Good Intentions and Over-Extended Homeowners

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(I do use one piece of non G-rated language below. I hope you'll agree with me that it was necessary to convey the proper sentiment)

USA Today had an oped, "3 ways to help borrowers without bailing them out"

Their suggestions?

Bankruptcy reform. About the only debt a bankruptcy judge can't modify is a home mortgage. Borrowers used to get into trouble not because of unsustainable mortgages, but because they lost a job or got ill. Now homeowners commonly fall behind because they can't keep up with their mortgages. Bankruptcy judges should get more latitude to rework mortgages along with other debt.

That's because it's a secured debt. Indeed, it's a debt secured by a specific asset.

Indeed, mortgages on owner occupied property are already subject to more and stronger protections than any other kind of debt. It takes a minimum of just under 200 days for a foreclosure to happen in California, and we're one of the shorter period states. Notice of Default can't happen until the mortgage is a minimum of 120 days late. Once that happens, it cannot be followed by a Notice of Trustee's Sale in fewer than sixty days, and there must be a minimum of 17 days between Notice of Trustee's Sale and Trustee's Sale. Absolute minimum, 197 days, and it's usually more like 240 to 300, and it is very subject to delaying tactics. There are lawyers out there who will tell you if you're going to lose your home anyway, they can keep you in it for a year and a half to two years without you writing a check for a single dollar to the mortgage company. It's stupid and hurts most of their clients worse in the long run, but it also happens. Pay a lawyer $500, and not pay your $4000 per month mortgage. Some people see only the immediate cash consequences, and think it's a good deal.

While all this is going on, the mortgage company is losing money. That money isn't free to them; at the very least it has opportunity costs - other things they could be doing with the money and earning a profit. But lenders are paying a daily fee for almost every penny in their portfolio. They make money off of the spread between what they pay and what they earn. But if their earnings are zero for this particular debt, they're losing money on this particular debt, and they've got to make it back elsewhere - which means that everyone who doesn't default is paying a premium on their loans for everyone that does. This would cause future mortgage rates to rise, further exacerbating the decline in housing values and putting even more people into trouble. If you don't understand this, you need to go back to high school or read an elementary economics text.

Now allow bankruptcy judges to play with mortgage indebtedness, and there just isn't anything they can do that doesn't result in the lender losing money involuntarily. This is a government taking of private property, explicitly and without possibility of exception for private use. Anybody remember the Fifth Amendment? If it doesn't protect all of us, it doesn't protect any of us. The Kelo decision, which generated a huge flap, at least had a public entity taking title before deeding it over to a private developer. None of these cases would have even that fig leaf. Not to mention that in many cases, the lenders themselves are victims of fraud to one degree or another. In a large fraction of these cases, the borrowers and loan officers were assisted by the lenders employees and policies, but in others they weren't and the lender is just as much a victim as someone who's been mugged - and now we want them to get mugged again by the legal system?

A few more things on this topic: Real estate, being for high dollar amounts, is one of the most profitable targets for scams and confidence games. I can see the general outlines of half a dozen scams that would be enabled by giving bankruptcy judges the ability to modify mortgage indebtedness. I mean legally. Most people wouldn't do it to start with, but the temptation of having your mortgage debt legally reduced, or the payments that go with it, would quickly become very attractive. Get your mortgage debt reduced by $100,000 because that's what you can afford to pay and now you can turn around and sell for a profit. Get your mortgage payment permanently reduced from $4000 to $2500 per month, and either you have a negative amortization loan imposed by judicial fiat, or you have a loan that the lender is stuck with that's only worth about sixty percent of its face value. Especially given the general non-enforceability of "due on sale" clauses, this is not only taking property from the lender, but it's essentially going to require them to hold it for the full term of the note, as nobody in their right mind is going to want to refinance or pay that loan off. Net result: everyone starts working these scams. You think the situation is bad now? If the lenders were subjected to that, rates would go sky high, minimum down payment requirements would skyrocket, and housing values would crash worse than stocks in the period 1929-1932, because nobody would be able to get a loan on any sort of terms even vaguely comparable to what we've got now. We'd have people putting their houses on credit cards, not only because the rate would be comparatively attractive but also because most folks would be able to get a credit limit high enough to finance 100% of a property. Statistical Abstract has there being 123 million pieces of real estate with a median price of $206,000, giving an approximate total value of $25.3 trillion dollars. Under such a scenario, I'd be surprised if prices didn't collapse by 80%, wiping out $20 trillion dollars in wealth directly, or about twice the size of the national debt. Second order effects would increase, if not multiply, the size of the loss. The Great Depression would look like an economic paradise by comparison. All because you want to give people "a little help" and don't think about the consequences.

