July 20, 2015
Fernando Ferreira and Joseph Gyourko, both at Penn’s Wharton School, have posted A New Look at the U.S. Foreclosure Crisis: Panel Data Evidence of Prime and Subprime Borrowers from 1997 to 2012 to SSRN. Unfortunately it is behind a National Bureau of Economic Research paywall. The paper makes the case for “a reinterpretation of the U.S. foreclosure crisis as more of a prime, rather than a subprime, borrower issue.” (1) The authors conclude,
The housing bust and its consequences are among the defining economic events of the past quarter century. Constructing and analyzing new and very large micro data spanning the cycle and all sectors of the mortgage market leads us to reinterpret the ensuing foreclosure crisis as something much more than a subprime sector issue. Many more homes were lost by prime mortgage borrowers, and their loss rates not only increased relatively early in the crisis, but stayed high through 2012. This new characterization of the crisis motivates a very different empirical strategy from previous research on this topic. Rather than focus solely on the subprime sector and subprime traits, we turn to the traditional home mortgage default literature that explains outcomes in terms of common factors such as negative equity and borrower illiquidity.
The key empirical finding is that negative equity conditions can explain virtually all of the difference in foreclosure and short sale outcomes of Prime borrowers compared to all Cash owners. This is true on average, over time (including the spike in their foreclosure rate beginning in 2009), and across metropolitan areas. Given the predominance of this group in terms of foreclosures and short sales, this is tantamount to explaining the crisis itself. We can explain much, but not all, of the variation in Subprime borrower outcomes in terms of negative equity or borrower illiquidity conditions, so something potentially ‘special’ about the subprime sector still is unaccounted for. That said, it also could be that a less noisy measure of borrower illiquidity would be able to account for this residual variation. That remains for future research.
None of the other ‘usual suspects’ raised by previous research or public commentators change this conclusion. Housing quality traits, household demographics (race or gender), buyer income, and speculator status do not have a material influence on outcomes across borrower types. Certain loan-related attributes such as initial LTV, whether a refinancing occurred or a second mortgage was taken on, and loan cohort origination quarter do have some independent influence, but they are much weaker than that of current LTV. (27)
I will have to leave it to other empiricists to evaluate whether this sure-to-be-controversial study is methodologically sound, but I sure did find their policy conclusion to be interesting:
We are not able to provide a definitive recommendation one way or another, but we can rule out one noteworthy reason offered for not aiding homeowners—namely, that the crisis was mostly about irresponsible subprime sector actors (both lenders and borrowers) who were undeserving of transfers. Of course, this is not to say that there was no such behavior. The evidence from other research and serious journalists is that there was. However, it is clear from the passage of time (and the accumulation and analysis of new data that provides) that the problem was much more widespread and systemic. (28)
Hopefully, this is a lesson that we can take with us into the next (inevitable) housing crisis so we lay the foundation for policy solutions based on facts and not rely on moral judgments about borrowers that are built on shaky ground.| Permalink