Tag: borrowers

Obama’s Broken Toaster

APTOPIX ObamaRecently on Leno, President Obama compared some financial products to an exploding toaster. His words:

When you buy a toaster, if it explodes in your face there’s a law that says your toasters need to be safe. But when you get a credit card, or you get a mortgage, there’s no law on the books that says if that explodes in your face financially, somehow you’re going to be protected.

So this is – the need for getting back to some common sense regulations – there’s nothing wrong with innovation in the financial markets. We want people to be successful; we want people to be able to make a profit. Banks are critical to our economy and we want credit to flow again. But we just want to make sure that there’s enough regulatory common sense in place that ordinary Americans aren’t taken advantage of, and taxpayers, after the fact, aren’t taken advantage of.

While I think we would all like to get to “common sense” regulation – arriving at such is unlikely if one’s understanding of the very problem is flawed, as seems to be the president’s.

Unlike broken toasters, mortgages and credit cards do not fail to pay themselves – borrowers fail to pay, almost always for a reason that has little to do with the characteristics of the loan itself. There is a wealth of empirical data documenting the causes of bankruptcy, mortgage and credit card default – much of which has been assembled by those on the left (take a look at any of Professor Elizabeth Warren’s work on bankruptcy). The fact is that the number one cause of all of these events is job loss. If the president has a plan for a mortgage that protects you from losing your job, I would love to see how that’s going to work. After job loss, comes unexpected health bills and divorce.

My hope had been that Obama’s talk about broken toasters was just a little pandering and could be safely ignored. However, judging from the structure of his foreclosure relief plan, he appears to believe that if we just lower the borrower’s rate, all would be saved. The sad truth is that his foreclosure plan does nothing for those really in need – who have lost their job for instance – they are simply out of luck. But then helping people who have lost their job would undermine the argument that it is all the fault of the product.

Shocking News: Fannie Mae Is Losing More Money

Yes, I know.  It’s hard to believe.  Fannie Mae continues to lose money and, even more surprisingly, isn’t likely to ever pay taxpayers back for all of the billions that it already has squandered.  Rather, it says it will need more bail-out funds – probably another $110 billion this year alone.

Reports the Washington Post:

Fannie Mae reported yesterday that it lost $23.2 billion in the first three months of the year as mortgage defaults increasingly spread from risky loans to the far-larger portfolio of loans to borrowers who have been considered safe.

The massive loss prompts a $19 billion investment from the government to keep the firm solvent, on top of a $15 billion investment of taxpayer money earlier this year.

The sobering earnings report was a reminder of the far-reaching implications of the government’s takeover in September of Fannie Mae and the smaller Freddie Mac. Losses have proved unrelenting; the firms’ appetite for tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer aid hasn’t subsided; and taxpayer money invested in the companies, analysts said, is probably lost forever because the prospects for repayment are slim.

But the government remains committed to keeping the companies afloat, because it is relying on them to help reverse the continuing slide in the housing market and keep mortgage rates low.

Even as the government bailout of banks appears to be leveling off, the federal rescue of Fannie and Freddie is rapidly growing more expensive. Fannie Mae said that the losses will continue through at least much of the year and that it “therefore will be required to obtain additional funding from the Treasury.” Analysts are estimating that the company could need at least $110 billion.

Freddie Mac, which has been in worse financial shape than Fannie Mae and has obtained $45 billion in taxpayer funding, will report earnings in coming days.

The response of policymakers in the administration and Congress to this fiscal debacle?  Silence.  No surprise there, since many of them helped create the very programs that continue to bleed taxpayers dry.

Alas, this isn’t the first time that the federal government has promoted a housing boom and bust.  Instead, writes Steven Malanga in Investor’s Business Daily:

This cycle goes back nearly 100 years. In 1922, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover launched the “Own Your Own Home” campaign, hailed as unique in the nation’s history.

Responding to a small dip in homeownership rates, Hoover urged “the great lending institutions, the construction industry, the great real estate men … to counteract the growing menace” of tenancy.

He pressed builders to turn to residential construction. He called for new rules that would let nationally chartered banks devote a greater share of their lending to residential properties.

Congress responded in 1927, and the freed-up banks dived into the market, despite signs that it was overheating.

The great national effort seemed to pay off. From mid-1927 to mid-1929, national banks’ mortgage lending increased 45%. The country was becoming “a nation of homeowners,” the Times exulted.

But as homeownership grew, so did the rate of foreclosures, from just 2% of commercial bank mortgages in 1922 to 11% in 1927.

This happened just as the stock market bubble of the late ’20s was inflating dangerously. Soon after the October 1929 Wall Street crash, the housing market began to collapse. Defaults exploded; by 1933, some 1,000 homes were foreclosing every day.

The “Own Your Own Home” campaign had trapped many Americans in mortgages beyond their reach.

Financial institutions were exposed as well. Their mortgage loans outstanding more than doubled from the early 1920s to 1930 — $9.2 billion to $22.6 billion — one reason that about 750 financial institutions failed in 1930 alone.

