempts to help poor people. Regular readers hopefully realize that we almost never raise political topics here, but sometimes I just get too frustrated.

Many people who are more expert than I in the housing market have already debunked the CRA myth. Here are just a few: Janet Yellen, Menzie Chinn, Randall Kroszner, Barry Ritholtz, David Goldstein and Kevin Hall, and Elizabeth Laderman and Carolina Reid. Mark Thoma does a good job keeping track of the debate.

One of the main arguments against the CRA-caused-the-crisis thesis is that the large majority of subprime loans, and delinquent subprime loans, and the housing bubble in general, had nothing to do with the CRA; it was done by lenders who are not governed bythe CRA, and was done in places like the exurbs of Las Vegas or the beachfront condos in Florida, not poor neighborhoods (which generally saw less price appreciation than average). So Wallison comes up with a new argument: relaxed lending standards, encouraged by the CRA, caused lending standards to be relaxed in the rest of the housing market. Really, I’m not making this up.

Continue reading “Community Reinvestment Act Makes Bankers Stupid, According to AEI Research”

Mortgage Restructuring Is Not Enough

Let’s be honest with ourselves.  Even if the outgoing Bush team or the incoming Obama administration can work out a scalable nationwide mortgage restructuring scheme, we will still have a housing problem in the U.S..  Specifically, we should expect a high proportion of restructured mortgages to default again within a year.  In a piece that appeared on Bloomberg this morning, Alex Stricker and I suggest that a more centralized process is needed to manage the flow of foreclosed properties onto the market, and we discuss some alternative ways to implement this idea.

There may be better ways to do this and we are completely open to suggestions – please post as comments here.  We only insist that this is one dimension of U.S housing that needs further careful consideration.

Proposed Solutions to the Securitization Problem

We’ve gotten a number of questions about mortgage restructuring proposals, both in email and in comments. One reader asks: “How does one get around the securitization problem?  The Treasury seems to be able to change rules with the sweep of a wand lately, why not the REMIC [Real Estate Mortgage Investment Conduit] rules too?” Tom K also raises this issue in a comment.

I doubt that Treasury could unilaterally modify the rules governing the securitization trusts (in which a loan servicer manages a pool of loans on behalf of the many investors who own a share of that pool). Despite the ease with which Treasury seems to be flinging money around and the, um, liberties they seem to be taking with the terms of the TARP legislation, Treasury can’t really force anyone to do anything, legally. For example, Treasury has no authority to force a bank to accept a recapitalization, which (in my opinion) is why the recapitalization terms are relatively generous: they did not want to take the risk of the core banks turning them down.

The securitization issue raises similar legal barriers. A bit of background: To generalize, the loan servicer has a legal obligation to act in the interests of the investors in the loan pool; if it doesn’t, it opens itself up to lawsuits. Now, if all of the investors have the same interests, and the service restructures a delinquent mortgage in a way that provides more value than a foreclosure, then everyone is happy. There are (at least) three problems, however. The first is a coordination problem: getting all of the investors to agree that they are happy. The second is a problem of conflicting interests: because a typical CDO is structured so that some investors get the first payments and some get the last, a mortgage modification could help the interests of some investors and hurt the interests of others. The third is a tax problem: for technical reasons, a mortgage restructuring could be treated as a new loan, which creates a tax liability (this is a REMIC rule).

This is why I think this will require legislation, and even that could be challenged as an expropriation of property.

  • The Center for American Progress has a proposal to modify the REMIC rules and an explanation of why they think it would work.
  • John Geanakoplos and Susan Koniak have another proposal to use government-appointed blind trustees to make restructuring decisions and thereby protect servicers from liability to their investors (this would also require legislation).
  • Thomas Patrick and Mac Taylor have yet another proposal (thanks, Tom K) to use Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt to pay off all performing securitized mortgages at face value and refinance them with 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages. (I don’t fully understand this plan: it seems to involve paying face value for $1.1 trillion in mortgages, many of which are certain to default in the future, and forcing banks to pay face value for $400 billion in mortgages that are already delinquent, and also forcing banks to accept some of the losses on the government’s $1.1 trillion. But I don’t want to draw conclusions based on a newspaper description.) This one shouldn’t involve legal issues, but it will require legislation, because of the amount of money involved.
  • Then there’s the idea of allowing bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages on owner-occupied houses, which would also protect the servicer from liability. But this would be a slow, inefficient way of solving the problem.

If there are other ideas out there, please suggest them.

FDIC Takes Mortgage Proposal to the Public

Two months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, there has still been no broad-based action to help restructure delinquent mortgages and slow down the flood of foreclosures; the Fannie/Freddie plan announced earlier this week is a very small first step, because it is limited to a small portion of the mortgages outstanding – those controlled by Fannie and Freddie, which tend to have relatively low default rates anyway.

