X-Pert Information: March 2008 Archives

Having written several articles on Negative Amortization Loans, telling of the details of what is wrong with them, and even destroying the myth of Option ARM cash flow, I sometimes get asked if I would like to see them banned completely.

Well, given the pandemically misleading marketing that surrounds these loans, and pandemically poor disclosure requirements, I am tempted. It only takes one person losing their life savings and having their financial future ruined to make a very compelling story, and I've seen more than one and read about many more.

However, when you ask if they should be banned outright, I have to answer no.

Part of this is my libertarian sympathies. Adults should be allowed to make their own mistakes. But there are economic and a realpolitik reasons as well.

The fact of the matter that just because Negative Amortization loans are oversold under all of the friendly-sounding marketing names such as Option ARM, Pick a Pay, and even 1 Percent Loan (which they are not), does not mean that there is no one for whom they are appropriate or beneficial. People for whom these are appropriate do exist. Consider someone with crushing consumer debt, and no significant usable equity on a home they've owned for a while. They sell the home, they end up with nothing and still have the consumer debt. They can't refinance cash out. But if you put them into an Option ARM for a while, you remove from several hundred to over a thousand dollars per month from their cash flow requirements. In three years, they will pay off or pay down those consumer debts, and then you refinance to put them back on track, and the money that has accumulated means nothing compared to what they've paid off. It's a very narrow niche, but it does exist.

Consider also someone starting a business. Cash flow insolvency is what kills most start-up businesses. Until the customer base builds, they don't have enough money to pay the bills. Lower monthly cash flow requirements on their house can mean the difference between success and failure of their business, far outweighing the cost of the extra money in their balance that they accumulated. Furthermore, the fact is that when their cash flow gets tight, they're not making the mortgage payment anyway. They are likely to lose both business (through insolvency) and property (through foreclosure) if the business fails anyway, and the lowered cash flow requirements of the Negative Amortization loan may give the business more of a chance to succeed, and once it is profitable it will pay back the investment many times over.

There's still a need to really explain what's going on, and all of the drawbacks of the loan, but people in these two circumstances really do have a valid possibility of it being in their best interest. Banning negative amortization loans completely takes away that option, thereby hurting those people.

Furthermore, in realpolitik, it is unlikely that any attempt to ban them will be successful, or permanent if it is successful. Let us presume some public spirited official in Congress or at the Fed decides to make the attempt. What do the scumbags who make their living selling these loans do? They won't go back to selling real loans with real payments - if they could do that, they wouldn't be selling negative amortization loans. Negative amortization loans are a way to sell property without the apparent up front costs of a higher payment that always will be indicative of the housing market. Given a choice between giving up screwing people and fighting back, they are going to fight back. Lobbyists, PAC, and grassroots deception en masse, and probably astroturfing as well. If the average voter gets a pamphlet saying Congress or the Fed is trying to ban these loans that "are the only way middle class people can afford a home!", they are not going to do research in order to educate themselves about what is really going on. They are going to call their congress critter and voice the opinion the negative amortization industry gave them - and they're likely go so far as to go apply for one themselves, unless they already know what a bad deal that loan is. Chances of congress resisting: Basically nil. There is no organized group in opposition, no budget for groups that want to push a ban. Any ban would be politically dead on arrival.

There is an approach that will work, however: Disclosure requirements. If these people have to tell the prospective victims in easy to understand language and easy to read print about all of the problems they are letting themselves in for with these loans, very few people are going to sign on the dotted line. "Caution: If you accept this loan, the 1% is a nominal, or in name only, rate. You are really being charged a rate of X%, and this rate will vary every single month. If you make the minimum payment, your loan balance will increase by approximately $Y per month at current rates, or Z percent within five years. You will have to pay this money back in lump sum if you sell, or with higher payments at a later date. If you cannot afford full payments now, you will unlikely be able to afford them in the future after your balance has increased. There is a three year prepayment penalty on this loan, and if you sell the property or refinance within that time, you will pay a penalty of approximately $A in addition to whatever additional balance has accrued. It is currently under consideration that the mere fact that you have one of these loans will have significant derogatory effect upon your credit rating, even if you never make a late payment, due to financial difficulties encountered by borrowers with this kind of loans in the past." I could go on in bullet points for a couple of pages, but I trust you get my point. You have all of this in writing from the federal government, the least an intelligent adult is going to do is find out what's really going on here.