The only serious option is to close down all of the money-wasting federal programs  and laws designed to subsidize home ownership.  A stake through the hearts of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Federal Housing Administration, and Community Reinvestment Act, to start.  Otherwise the cycle is bound to be repeated, again to great cost for the ever-suffering  taxpayers.

Mortgage ‘Safe Harbor’ Anything But Safe

After the Senate’s rejection last week of allowing bankruptcy judges to re-write mortgage contracts, the so called “cramdown” provisions, it was starting to look as if the Senate cared about respecting private contracts. Sadly, such concern has been short-lived.

Tucked away in the mortgage bill is a provision that gives servicers of mortgages, that is, the entities that collect payments and perform modifications on behalf of the actual investors in mortgages, a “safe harbor” from any litigation by investors if the servicer chooses to follow the interests of the borrower or the government, rather than fulfilling their fiduciary duty to the investors.

Supporters of the safe harbor claim that too many foreclosures have taken place due to contractual restrictions on the ability of servicers to modify mortgages in a manner that would allow borrowers to stay in their homes. Most pooling and servicing agreements allow mortgage modifications without the investors’ approval if the modification increases the net present value of the mortgage. However, if the mortgage modification resulted in a loss to the investor, over what they would recover in a foreclosure, then they are not allowed under current contracts. The safe harbor intends to fix this “problem” by allowing the servicer to impose additional losses on investors, as long as that servicer follows President Obama’s foreclosure plan.

Allowing parties to a contract to ignore their contractual obligations as long as they sign-on to presidential initiatives is a dangerous precedent, and one that will ultimately raise the cost of entering into and enforcing contracts.

As these costs will have to be borne by someone, it is likely in the future that these efforts at undermining contracts in our credit markets will result in higher interest rates for all borrowers.

An attempt was made by Senator Corker to modify this provision, restoring some protections for basic contract rights. Rather than taking the opportunity to reduce the damage done to contracts from this provision, the Senate rejected Senator Corker’s amendment by a rather large margin.

After the President’s recent attacks on minority debt-holders in Chrysler, the President’s support for mortgage cramdown, and now the Senate moving on the so-called “safe harbor” provisions, it is becoming increasing clear that investors themselves will soon be in need of a safe harbor from Washington.

Love the Cards, Hate the Card Issuers

God hates the sin but loves the sinner, we are told.  Americans have a similar attitude towards credit cards.  They love the cards but hate the card issuers.

Naturally, President Barack Obama has picked up on this sentiment and wants the credit card companies to be “fair.”  Reports the Washington Post:

The Obama administration yesterday called for an end to unfair credit card industry practices such as retroactive interest rate increases for any reason, late-fee traps that penalize borrowers with weekend or middle-of-the-day deadlines and teaser rates that last less than six months.

In a written statement released by the Treasury Department, the administration outlined practices it would like Congress to reform as it considers two bills that would crack down on the industry. One proposal would force card companies to apply payments above the minimum amount to the highest interest rate debt. To crack down on over-limit fees, the administration would also like Congress to require card companies to get customers’ permission to set up accounts so transactions over the limit can still be processed.

There are lots of reasons to criticize the practices of  credit card companies, but many of the rules are simply mechanisms to charge riskier borrowers more.  If you pay off your bill every month, you don’t pay the extra fees and interest.  If you are more disorganized, short on cash, or both, you pay more. 

Higher charges make it possible to provide more credit to more people.  Of course, politicians believe in the latter but not the former.  Banks should provide credit cards, make loans, and issue mortgages to everyone, irrespective of credit standing, at rates akin to those charged Bill Gates.  Anything more is viewed as a variant of “predatory” lending deserving condemnation.

Maybe it would be best for some people not to buy so much on credit, but that isn’t – at least so far – the government’s decision.  However, it would be more honest if government branded people with the Scarlet C and banned them from borrowing than prohibiting companies from charging higher rates and fees to reflect higher credit risks.

The credit card debate is stranger than most in Washington.  Listening to critics you’d think that the card companies were dragooning people off the streets, forcing them at gunpoint to sign up for cards, and demanding that they spend money else their children will be kidnapped and sold into slavery.  Precisely who was forced to accept and use these terrible cards with their terrible terms?  No one.

Instead of posturing as defenders of the body politic, crusading politicians should, as my friend Don Boudreaux of George Mason University suggested,  give up their day jobs and start credit card companies.   These entrepreneurs then could offer consumers better cards with less onerous terms, making everyone better off.

Any takers?

Solve the Financial Crisis (and Make Some Serious Money)

Peter Van Doren and I have been puzzling over this very interesting NYT op-ed on home foreclosures by Yale economist John Geanakoplos and Boston University law professor Susan Koniak. If G&K’s story is right, then shouldn’t there be an opportunity for some clever financiers to help struggling homeowners keep their houses, help banks and other investors repair their balance sheets — and the financiers could help themselves to piles of cash in the process?

