Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

July 22, 2014

Risky Cash-Out Refis

By David Reiss

Anil Kumar of the Dallas Fed has posted Do Restrictions on Home Equity Extraction Contribute to Lower Mortgage Defaults? Evidence from a Policy Discontinuity at the Texas’ Border to SSRN.  The abstract reads

Given that excessive borrowing helped precipitate the housing crisis, a key component of a policy agenda to prevent future meltdowns is effective regulation to curb unaffordable mortgage debt. Texas is the only US state that limits home equity borrowing to 80 percent of home value. Anecdotal reports have long suggested that home equity restrictions shielded Texas homeowners from the worst of the subprime mortgage crisis. But there is, as yet, no formal empirical investigation of these restrictions’ role in curbing mortgage default. This paper is the first to empirically estimate the impact of Texas home equity restrictions on mortgage default using individual and loan level data from three different sources. The paper exploits the policy discontinuity around Texas’ interstate borders induced by the home equity restrictions to identify the causal effect of home equity extraction on mortgage default in a border discontinuity design framework. The paper finds that limits on home equity borrowing in Texas lowered the likelihood of mortgage default by about 2 percentage points with a significantly larger impact on mortgage borrowers in the bottom quartile of the credit score distribution. Estimated default hazards for mortgages within 50 to 100 miles of the Texas’ border decline sharply as one crosses into Texas. Overall, the paper finds evidence that Texas’ home equity restrictions exert a robust negative impact on mortgage default.

This is a really important paper asking a really important question.  If its findings are confirmed, it brings us back to that age-old question of paternalism in consumer financial protection: should we limit a consumer’s choice if that choice is consistently shown to have harmful effects?  I am not sure where I come down in this particular case, but I wonder if some version of Quercia et al.‘s benefit ratio could help measure the costs and benefits of such a rule. The benefit ratio compares “the percent reduction in the number of defaults to the percent reduction in the number of borrowers who would have access to [a certain type of] mortgages.” (20) I am not sure whether access to cash out refi mortgages is of the same import as purchase mortgages or even plain old refis, but the concept of the benefit ratio might still make sense in this context.

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