Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

March 16, 2018

Interest-Only During Recessions

By David Reiss

John Campbell et al. have posted Structuring Mortgages for Macroeconomic Stability to SSRN. They are not the first to propose a mortgage product that is designed to lessen its burden when times are hard, but that does not make their proposal any the less intriguing. The authors write,

Events in the last decade have shown that adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) have advantages over fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) in stabilizing the economy, at least when the central bank has monetary independence and can lower the short-term interest rate in a recession. A lower short rate provides automatic budget relief for ARM borrowers and helps to support their spending. It can also provide some relief to FRM borrowers, but this requires both a decline in the long-term mortgage rate and refinancing, which may be constrained by declining house prices and tightening credit standards. Barriers to FRM refinancing in the aftermath of the Great Recession were an important concern of US policymakers and motivated the introduction of the Home Affordable Refinance Program. (1, citations omitted)

The authors are certainly right that mortgages were a big drag on households during the Great Recession and many of them (but not all) would have benefited from lower monthly payments. To address this, the authors

study mortgage design features aimed at stabilizing the macroeconomy. Using a calibrated life-cycle model with competitive risk-averse lenders, we consider an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) with an option that during recessions allows borrowers to pay only interest on their loan and extend its maturity. We find that this option has several advantages: it stabilizes consumption growth over the business cycle, shifts defaults to expansions, and lowers the equilibrium mortgage rate by stabilizing cash flows to lenders. These advantages are magnified in a low and stable real interest rate environment where the standard ARM delivers less budget relief in a recession.

While there have been some pilot programs that introduce countercyclical mortgage products, nothing has really taken off so far. Hopefully, papers like this will push lenders and regulators to keep looking for solutions to our next housing crisis, before it actually hits.

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