Sheila Bair, head of the FDIC, said that that plan “falls short of what is needed to achieve wide-scale modifications of distressed mortgages.” Apparently frustrated by the failure of negotiations with the Treasury Department, yesterday the FDIC posted its mortgage modification proposal to its web site (Washington Post summary), basically breaking with the rest of the administration and hoping the Congressional Democrats can make it happen.

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JPMorgan Joins Mortgage Restructuring Party

JPMorgan recently announced a program to offer loan modifications to 400,000 homeowners with a total of $70 billion in mortgages. The program is roughly similar to one announced by Bank of America as part of a settlement with state attorneys general of investigations into Countrywide (acquired by B of A): JPMorgan is offering to convert option ARM mortgages, one of the most poorly-conceived and worst-performing products of the housing boom, into fixed-rate mortgages at lower rates and potentially with lower loan balances. From the WSJ article:

The mortgages affected by J.P. Morgan’s program represent 4.7% of the home loans it owns or that are serviced by one of the bank’s units, EMC Mortgage Corp. While the program to give these mortgages easier terms is likely to cost J.P. Morgan billions of dollars in interest payments and loan fees, it is also likely to save the bank from the costly and lengthy process of foreclosing homes and selling them.

This is more evidence that banks see mortgage restructuring as being in their own economic interests, for reasons I’ve described earlier. (As an aside, Yves Smith wonders why banks are only offering modification programs now, when it seems like the government is about to act.) Unfortunately, it’s also more evidence that modifying whole mortgages owned by one bank is easier than modifying securitized mortgages owned by many parties who may have competing interests; this program is only aimed at mortgages owned by JPMorgan, which are a tiny fraction of the volume serviced by that bank.

Given the small scope of the program, government action is still almost certainly necessary. But private action has at least one advantage over government programs. When the government acts to encourage loan modifications for delinquent mortgage holders, millions of “responsible” homeowners who are not delinquent on their mortgages will scream. No one expects private sector banks to do anything other than act in their own interests, and so they don’t have to worry about being seen as fair.

Homeowner Bailout Around the Corner?

News sources are reporting more details on the possible mortgage restructuring plan for distressed homeowners first mentioned by Sheila Bair in her Congressional testimony last week. The basic outlines of the plan are:

  • Lenders would agree to reduce monthly payments to be affordable, perhaps based on a percentage of the homeowner’s income. The reduction could be achieved by reducing the interest rate, reducing principal, or extending the term.
  • If the amount the homeowner could pay would result in a mortgage worth less than the foreclosure value of the house, the loan would not be modified and the lender could foreclose.
  • The government would then partially guarantee the new mortgage and absorb part of the loss if the homeowner defaulted.
  • The numbers of 3 million homes and $600 billion in total mortgage value are being thrown around.

This is roughly consistent with the principles we outlined earlier: the lender gets more than it would have gotten in foreclosure, the homeowner is better off than being on the street, the community benefits because there are fewer foreclosures. There are three key issues that still need to be negotiated.

  1. How much will homeowners be expected to pay? Too much, and the lenders will not have to write down their loans very much, and the government will be on the hook for risky mortgages; too little, and the lenders will not participate.
  2. How do you solve the securitization problem, that is, the current inability of many servicers to modify loans that are owned by other parties? This may require a new law in and of itself (one suggestion here).
  3. How do you decide which homeowners are eligible? If people who are delinquent get cheaper mortgages and people who are struggling but paying on time don’t, the latter will scream. It is still in the interests and hence within the rights of the lender, the delinquent homeowner, and the government to do the deal, but that won’t reduce the indignation.

There are also a couple of enhancements to the program that could be considered. First, shouldn’t the government – by which we mean the taxpayer – get something for its guarantee (besides the satisfaction of knowing that it’s doing what’s best for the country)? The homeowner and the lender are both better off than they would be otherwise (homeowner on the street, lender forced to foreclose), and the government is worse off (because some of these new mortgages will fail). The government could get a share in the future appreciation of the house, for example.

Second, to protect against default by the homeowner on the new mortgage, the government could secure the loan against his or her future earnings, because the government already has an enforcement mechanism it can use: the IRS. This would protect the taxpayer’s interests.

Finally, one note of caution. Loan modifications should work for some proportion of delinquent homeowners, but there are probably millions of homeowners who have no chance of paying any mortgage on their houses that would be acceptable to their lenders. People with option ARMS who made minimum payments and then saw their mortgage rates reset upward by several percentage points will not be able to pay anything close to what lenders will require not to foreclose. In conjunction with any mortgage restructuring plan, there also has to be a plan to manage the flow of properties onto the market, because a flood of foreclosures will only cause prices to plummet further. It seems like there are so many things to do, but that is the price of the situation we are in.

Update: Here’s another proposed solution to the securitization problem.