Lenders will modify notes on their own without compulsion from the courts if you can come up with a scenario where it's in their best interest - by which I mean they'll get more of the money they loaned you back, complete with interest. And if you cannot supply such a scenario, the lenders are correct to foreclose as promptly as possible. That's not just their money. More than half of all Americans have bond investments. It spreads out the risk and the pain, but don't kid yourself that corporations are the only ones hurt. They're not.

Tax code changes. Sometimes, badly strapped homeowners can persuade lenders to reduce the size of a mortgage to reflect a home's plummeting value or the homeowner's inability to keep up with the payments. Sometimes, the lender forecloses and a homeowner can walk away with no house, but also no debt. That would seem to be the end of the story, but it isn't to the IRS, which often considers either action as income to the borrower, and sends a big tax bill. It makes sense to alter the code to keep the tax collector from making a bad situation worse.

I've written on this tax consequence several times in the past. There are good reasons why tax law and tax policy are written that way. What we're trying to do is give people the greatest reasonable incentive not to try scams of this nature. Not to go into debt figuring that if it all doesn't work out, they can just walk away. We're all supposed to be adults. One of the things adults are is responsible for their debts. This is one reason why lenders are willing to loan money - because there are concrete reasons why it is in the borrower's best interest to pay those loans back. Remove that fact, and you've removed the underpinnings of our entire banking system. If you don't understand the economic consequences of that, at least in broad, have the courts declare you legally incompetent and appoint a guardian. You are not competent for any economic matters. You shouldn't be voting. You probably shouldn't be crossing the street without supervision and assistance.

Lenders give great rates on real estate because secured real estate loans are comparatively low risk. Secured real estate loans are low risk because people will do basically anything not to lose their house. Take away the risk of losing their house, and people will do a lot less. It's effectively no longer a secured loan. Combined with the protections mortgages have already, rates will be higher than any credit card. For all the beating of breasts and loud flapping of keyboards that goes on, most people are still handling their loans. Yes, lenders lose lots of money every time a loan goes bad. Ninety-eight percent of all real estate loans are still performing. Let that change, and risk goes up, rates go up, and nobody can get a loan and nobody can make the payments, and nobody will be able to buy, so prices come crashing down in such a way that everything we've seen so far will be as flatulence in a hurricane compared to what will happen.

The number one thing that puts people into home ownership is the ability to get a loan. Rich folks are going to be able to afford property no matter what. Those of us who are somewhat less well off depend upon our ability to use someone else's money. Take away that, and watch ownership rates plummet. As a society, we'll go back to living in rented massive slum tenements, simply because that's what'll get built because the average person simply won't have the economic leverage to afford decent housing, or to incentivize those well enough off to finance housing to build the sort of housing we want. Lionel Barrymore's character in "It's a Wonderful Life" seems like a caricature to us, sixty years later, but it wasn't a caricature at all at the time. The people who made that movie saw stuff like that and its results on a daily basis. Many of them - the ones who never became big stars or powerful producers and directors - lived through it. It only seems like a caricature now because the lending environment has become such that the average person can easily get a loan.

Education and advice. Sometimes, a home could be saved if its owner only knew that it was possible to renegotiate the mortgage -- and that a lender might prefer getting smaller payments to no payments at all. Scores of state organizations and non-profit community groups are working to educate and counsel homeowners, and in many cases to help them renegotiate their mortgages to keep their homes.

