December 12, 2014
Bob Hockett has posted ‘We Don’t Follow, We Lead': How New York City Will Save Mortgage Loans by Condemning Them to SSRN. The abstract reads,
This brief invited essay lays out in summary form the eminent domain plan for securitized underwater mortgage loans that the author has been advocating and helping to implement for some years now. It does so with particular attention in this case to New York City, which is now actively considering the plan. The essay’s first part addresses the plan’s necessity. Its second part lays out the plan’s basic mechanics. The third part then systematically addresses and dispatches the battery of remarkably weak legal and policy arguments commonly proffered by opponents of the plan.
Hockett has been advocating this plan for some time in the face of concerted opposition from the financial industry. One industry argument that I have found to be over the top is that lenders will refuse to lend in communities that employ eminent domain to address the foreclosure crisis. Hockett writes,
Another policy argument made by some members of the securitization industry is that using eminent domain to purchase loans will dry up the sources of mortgage credit, rendering the American dream of homeownership unattainable. The financial services industry and its legislative supporters have made this kind of claim against regulatory and consumer protection proposals emerging from national, state, or municipal legislatures.
One problem with this argument is that private credit has not flowed to non-wealthy mortgage borrowers since the crash. Federal lenders and guarantors are nearly the only game in town, and they are likely to remain so until the underwater PLS loan logjam is cleared.
Another problem with the credit withdrawal argument is that it characterizes a benefit as a burden. The housing bubble was, like most of the more devastating bubbles through history, the upshot of an over-extension of credit. Lenders extended excess credit through reverse redlining and other predatory lending practices perpetrated or aided and abetted by participants in the securitization industry itself. Hence the securitization industry’s warning that credit might not be overextended in the future is a warning of something that might well be desirable. (142-43, footnotes omitted)
Given that lenders always rush to lend to countries that have recently defaulted on their sovereign debt, I don’t find the credit withdrawal argument to be particularly convincing here. But it may succeed in convincing some local governments not to proceed with their eminent domain strategies. I do hope, however, that at least one locality will follow through during the current foreclosure crisis. That way, we will at least have a proof of concept for the next foreclosure crisis.
December 11, 2014
The Federal Housing Finance Agency has ordered Fannie and Freddie to begin making contributions to the Housing Trust Fund and to the Capital Magnet Fund. These two funds were created pursuant to the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, the same statute that authorized placing the two companies in conservatorship. In 2008, FHFA Acting Director DeMarco suspended payments into the two funds because the two companies were being bailed out by the federal government. Now that the two companies are on firmer financial footing, the FHFA has lifted the suspension. The suspension will go back into effect for a company if it has to make a draw from Treasury under the Senior Preferred Stock Purchase Agreement, that is if the company does not have enough excess monies to make the payments into the two funds from its own income.
This action is not so surprising, given Watt’s past statements. It does, however, have some interesting implications. In terms of the GSE shareholder litigation, these allocations reduce the enterprises’ capital by a not insignificant amount; if shareholders were to win one of their lawsuits, monies placed in these two funds would be unavailable to them. In terms of housing finance reform, this action signals that the companies have moved beyond their crisis stage into a more stable one. It also emphasizes that the FHFA can take big steps on its own when it comes to housing finance reform, notwithstanding Congressional gridlock. All in all, it feels like the beginning of a new stage in the lives of the two companies.
The FHFA has issued an Interim Final Rule and Request for Comments relating to the payments into the two funds. The rule “implements a statutory prohibition against the Enterprises passing the cost of such allocations through to the originators of loans they purchase or securitize.” (1) Comments are due 30 days after the interim final rule is published in the Federal Register.
