Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

January 27, 2016

Failure to Refinance

By David Reiss

photo by GotCredit

Benjamin Keys, Devin Pope and Jaren Pope have recently had their Failure to Refinance paper accepted in the Journal of Financial Economics.  A version of the paper can be found on SSRN. This academic paper has a lot of relevance to many a homeowner. The abstract reads,

Households that fail to refinance their mortgage when interest rates decline can lose out on substantial savings. Based on a large random sample of outstanding U.S. mortgages in December of 2010, we estimate that approximately 20% of households for whom refinancing would be optimal and who appeared unconstrained to do so, had not taken advantage of the lower rates. We estimate the present-discounted cost to the median household who fails to refinance to be approximately $11,500, making this a particularly large consumer financial mistake. To shed light on possible mechanisms and corroborate our main findings, we also provide results from a mail campaign targeted at a sample of homeowners that could benefit from refinancing.

 The authors conclude,

Our results suggest the presence of information barriers regarding the potential benefits and costs of refinancing. Expanding and developing partnerships with certified housing counseling agencies to offer more targeted and in-depth workshops and counseling surrounding the refinancing decision is a potential direction for policy to alleviate these barriers for the population most in need of financial education.

In addition, the magnitude of the financial mistakes that households make suggest that psychological factors such as procrastination, trust, and the inability to understand complex decisions are likely barriers to refinancing. One policy that has been suggested to overcome the need for active household participation would require mortgages to have fixed interest rates that adjust downward automatically when rates decline To the extent that it is undesirable to reward only those households that are able to overcome the computational and behavioral barriers of the refinance process, policies such as an automatically-refinancing mortgage may be beneficial. Although an automatically-refinancing mortgage contract would be more expensive up-front for all borrowers in equilibrium, it would remove the cross-subsidization in the current mortgage finance system, where savvier homeowners who use their refinancing option when rates decline are subsidized by those households who fail to do so. (20, citation omitted)

I have heard a number of proposals that call for automatically refinancing mortgages. Such a mortgage product would shake up the mortgage market in its current form and require a transition period to figure out how it should be priced. But the net result would certainly benefit homeowners in the aggregate.

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