Rising Mortgage Borrowing for Seniors

graphic by www.aag.com/retirement-reverse-mortgage-pictures

J. Michael Collins et al. have posted Exploring the Rise of Mortgage Borrowing Among Older Americans to SSRN. The abstract reads,

3.6 million more older American households have a mortgage than 2000, contributing to an increase in mortgage usage among the elderly of thirty-nine percent. Rather than collecting imputed rent, older households are borrowing against home equity, potentially with loan terms that exceed their expected life spans. This paper explores several possible explanations for the rise in mortgage borrowing among the elderly over the past 35 years and its consequences. A primary factor is an increase in homeownership rates, but tax policy, rent-to-price ratios, and increased housing consumption are also factors. We find little evidence that changes to household characteristics such as income, education, or bequest motives are driving increased mortgage borrowing trends. Rising mortgage borrowing provides older households with increased liquid saving, but it does not appear to be associated with decreases in non-housing consumption or increases in loan defaults.

The discussion in the paper raises a lot of issues that may be of interest to other researchers:

Changes to local housing markets tax laws, and housing consumption preferences also appear to contribute to differential changes in mortgage usage by age.

Examining sub-groups of households helps illuminate these patterns. Households with below-median assets and those without pensions account for most of the increase in borrowing. Yet there are no signs of rising defaults or financial hardship for these older households with mortgage debt.

Relatively older homeowners without other assets, especially non-retirement assets, may simply be borrowing to fund consumption in the present—there are some patterns of borrowing in response to local unemployment rates that are consistent with this concept. This could be direct consumption or to help family members.

Older homeowners are holding on to their homes, and their mortgages, longer and potentially smoothing consumption or preserving liquid savings. Low interest rates may have enticed many homeowners in their 50s and 60s into refinancing in the 2000s. Those loans had low rates, and given the decline in home equity and also other asset values in the recession, paying off these loans was less feasible. There is also some evidence that borrowing tends to be more common in areas where the relative costs of renting are higher–limiting other options. Whether these patterns are sustained as more current aging cohorts retire from work, housing prices appreciate, and interest rates increase remains ambiguous.

The increase in the use of mortgages by older households is a trend worthy of more study. This is also an important issue for financial planners, and policy makers, to monitor over the next few years as more cohorts of older households retire, and existing retirees either take on more debt or pay off their loans. Likewise, estate sales of property and probate courts may find more homes encumbered with a mortgage. Surviving widows and widowers may struggle to pay mortgage payments after the death of a spouse and face a reduction of pension or Social Security payments. This may be a form of default risk not currently priced into mortgage underwriting for older loan applicants. If more mortgage borrowing among the elderly results in more foreclosures, smaller inheritances, or even estates with negative values, this could have negative effects on extended families and communities.

Preparing for the Next Housing Tsunami

Greg Kaplan et al. posted The Housing Boom and Bust: Model Meets Evidence to SSRN. The abstract reads,

We build a model of the U.S. economy with multiple aggregate shocks (income, housing finance conditions, and beliefs about future housing demand) that generate fluctuations in equilibrium house prices. Through a series of counterfactual experiments, we study the housing boom and bust around the Great Recession and obtain three main results. First, we find that the main driver of movements in house prices and rents was a shift in beliefs. Shifts in credit conditions do not move house prices but are important for the dynamics of home ownership, leverage, and foreclosures. The role of housing rental markets and long-term mortgages in alleviating credit constraints is central to these findings. Second, our model suggests that the boom-bust in house prices explains half of the corresponding swings in non-durable expenditures and that the transmission mechanism is a wealth effect through household balance sheets. Third, we find that a large-scale debt forgiveness program would have done little to temper the collapse of house prices and expenditures, but would have dramatically reduced foreclosures and induced a small, but persistent, increase in consumption during the recovery.

I think the last sentence is worth pondering a bit:  “a large-scale debt forgiveness program would have done little to temper the collapse of house prices and expenditures, but would have dramatically reduced foreclosures and induced a small, but persistent, increase in consumption during the recovery.” During the Great Depression, the federal government took steps that relieved the debt burden of over a million households by extending the terms of their mortgages and lowering the interest rates on them.

While this was no panacea, it did let millions stay in their homes during a period of great financial stress. The steps taken to help struggling homeowners during the recent Great Recession were much more timid than those taken during the Great Depression. This paper adds to a body of literature that suggests we should not be so timid the next time we are hit by an economic tsunami.

Mortgage Leverage and Bubbles

Albert Alex Zevelev has posted Regulating Mortgage Leverage: Fire Sales, Foreclosure Spirals and Pecuniary Externalities to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The US housing boom was accompanied by a rise in mortgage leverage. The subsequent bust was accompanied by a rise in foreclosure. This paper introduces a dynamic general equilibrium model to study how leverage and foreclosure affect house prices. The model shows how foreclosure sales, through their effect on housing supply, amplify and propagate house price drops. A calibration to match the bust shows consumption and housing need to be sufficiently complementary to fit the data. Since leverage plays a key role in foreclosure, a regulator can reduce systemic risk by placing a cap on leverage. Counterfactual experiments show that in a world with less leverage, the same economic shock leads to less foreclosure and less severe, shorter busts in house prices. A 90% cap on loan-to-value ratios in 2006 predicts house prices would have fallen 12% rather than 18% as in the data. The regulator faces a trade-off in that less leverage means less housing for constrained households, but also fewer foreclosures and less severe busts in house prices. A regulator with reasonable preference parameters would choose a cap of 95%.

This is pretty important stuff as it attempts to model the impact of different LTV ratios on prices and foreclosure rates. Now Zevelev is not the first to see these interactions, but it is important to  model how consumer finance regulation (for instance, loan to value ratios) can impact systemic risk. This is particularly important because many commentators downplay that relationship.

I am not in a position to evaluate the model in this paper, but its conclusion is certainly right: “Leverage makes our economy fragile by increasing the risk of default. It is clear that
foreclosure has many externalities and they are quantitatively significant. Since borrowers
and lenders do not fully internalize these externalities, there is a case for regulating mortgage leverage.” (31)