REFinBlog

Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

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July 20, 2015

The Prime Crisis

By David Reiss

Ben Franklin, Founder of the University of Pennsylvania

Fernando Ferreira and Joseph Gyourko, both at Penn’s Wharton School, have posted A New Look at the U.S. Foreclosure Crisis: Panel Data Evidence of Prime and Subprime Borrowers from 1997 to 2012 to SSRN. Unfortunately it is behind a National Bureau of Economic Research paywall. The paper makes the case for “a reinterpretation of the U.S. foreclosure crisis as more of a prime, rather than a subprime, borrower issue.” (1) The authors conclude,

The housing bust and its consequences are among the defining economic events of the past quarter century. Constructing and analyzing new and very large micro data spanning the cycle and all sectors of the mortgage market leads us to reinterpret the ensuing foreclosure crisis as something much more than a subprime sector issue. Many more homes were lost by prime mortgage borrowers, and their loss rates not only increased relatively early in the crisis, but stayed high through 2012. This new characterization of the crisis motivates a very different empirical strategy from previous research on this topic. Rather than focus solely on the subprime sector and subprime traits, we turn to the traditional home mortgage default literature that explains outcomes in terms of common factors such as negative equity and borrower illiquidity.

The key empirical finding is that negative equity conditions can explain virtually all of the difference in foreclosure and short sale outcomes of Prime borrowers compared to all Cash owners. This is true on average, over time (including the spike in their foreclosure rate beginning in 2009), and across metropolitan areas. Given the predominance of this group in terms of foreclosures and short sales, this is tantamount to explaining the crisis itself. We can explain much, but not all, of the variation in Subprime borrower outcomes in terms of negative equity or borrower illiquidity conditions, so something potentially ‘special’ about the subprime sector still is unaccounted for. That said, it also could be that a less noisy measure of borrower illiquidity would be able to account for this residual variation. That remains for future research.

None of the other ‘usual suspects’ raised by previous research or public commentators change this conclusion. Housing quality traits, household demographics (race or gender), buyer income, and speculator status do not have a material influence on outcomes across borrower types. Certain loan-related attributes such as initial LTV, whether a refinancing occurred or a second mortgage was taken on, and loan cohort origination quarter do have some independent influence, but they are much weaker than that of current LTV. (27)

I will have to leave it to other empiricists to evaluate whether this sure-to-be-controversial study is methodologically sound, but I sure did find their policy conclusion to be interesting:

We are not able to provide a definitive recommendation one way or another, but we can rule out one noteworthy reason offered for not aiding homeowners—namely, that the crisis was mostly about irresponsible subprime sector actors (both lenders and borrowers) who were undeserving of transfers. Of course, this is not to say that there was no such behavior. The evidence from other research and serious journalists is that there was. However, it is clear from the passage of time (and the accumulation and analysis of new data that provides) that the problem was much more widespread and systemic.  (28)

Hopefully, this is a lesson that we can take with us into the next (inevitable) housing crisis so we lay the foundation for policy solutions based on facts and not rely on moral judgments about borrowers that are built on shaky ground.

July 20, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

By Shea Cunningham

July 20, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

July 17, 2015

Bank Break-ins

By David Reiss

"Balaclava 3 hole black" by Tobias "ToMar" Maier. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Balaclava_3_hole_black.jpg#/media/File:Balaclava_3_hole_black.jpg

Chris Odinet has posted Banks, Break-Ins, and Bad Actors in Mortgage Foreclosure to SSRN. The abstract reads,

During the housing crisis banks were confronted with a previously unknown number mortgage foreclosures, and even as the height of the crisis has passed lenders are still dealing with a tremendous backlog. Overtime lenders have increasingly engaged third party contractors to assist them in managing these assets. These property management companies — with supposed expertise in the management and preservation of real estate — have taken charge of a large swathe of distressed properties in order to ensure that, during the post-default and pre-foreclosure phases, the property is being adequately preserved and maintained. But in mid-2013 a flurry of articles began cropping up in newspapers and media outlets across the country recounting stories of people who had fallen behind on their mortgage payments returning home one day to find that all of their belongings had been taken and their homes heavily damaged. These homeowners soon discovered that it was not a random thief that was the culprit, but rather property management contractors hired by the homeowners’ mortgage servicer.

The issues arising from these practices have become so pervasive that lawsuits have been filed in over 30 states, and legal aid organizations in California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, and New York report that complaints against lender-engaged property managements firms number among their top grievances. This Article analyzes lender-engaged property management firms and these break-in foreclosure activities. In doing so, the paper makes a three-part call to action, which includes the implementation of bank contractor oversight regulations, the creation of a private cause of action for aggrieved homeowners, and the curtailment of property preservation clauses in mortgage contracts.

This is a timely article about a cutting edge issue. All too often I have heard pro-bank lawyers claim that banks almost never foreclose improperly. The news reports and lawsuits discussed in this article counter that claim. And yet, I hope that some empirically-minded person could quantify the frequency of such misbehavior to better inform policymakers going forward.