Furthermore, the only way disclosure requirements could be fought by the industry is behind closed doors. The only way it stays behind closed doors is if nobody raises a political stink, and it's easy to raise a political stink about stuff like this. Newspapers and television reporters and bloggers all converge on the issue, and the industry is left in the awkward position of crying because they have to tell the truth. That doesn't play well with the American public. The way this plays with the American public is the major reason for the successes of Porkbusters. Despite some very entrenched and very powerful enemies lining up against them, they've won on a couple of big issues because of the power of the idea that the American people have that the truth should be told. Take the tack that all you want is for the industry to tell the truth, and watch the political wind die out of their sails. David beats Goliath reliably in American politics when the issue is "Do I have to tell the truth?"

To summarize, it is tempting to try to ban negative amortization loans. But it is far better social and economic policy to go the disclosure route instead, and far more likely to be politically successful.

Caveat Emptor

Mortgage Accelerators, or Money Merge Accounts, have become the thing that everyone's pushing of late. I have gotten so much junk mail about this from more originators (who don't know who I am) and wholesalers (who should) in the last few days that I'm going to have another whole go at the entire concept. The claim most often advanced is "pay off your mortgage in a fraction of the time!" In fact, typical numbers say they're only going to do a fraction of the good done by biweekly payment programs, which effectively make one extra payment per year. Money merge accounts or Mortgage Accelerators (to use the term I originally learned years ago) have been pushed and over-promised so badly of late that I hope whoever manages to do an elementary search will be able to find a voice of sanity.

These wasteful loans that waste a homeowner's money are fast becoming the current market's negative amortization loan as far as marketing goes. These things are being pushed hard, consumers are being led to expect far greater results from them than they are likely to achieve, with the results being that those consumers who sign up for them are wasting their money. If they're not as bad as negative amortization loans, that's still damning with faint praise if ever there was such a thing. Not as bad as the loan that encouraged people to buy a more expensive property than they could afford, put them more deeply into debt with every passing month, ruined their credit ratings, and caused them to lose the property they over-extended to buy, as well as setting the United States as a whole up for the worst financial crisis we've experienced in the past eighty years. Well, it is kind of a high bar for lenders to get over, and they haven't done it here - but that's not due to concern for consumers.

What goes on with these accounts is complex, and they're not all identical. The basic idea is the same, however. You create a special account of some nature, where you deposit your entire paycheck in the mortgage account, where it lessens the amount of interest you pay on a day-to-day basis. Then you pay your other expenses of living out of the account, gradually increasing the amount back up until the next time you get paid. The idea is that by paying down the balance with your entire paycheck, less interest accumulates and people making the same regular payments will pay their balances down faster with the same balance.

Sounds like a cute idea, right? If it was free, they would be a pure gain for the consumer. Unfortunately, they're not free, and I've never yet seen one that wasn't more costly than it could possibly be worth.

Lenders like these things for a lot of reasons. Most obviously, they're getting pretty much all of a consumer's banking business. Checks come in, go out, clear or don't; all those lovely fees. In the vast majority of all cases, there's the initial cost and interest expense of an associated home equity line of credit. This also raises the bar to make it more difficult for a consumer to refinance away from their loan if someone offers them a better deal. Furthermore, there's usually an explicit charge of about $3500 to set the thing up. I'll show where this money would be better spent on a direct paydown of the mortgage.

Also, the people who sell these things have these beautifully intricate presentations. While people are watching the money whizzing about between one account and another, they're usually not considering whether those figures are reasonable, typical, or even anything like the numbers they personally experience.

Most importantly if consumers are shopping for a new loan, their attention is distracted from the most important part of shopping for a loan - getting the best possible tradeoff between rate and cost, focusing instead on this fascinatingly complex toy that doesn't make nearly the difference most of the people pushing it say it will. Taking the attention of consumers off the question of what rate they are getting, on what type of loan, at what cost, means that they don't have to compete nearly so hard to give you the most competitive rate-cost tradeoff. In plain English, their loans can charge a higher rate of interest. In fact, this difference will cost the typical borrower far more than they could ever hope to save via a money merge account. I'll go over that in this article, as well.

So, first off, let's consider what typical numbers are. Here in San Diego, the median property sale is $558,000. In order to qualify for the loan, consumers need a back end Debt to Income ratio of 45%. Front end will most typically be around 36%, with property tax, insurance, vehicle payments, credit cards, student loans etcetera. I'll be really nice and say 32% - chances are that if it's lower than that, the people would have bought a more expensive property. I'm going to assume 20% down payment or equity, which is, if anything, larger than typical. We'll postulate a rate of 6%, which is probably a hair higher than most folks with conforming loans have - and more favorable to the money merge account - and I'm going to put it all into one loan even though that's theoretically a jumbo loan amount, just to give the money merge/mortgage accelerator every possible benefit of the doubt. After all the smart thing to do is split the loan amount, which leaves roughly $30,000 out of this account in a higher interest rate loan, and so the scenario envisioned is more beneficial to the Money Merge than what happens in the real world.

