February 26, 2014
Subprime Mortgage Conundrums
Joseph Singer has posted Foreclosure and the Failures of Formality, or Subprime Mortgage Conundrums and How to Fix Them (also on SSRN). Singer writes,
One of the striking features of the subprime era is that banks acted without adequate regard for state property law. They were intent on serving the national and international financial markets with new and more profitable products, and they treated state property law as an obstacle to get around rather than a foundation on which to build. Rather than sell mortgages to families that could afford them, they hoodwinked the vulnerable by picking their pockets. Rather than honestly disclose the high risks associated with subprime loans, they paid rating agencies to give them AAA ratings, inducing investors to take risks they neither were prepared for nor understood. The banks made huge amounts of money marketing mortgages to people who could not afford to pay them back while offloading the risks of such deals onto hapless third parties. And rather than observe longstanding laws and customs designed to clarify property titles, banks evaded requirements of publicity and formality that traditionally governed real estate transactions. In short, the banks misled both borrowers and investors while undermining property titles. This was both a clever and a profitable way to engage in business, but it was neither honorable nor responsible. (501, footnotes omitted)
Brad Borden and I have made a similar point in our debate with Joshua Stein, but Singer’s article plays it out in far greater depth. The article is a property prof’s cri de coeur over the near death of real property law principles during the early 2000s subprime boom, but it is also a very thorough inquest. The article concludes with a review of tools that are available to respond to failures in the mortgage market. All in all, it provides a nice overview of what led to the crisis as well as potential policy tools that are available to prevent future ones.