December 10, 2014
Albert Alex Zevelev has posted Regulating Mortgage Leverage: Fire Sales, Foreclosure Spirals and Pecuniary Externalities to SSRN. The abstract reads,
The US housing boom was accompanied by a rise in mortgage leverage. The subsequent bust was accompanied by a rise in foreclosure. This paper introduces a dynamic general equilibrium model to study how leverage and foreclosure affect house prices. The model shows how foreclosure sales, through their effect on housing supply, amplify and propagate house price drops. A calibration to match the bust shows consumption and housing need to be sufficiently complementary to fit the data. Since leverage plays a key role in foreclosure, a regulator can reduce systemic risk by placing a cap on leverage. Counterfactual experiments show that in a world with less leverage, the same economic shock leads to less foreclosure and less severe, shorter busts in house prices. A 90% cap on loan-to-value ratios in 2006 predicts house prices would have fallen 12% rather than 18% as in the data. The regulator faces a trade-off in that less leverage means less housing for constrained households, but also fewer foreclosures and less severe busts in house prices. A regulator with reasonable preference parameters would choose a cap of 95%.
This is pretty important stuff as it attempts to model the impact of different LTV ratios on prices and foreclosure rates. Now Zevelev is not the first to see these interactions, but it is important to model how consumer finance regulation (for instance, loan to value ratios) can impact systemic risk. This is particularly important because many commentators downplay that relationship.
I am not in a position to evaluate the model in this paper, but its conclusion is certainly right: “Leverage makes our economy fragile by increasing the risk of default. It is clear that
foreclosure has many externalities and they are quantitatively significant. Since borrowers
and lenders do not fully internalize these externalities, there is a case for regulating mortgage leverage.” (31)
December 9, 2014
The Government Accountability Office issued a report, Multiple Factors Influence Extent of Transit-Oriented Development. The GAO writes that
December 8, 2014
Kathleen Engel posted Can Consumer Law Solve the Problem of Complexity in U.S. Consumer Credit Products? to SSRN. The abstract reads,
People like to know and understand the total cost of credit products they are considering. They also like to know and understand products’ terms and features. Given these preferences, issuers of credit should market products with transparent features and simple pricing. That is not the case. In fact, over the last few decades we have seen a plethora of complex terms in products such as mortgage loans, credit cards, and prepaid debit cards.
As credit products have become ever more complex, consumers have more choices and can select products that satisfy their particular needs and preferences. No longer are borrowers limited to a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage. If they know they will be moving in a few years, a 3-year fixed-rate mortgage with a low interest rate that converts to a 27-year adjustable rate mortgage based on the LIBOR might be the right product for them. However, for borrowers who do not understand the complexities of a 3-27 mortgage loan, the low, initial interest rate could be a costly lure. Confusion is commonplace. In one study giving consumers a choice between two credit cards that varied only in terms of the annual fee and the interest rate, forty percent of the participants chose the more expensive card.
One would expect that consumers, who cannot decipher terms and calculate the cost of complex products, would turn to those with easy-to-understand terms. There are some simple products on the market. Instead, consumers often misperceive that the more complex products are less expensive than the simple ones. They, thus, shun the products that would be in their best interest.
In this paper, I explain why borrowers make sub-optimal choices when selecting credit products. I then analyze whether extant laws could be used to address obfuscating complexity. I ultimately conclude that policy-makers should look to extra-legal remedies to protect consumers against exploitative complexity.
I find those “extra-legal remedies” to be the most interesting part of this paper. Engel writes,
The approach I find most appealing is to use digital technology to help consumers make decisions. A software program would act like an agent, helping consumers determine what they could afford, what product would best meet their needs, and, lastly, would generate bids from providers of the product. Several goals motivate this idea: (1) the approach is preventative; (2) it does not require the courts to interpret vague standards; (3) it is less costly than litigation; (4) it protects unsophisticated consumers without requiring them to become sophisticated; and (5) it permits consumers to “pull” the information they need to select a product, rather than having issuers “push” hundreds of pages of information to them on multiple products. (24-25)
The paper does not explore how consumers would access this “choice agent,” but it is certainly an idea worth exploring. As some of my recent posts suggest, it is hard to rationally regulate for the entire population of consumers as they are a heterogeneous bunch. But it is important that we keep trying. Engel’s paper has some interesting ideas that are worth pursuing further.