This gives a loan of $446,400. At 6 percent, the payment would be $2676.40. Assuming 32% front end ratio, that's a gross monthly pay of $8365. I don't have withholding tables, so I'll use the actual tax rate for couples making slightly more than $100,000 per year with about $55,000 taxable, which is $7400, plus about $8700 in Social security taxes, plus state taxes which I will assume to be roughly $2000. This money gets withheld - it never comes to you in the form of a check. Since you don't get it, when your check goes into the money merge, it doesn't help you pay the interest. This leaves $81,900, or $6825 in take home pay. I'm not going to worry about other deductions like health care, or how your pay is structured, which further erode the benefit. I'm just going to assume it hits your account in full on the first day of the month, maximizing benefit, although I'm still going to assume all of the excess goes out every month. If nothing else, for investment accounts. It's pretty silly to have your money paying off a 6% tax deductible debt when you can have it earning about 10% elsewhere! But this isolates the benefit gained from the actual Money Merge, and separates it from any benefit derived from making extra payments, which is another way the people selling these play "hide the salami" with consumers, distracting them from what's really causing the benefit - the extra payment, which almost anyone can do, anytime they choose, for free. I'm even going to assume that you don't have an impound account, so the money you eventually spend for property taxes and homeowner's insurance goes to help the money merge as well.

So you get $6825, less the payment of $2676.40, leaves $4148.60. Over the course of the month, money goes out to pay for all of your expenses. They people who sell money merge accounts urge you to leave paying your monthly bills as late as possible to get the maximum benefit from these accounts, completely ignoring the costs of the occasional late payment this is going to cause, as well as detrimental effects upon your credit when it does happen. In fact, a certain amount of these bills are going to wrap into the next month, meaning that under the conditions we've agreed upon, you write that check to your investment account for this month and pay that bill out of your next month's pay if you're smart. Since you're going to write that particular check ASAP if you're smart, that's going to diminish the effects of the $4148.60. But I'm going to be nice and give you a $1000 "cushion" that you carry into the account from month to month (again, you won't do this if you're smart), while the $4148.60 is going to be paid out evenly over the course of the month, giving you a mean daily amount of $2074.30, plus $1000, or $3074.30 per month of temporary principal reduction. This reduces your interest paid by $10.37 that first month! I'm going to assume this is pure gain, every month, and that it continues to compound. If you do this every month for thirty years, you'll actually pay off that loan a grand total of three months early, and the last payment is reduced to a shade over $400! All of this hooting and hollering and shouting and frustration over three months of paying your mortgage off - in an absolutely optimized, perfectly favorable environment where the Money Merge account didn't cost you a penny in set up fees or monthly cost. And even in this ideal situation, with the maximum reasonable advantage compounding over the course of the entire mortgage, out of $963,000 in payments, the money merge saves you about $10,000 at the very end - just over 1% of total payments, heavily discounted for time value of money thirty years from now. That's not the "pay your mortgage off in twelve years for the same payment!" come on used by the most popular of these! Were I the regulatory authorities, I'd be looking very hard at their advertising!

But most people don't pay their mortgage off in this fashion, and these accounts are not free - or at least I've never heard of one that was. Most people refinance or sell within three years. When they do that, the accounts have to be set up again - which requires new set-up fees. In the example given above, that $10.37 per month compounding for three years is worth $407.92 - and that's if there are no countervailing expenses.

In point of fact, most of these accounts charge a monthly fee that ranges from roughly $1 to whatever they think they can get away with. Plus, there's an upfront cost that ranges from $1995, the cheapest I've seen, up to nearly $6000 depending upon the plan, with most seeming to fall in about the $3500 range. Plus, most of them require you to use a special Home Equity Line Of Credit (HELOC), which costs money in and of itself. The rates on HELOCs are higher than for regular mortgages, forcing you to effectively pay a penalty in interest of having $2000 or $5000 or whatever it is at a higher rate of interest, by usually about 2%. Keep in mind that this is ongoing, and for the entire month. The $2.30 to $8.30 per month this costs directly soaks off a large percentage of the $10.37 putative gain you get. Not to mention whatever the initial costs of the HELOC are. Some are cheap - I've seen others that had thousands of dollars in upfront costs. The HELOC costs, both upfront and monthly, are not relevant to the few plans that don't require HELOCs, but most do.

