Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

December 18, 2013

Optimizing Principal Modifications

By David Reiss

S&P posted How Principal And Interest Rate Modifications Affect U.S. RMBS. Principal modifications — reducing the amount that the homeowner owes on the loan — have not been popular with lenders for obvious reasons. But they have also not been popular with politicians and even with the general populace for reasons that likely derive from variants of moral hazard: it just isn’t fair that some people don’t have to repay their debts. And if we give some people an out, won’t everyone else want one too?

Perhaps the better question to ask is whether principal modifications reduce defaults compared to other steps that lenders have taken with defaulting borrowers. S&P has looked at this question and they found “that even though rate reductions are the most common form of modification, principal reductions offer the most benefit to borrowers looking to avoid default.” (2)

While principal mods are good for borrowers — no big surprise there — their impact on investors is not so clear cut. S&P writes that

When it comes to principal reductions, investors can also have different outcomes based on the deal structure. A write-down in loan principal will cause an immediate reduction in credit enhancement, and bondholders would face greater exposure to collateral losses. But for deals with cumulative loss triggers, senior bondholders can receive extra principal diverted from subordinate classes once the triggers are tripped, thereby accelerating their recovery. . . . [S]tructural provisions and interest and principal payment mechanisms in RMBS transactions influence how loan modifications affect bondholders in RMBS transactions. Any type of modification brings with it nuances that may benefit the borrower while having a varied impact on investors. (5)

As we learn lessons that may apply in the next crisis, it is worth realizing that borrower workouts and investor outcomes are linked in ways that should be explicitly identified so that incentives can be properly aligned. With planning, mortgage-backed securities can be structured to be good for borrowers and investors, perhaps even Pareto optimal.

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