G&K argue that all three parties to a home mortgage — the homeowner, the lender, and the loan servicer who works as a go-between — currently face grim financial prospects:

  • Many homeowners are “underwater” — that is, they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are now worth. According to First American Core Logic, some 20% of mortgages were underwater as of December 2008. The percentage varies greatly from state to state, with 55% of mortgages underwater in Nevada, but only 7% in New York. The homeowners who are underwater include not just those who purchased with little down payment, but also many people who put down the traditional 20 percent when they bought in 2005 or 2006, at the peak of the real estate bubble. According to Case-Shiller index data, house prices nationwide have fallen 27% (as of December) from their May 2006 peak. Some local markets have experienced more dramatic declines, highlighted by Phoenix’s 46% slide. Rental prices are now far below many homeowners’ monthly mortgage payments, and lots of underwater homeowners will have to make payments for years before they have some equity stake in their homes. Many of those homeowners would rather default and risk foreclosure. G&K’s op-ed includes this figure showing that defaults increase dramatically as homeowners sink further and further underwater. Given their current options, default is rational.
  • The mortgage lender faces heavy losses if the home enters foreclosure. According to G&K, ”the subprime bond market now trades as if it expects only 25 percent back on a loan when there is a foreclosure.”
  • The servicer also is at risk. According to G&K, the servicer is obligated to continue paying the lender its monthly payment even if the borrower is in default. That obligation only lifts at foreclosure.

Because of the servicer’s obligation, the servicer has strong incentive to push for quick foreclosure. However, the homeowner and the mortgage lender would likely benefit from a loan modification — even a significant write-down of principal — because that would keep the homeowner in his house and it would deliver a better return to the lender than the 75% loss from foreclosure. G&K thus argue that government, instead of continuing to bail out the banking industry and struggling homeowners (and putting taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars), should simply require that the lenders write down the mortgage principal.

But is government action needed? Couldn’t some private actors accomplish the same thing — and make some serious scratch in the process?

A financial wizard with sufficient backing could approach a troubled lender and offer, say, 50% of the original loan amount in order to take some of the toxic mortgages off the lender’s hands. Now, the lender won’t be happy with selling at a 50% loss, but that certainly beats a 75% loss, so the lender would grudgingly agree. The financial wizard would then approach the homeowner and offer to write down the mortgage principal to, say, 60% on condition that the homeowner purchase mortgage insurance. The homeowner should jump at the offer because it would put him back above water, purchasing a home that’s worth more than its debt. Finally, the financial wizard would get the servicer to release its control over the loan, because the servicer would want to be freed from the risk of having to cover the payments to the lender. The financial wizard would then pocket a cool 10% of the original mortgage’s value.

That is not chump change. G&K estimate some 8 million homes could be foreclosed upon in the coming years. Assume the original mortgage on each of those houses is $199,025 (95% of the median sale price of new U.S. homes in January 2004, about halfway up the bubble); that 10% would represent almost $160 billion.

Of course, if the bank proves recalcitrant and demands more than 50%, or the homeowner demands a write-down of more than 40% or he’ll walk away, that would cut into the profits. And the financial wizard would have to cover his costs and possible risk premiums. Still, at least in theory, there would seem to be a significant pile of money on the table.

So why isn’t this happening? Are there no money-loving financial wizards out there?

To some extent, they are. Last week, the NYT reported that some former Countrywide executives have formed a firm called PennyMac that, with financial backing from hedge funds and other investors, purchases toxic mortgages from insolvent banks at low prices, modifies the loans to increase homeowners’ likelihood of making payments, and profits from the rekindled mortgage revenue stream. In the particular case reported in the NYT, PennyMac paid 38 cents on the dollar. But PennyMac seems like very small potatoes compared to the $160 billion that may be on the table. And the banks were forced to sell the loans because they had been taken over by the FDIC.

So why aren’t there more firms doing what PennyMac is doing, or following the strategy that Peter and I have laid out above? And why aren’t banks lining up to offload their toxic mortgages (or to do the write-downs themselves and pocket the 10%)? Peter and I can think of three possible reasons:

  1. As G&K note in their op-ed, banks and other investors who’re currently saddled with toxic assets may be waiting for some form of government rescue that would enable them to recoup far more than the 50% or so that would be offered by our financial wizards.
  2. Banks are keeping bad mortgages on their books at values much higher than the 25 to 40 cents on the dollar observed in the rare sales of troubled assets, and so the banks are unwilling to sell the assets for 50 cents on the dollar. (Remember that PennyMac is purchasing assets from banks that have been taken over by the FDIC — in other words, these are forced sales.) The banks (and their managers) may strongly prefer to keep the assets on their books rather than sell them at a 50% loss.
  3. The transaction costs involved in this scheme (e.g., analyzing the toxic assets to determine which ones to buy, negotiating with the delinquent and at-risk homeowners) are prohibitively large.

Government can address (1) by committing not to bail out the investors. Unfortunately, it’s unclear how reliable that commitment would be, especially given government actions so far in this financial crisis.

Fixing (2) is difficult. Accounting rules could be changed to force the banks to lower their book values for bad mortgages, but it would be difficult to get that accounting change passed quickly. Besides, some accounting experts argue that, in stressful times, accounting rules should have more wiggle room rather than less.

As for (3), the PennyMac guys claim that the work is difficult. But c’mon, there could be a $160 billion payday for the guys who can figure it out.

So, come on you money-loving financial wizards: your country needs you!