So with a middle of the line account, you've spend $3500 just to set the money merge (or mortgage accelerator) up, versus $407.92 in benefits over three years, which is longer than most people keep a given loan. Would I do that? Not on your life or mine! Why should I expect one of my clients to do so?

Now, let's consider some alternatives. Remember I told you the money merge account saves you $10.37 per month in optimal conditions, which works out to just about $10,000 saved at the end of thirty years? Well, let's ask ourselves, "What would be my benefit if I just took the $2000 the cheapest one of these costs me and instead used it for direct principal reduction?" In other words, what if you added that $2000 to your regular mortgage payment once? The answer is, for the example above, that you pay off your mortgage four and a half months early, as opposed to about 3.8saving an additional $1800. Using the upfront costs for the cheapest of these that I'm aware of pays the mortgage off sooner than the accelerator account! After the three years that's all most people keep their mortgage, you're still $1985 and change ahead of the poor stupid schmoe who signed up for the accelerator account! For a middle of the line $3500 set up fee, the difference, mutatis mutandis, is $3780 and growing at the end of three years, to the point where that mortgage is paid off 6.7 months early, as opposed to the mortgage accelerator's 3.8, saving thousands of dollars more than the "accelerator"! This doesn't count the monthly costs, HELOC set up fees, or additional HELOC interest charges that the vast majority of these accounts require, and which do siphon off the benefits as noted above.

Keep in mind that with all of this, I've been building a "best reasonable case" to maximize the money merge's advantages. I've mentioned several assumptions that I was making in the account's favor. If any of them changes, the putative benefits basically vanish entirely, or even go decidedly negative.

Now, let's ask ourselves if getting distracted by a mortgage accelerator caused us to not shop as aggressively, or not pay as much attention to the tradeoff between rate and cost as I should have, and as a result, I end up with a mortgage rate that is a mere 1/8th of a percent higher for the same cost. An eighth of one percent is the smallest rate bump in the "A paper" world, and quite often I see differences of a quarter to half a percent for the same loan between various A paper lenders when I'm shopping a loan. What would that cost me if I could have had 5.875% for the same cost instead, even keeping the benefits of the accelerator?

The answer is $35.77 per month on the payment, but more importantly, $46.50 the first month on the interest, and this adds up to $1641.77 less interest paid over the three years most people keep the mortgage, while the $10.37 per month benefit of the money merge put the 6% loan as having a balance that's actually $20 lower. Not counting fees of the money merge account, or anything else - just pure difference on the actual cost of that loan, in the form of interest you paid that you wouldn't have had to. How does that sound: Even if everything about the money merge was free, you'd be getting a $20 lower balance over three years in exchange for having spent $1600 more on interest. If you offered people $1600 for $20, what proportion do you think would take you up on it? If you offered them $20 for $1600, how many suckers do you think would go for it, even if you personally begged ten million people?

For those of you who may be loan officers - or real estate agents - reading this, can you point to one single putative benefit that you would think worth the cost that lenders charge to sign up for these programs yourself? As I've said, I can't. There is nothing here that justifies the wild ways in which these are being marketed, and the ridiculous promises that are being made about them. In point of fact, I can think of only a few possible reasons to sell these:

  • Eyes only for a commission check (probably number one in terms of the overall market)

  • You don't understand what's going on, took some marketers word, and haven't done the numbers yourself (hardly a recommendation of your services or professionalism)

  • You just don't care about your clients welfare

A year and a half ago, when these started being marketed, I wrote about the broad outlines. Never had the urge to hose a client by selling one, so didn't really investigate any further, although I wrote that the benefits were quite minimal as compared to the costs a few months later. But the ridiculous promises and over-aggressive marketing these have been subjected to in recent weeks have finally motivated me to do a rigorous analysis, and what I see is not "merely" of minimal benefit in even the scenarios most amenable to said benefit, but actually costs more than any putative benefit. I can see precisely zero justification for counseling any client in any situation to pay the money that every one of these I have yet encountered to set it up, as the benefits derived from any of these programs with which I'm familiar never do manage to equal the opportunity costs.

Now before I sign off, the point needs to be made that the psychology the account engenders in the consumer is likely to be beneficial, rewarding themselves psychologically for making what are extra payments on the mortgage, and as far as that goes, the account does accomplish something praiseworthy. But the vast majority of all mortgage borrowers can make extra payments of principal any time they want, for free, and when you consider these accounts strictly on the basis of actual numerical advantage over real alternatives, the costs of the program are literally never recovered.

Caveat Emptor


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