And 100 percent of those people could be saved by people doing a very small amount of research before they signed the contract. No sometimes or occasionally about it. But people won't do it. A lot of the people who did these loans to themselves were warned, and chose to not to believe the warnings. Poor disclosure requirements, blind trust in someone who acted like their friend. Lack of elementary common sense. When someone tells you that your payment on an $800,000 loan is $2573 per month (and there are many loans even worse than that out there), all it takes is the mathematical ability of a fourth grader, at most, to realize that even if it's interest only, you're only paying 3.8 percent interest and there just aren't any other loans out there anything like that, and maybe there's something going on that you don't understand. I told hundreds of people first person (never mind the over two million visitors to my websites) about the perils of those loans, and the vast majority of them bought the complete bullshit that someone else fed them because they wanted that house and this was the only way they could "afford" the payments, so they did the loans with other people. If I had just kept my mouth shut and done ten percent of those loans, I'd be richer than if I had won the lottery, instead of scrabbling for the occasional person who wasn't looking to buy a property they couldn't afford.

I'm not saying don't counsel people on how to make the best of a bad situation. But that's happening now, without this prescription, making it a null act, simply posturing for the cameras. One of the great things about the internet is that you can find the information you're looking for if you will keep looking, and cross check its credibility. "I found it on the internet," may be a joke when it comes to serious research, but you can find the correct information if you keep looking and cross check credibility, rather than just believing whatever you may find on the Flat Earth Society website.

I'm saying that the best time to stop this problem was before it started. People will fool themselves. Indeed, one of the most important measures of how free a society is, is the ability of an adult to decide to do something stupid after being fully informed of the consequences. Indeed, that's also a good definition of an adult - someone competent to make their own mistakes.

However, the law and our governments aided and abetted the sharks who took advantage of these people by making them appear to be in compliance with extensive disclosure rules that allow the sharks to hide all of the really important and nasty things behind a smokescreen of unimportant trivia. The people got so bored of details that just aren't important that they signed off on things that killed them financially without reading, presuming it was more of the same nonsense. The stupidity wasn't informed stupidity, because the lenders and agents were able to conceal the real mechanics of what was going on, and what would happen in the future. This gave even the shadiest operations enough of a veneer of legitimacy to pass the casual inspection given by someone who wants to believe it. There was nothing in all of that government mandated paperwork that explained the consequences that would follow, as certain as gravity. If there was anything, it was obscured by all of the nonsense. I can write (and have written) a one page loan disclosure that would guarantee nobody would ever sign off on one of these things without being informed, in big bold type, about the consequences. Such a disclosure is found nowhere in the requirements of any state, and even if it was, government requirements would allow it to be hidden in hundreds of pages of stuff like equal opportunity housing and equal opportunity loan disclosures, things that everyone knows about, and it's often in the lender's interest to comply with anyway (I can't imagine anybody in this day and age being stupid enough to practice loan or housing discrimination, and even if they were that stupid, I can't imagine them getting away with more than a very few instances before the law put them out of business). How about re-writing the disclosure rules so the deadly traps are as obvious as possible, and the sharks can't hide deadly financial traps behind the insignificant minutiae?

This article got a lot longer than I wanted it to be. The point that I am trying to make is that it's very easy to make the damage orders of magnitude worse by trying to be compassionate after the fact, thinking that you're "only" damaging "major corporations who can afford it", when the fact of the matter is that these measures would bring our entire mortgage and real estate system to a screeching halt. The correct tack to take for the future is to make it impossible for people to fool themselves before they get into trouble. As for the present, yes, people are going to get hurt. But the system will work its way through the problems. I am opposed to any mass bail-out of lenders or those who voluntarily signed upon the dotted line. Especially if it's taxpayer financed. Indeed, I want to see the lenders and brokers who did this stuff sued and bankrupted by the investors and borrowers they suckered, and the money managers who should have known better sued and bankrupted by the people whose money they mismanaged. Such results discourage and prevent repeat performances of the sorts of things we have just lived through far more effectively than any mitigation proposal I've heard, with far less long term damage. Bail-outs allow the offenders to escape the full consequences of what they did, much like during the savings and loan crisis, which in many ways, set the stage for what's happening now. The best thing we can do, the best proposal I have heard, is to allow the consequences to happen. Otherwise, we'll be going through the same sorry mess, even worse, in a few years. As hard as it may be to stand by and watch people get hurt, I have yet to hear any better proposal that will help them without making the problem an order of magnitude worse.

Caveat Emptor


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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on August 23, 2007 10:01 AM.

Down Payment At Purchase or Wait Until Later? was the previous entry in this blog.

"Banks Give Better Deals Than Brokers" is the next entry in this blog.

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