July 17, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

Friday’s Government Reports Roundup

By Shea Cunningham

July 17, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

July 16, 2015

Dodd-Frank and Mortgage Reform at Five

By David Reiss

"Seal on United States Department of the Treasury on the Building" by MohitSingh - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Seal_on_United_States_Department_of_the_Treasury_on_the_Building.JPG#/media/File:Seal_on_United_States_Department_of_the_Treasury_on_the_Building.JPG

The Department of Treasury has issued a report, Dodd-Frank at Five Years: Reforming Wall Street and Protecting Main Street. The report is clearly a political document, trumpeting the achievements of the Obama Administration. It is interesting nonetheless. It opens,

When President Obama took office in January 2009, the U.S. economy was in crisis. The nation was shedding more than 750,000 jobs per month, and confidence in our financial system had been shaken to its core. The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression exposed a toxic mix of excessive risk-taking, shoddy lending practices, inadequate capital levels, unstable funding, and weaknesses in regulatory oversight. A collapsing financial system choked off credit to consumers seeking to purchase a car, a home, groceries, or to finance an education. Nearly 9 million Americans lost their jobs, and over 5 million lost their homes. Nearly $13 trillion of families’ wealth was destroyed, wiping out almost two decades of gains.

In response to the crisis, the Administration released a proposed set of reforms in June 2009. Congress held numerous hearings and crafted legislation based on the Administration’s proposal, incorporating ideas from both Republicans and Democrats throughout the process. On July 21, 2010, President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act into law, a historic and comprehensive set of financial reforms, which put in place critical new protections for consumers, investors, and taxpayers. Five years later—as a result of Dodd-Frank and other Wall Street reforms—our financial system is stronger, safer, more resilient, and more supportive of sustainable economic growth. Regulators also have better tools to deal with financial shocks when they occur, to protect Main Street and taxpayers from Wall Street recklessness.

Critics of reform have claimed that Wall Street Reform would deter lending and choke off the recovery. But, today it is clear that the opposite is true. Reform has served as a building block for economic growth, providing Americans with safe places to invest their savings and enabling banks to lend to individuals, businesses, and communities. Only a financial system strong enough to withstand a major financial shock is capable of promoting sustainable economic growth. Five years after the President signed Wall Street Reform into law, nearly all of the major elements of financial reform are in place. Today, our financial system is safer and stronger as a result of these hard-won reforms, and our economy is in a far better position to continue growing and creating jobs. (1)

I was struck by the fact that the report does not address the biggest financial reform failure of the last five years, the lack of reform of the housing finance system.  Fannie and Freddie remain in conservatorship, putting the housing finance system at risk of another crisis.

I was also struck by the following passage:

In the run-up to the financial crisis, abusive lending practices and unclear underwriting standards resulted in risky mortgages which hurt consumers and ultimately threatened financial stability. Wall Street Reform bans many of the abusive practices in mortgage markets that helped cause the crisis, and requires lenders to determine that borrowers can repay their loans. (2)

My recollection from academic conferences over the course of the last six or seven years is that many leading academics denied the link between abusive lending practices and systemic risk. It seemed pretty clear to me, but I was in the minority on that one. I am glad to see that at least the Treasury agrees with me.

July 16, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

July 15, 2015

Strange Love for Homeowner Tax Rates

By David Reiss

                                  Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove

With a nod to Dr. Strangelove, David Hasen has posted a scary little thought experiment, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love our Homeowner Tax Rules on SSRN. The essay “estimates the magnitude of life-cycle tax benefits available from home ownership for representative taxpayers.” (1)

Hasan starts with a not-that-far-fetched example of a couple who purchases a California home in the 1960s. The home passes to their daughter and son-in-law in 2013. he documents a federal and state tax savings of about $15,000 per year for every year the home is owned by the family.

Hasan concludes,

A large literature has examined the distributional and allocative effects of the homeowner tax rules described above. Summarizing, the literature notes that the rules favor homeowners over renters, owners of larger homes over owners of smaller ones, and residents of states with a large owner-occupied housing sector over residents of other states. The literature also notes the efficiency costs associated with the rules, as taxpayers respond by adjusting their economic positions in ways that reduce total social wealth. The responses may include holding property rather than selling it, occupying it rather than renting it, and swapping it rather than selling it for cash, all as described above. Each of these choices, when tax-motivated, creates real economic costs.

The contribution of the present discussion is modest. One largely hidden aspect of the rules has been just how large the dollar tax savings can be relative to affected taxpayers’ overall tax liabilities, especially when considered in life-cycle terms. The discussion above gives a sense of the numbers for a relatively typical, albeit profitable, course of investment over two generations for an upper-income, but by no means wealthy couple. The bottom line is that for such a couple, taxes are reduced by 40 to 50 percent.

Benefits that are heavily skewed to higher income taxpayers and, consequently, that undermine the general distributional structure headlined in the law promote neither civic pride nor a sense of common purpose; benefits that have massive allocative effects create a large drag on the economy. If I hadn’t learned to stop worrying and love our homeowner tax rules, I might even be upset myself. (10, footnotes omitted)

Academics, myself included, rail against the way that federal housing policy overwhelmingly favors owners (wealthier, on average) over renters (poorer, on average), primarily through the tax code. It does not seem like the political will is there to change that dynamic at present. Nonetheless, it is important to keep reminding everyone of the facts:  federal housing policy heavily favors the wealthy over the poor, a sure sign of a poorly designed social policy.

July 15, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

By Shea Cunningham

July 15, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments