On May 4, the CFPB issued a report sharing information the agency had gathered about mortgage forbearances and delinquencies. One notable takeaway is that Black and Brown homeowners, as well as low-income homeowners, are very prevalent among those in forbearance. A large portion of those in forbearance also have loan to value ratios north of 60%. All of this suggests that many who face chronic financial struggles and are most at risk of losing their homes, are also those currently benefiting from the forbearance programs.
This makes me immediately think: what happens when the forbearance periods are over? (which most believe will happen between September and November of this year) Specifically: what will their loan modifications look like?
I have an op-ed about the Consumer Bankruptcy Reform Act running on CNBC's site. Given that both collection moratoria and benefit extensions keep getting dribbled out in one to three month bites, we will definitely see an expiration of both as the pandemic wanes, and neither is sufficient for many households to address their arrearages.
Consider this (not in the op-ed): there's now 4.78% of mortgages that are 90+ delinquent. That's the third-highest level since 1978. Part of that is that there are virtually no foreclosures happening, but a lot of it is that the delinquencies aren't being cured. Once a household runs 90+ delinquent, cure gets very difficult—the arrearage is just too big. We are going to be looking at a lot of foreclosures down the road. Add to that a rental delinquency rate somewhere between 18% (Census numbers) and 23% (Nat'l Multifamily Housing Council numbers), and we've got a real mess looming. Unfortunately, it won't just be an economic problem or a personal tragedy for many families. It will be a political problem that will have long-term ramifications, just like the 2008 foreclosure crisis.
In the Spring I am teaching a research and writing seminar called Advanced Commercial Law and Contracts. Credit Slips readers have been important resources for project ideas in the past, and I'd appreciate hearing what you have seen out in the world on which you wish there was more research, and/or what you think might make a great exploration for an enterprising student. This course is not centered on bankruptcy, but things that happen in bankruptcy unearth puzzles from commercial and contract law more generally, so examples from bankruptcy cases are indeed welcome. You can share ideas through the comments below, by email to me, or direct message on Twitter.
Also, I am considering having the students build another wiki of jargon as I did a few years ago in another course. Please pass along your favorite (or least favorite) terms du jour in commercial finance and beyond.
Thank you as always for your input, especially during such chaotic times.
I have an article out in The American Prospect about How to Start Closing the Racial Wealth Gap. Unlike a lot of writing bemoaning the racial wealth gap, this piece has a concrete reform that could be undertaken on day 1 of a Biden administration without any need for legislation or even notice-and-comment rulemaking. The article points the disparate impact of an obscure, but enormous indirect fee on mortgage borrowers that the Federal Housing Finance Agency has required Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to charge since 2007. The fee is structured in a way that disadvantages borrowers with fewer resources and lower credit scores, which has a disparate impact on borrowers of color. (I'm not saying it's an ECOA violation--that's a different analytical matter.) The fee was adopted in response to a competitive environment in 2007 that doesn't exist today; there's really no good reason for the fee to exist any more.
My new book, The Great American Housing Bubble: What Went Wrong and How We Can Protect Ourselves in the Future was just released by Harvard University Press. The book is co-authored with my long-time collaborator, Wharton real estate economist Susan Wachter. It's the culmination of over a decade's worth of work on housing finance that began in the scramble of fall 2008 to come up with ways of assisting hard-pressed homeowners.
My coauthor Ed Balleisen has co-founded a program on consumer lending of interest to Credit Slips readers. Its initial data collection is particularly useful in documenting the North Carolina experience and its implications for other states. The quote below is from Balleisen's post on Consumer Law and Policy:
Data visualizations of statistics about the North Carolina mortgage market and consumer protection enforcement complement the oral histories, as do a set of policy timelines and memos about state- and national-level regulation of mortgage lending. Our key findings suggest that more stringent oversight of aggressive mortgage practices moderated the housing boom in North Carolina, and so partially insulated the state from the broad collapse in housing values across the country.
The final text of the act is now available here. The foreclosure relief is in Section 4022 and the eviction moratorium is in Section 4024. Mortgage borrowers with federally related loans (FHA, VA, Farmer's Home, Fannie or Freddie) may request 6 months of forbearance, i.e. no payments required, renewable for another 6 months, during which no late fees or penalties may be imposed, but interest continues to run (unlike student loans.) Homeowners need not provide documentation; a certification that they are affected by the COVID-19 crisis is enough. There is no statutory provision for loan modification after the forbearance period ends, so unpaid payments will still be due, but the agencies will likely be requiring or encouraging servicers to offer workouts when the forbearance ends. Section 4023 provides relief for landlords of multifamily buildings with federally related mortgages, conditioned on no evictions.
The eviction relief is limited to tenants in properties on which there is a federally related mortgage loan, and is only for 4 months. In brief, landlords may not send notices to quit or go forward with evictions. Tenant certifications of hardship are not required. An excellent summary of the eviction moratorium is available at the National Housing Law Project site here. Some states are also imposing eviction moratoria covering more tenants.
While Congress struggles to figure out the best way to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, it is very apparent that immediate relief measures are necessary, if only to buy time for a more comprehensive approach. Layoffs are already happening and with they continue, it will result in more economic disruption from diminished consumption.
1. Sending out checks isn't fast enough (and can't happen in two weeks)
There is, fortunately, some recognition of that speed is imperative, but there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. The wrong way is what the Trump administration is proposing, namely sending everyone a check. Besides being poorly tailored—$1,000 isn't enough for those who really need help and is wasted on many other folks—the problem is it just cannot happen fast enough. No one is being honest about the operational problems. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is going around saying that he wants to get checks for $1,000 to every American within two weeks. That's just not possible, and Mnuchin should stop overpromising.
Here's why it won't work fast enough: for Treasury to send everyone a check, it would need to know where to send the checks. It doesn't. Treasury knows where to send checks to individuals who are receiving Social Security and Disability Insurance (actually, it would be electronic transfers in almost all such cases). But what about everyone else? Treasury doesn't know (a) who is still alive, and (b) where they live. The first problem might mean sending out some checks that shouldn't happen, but the second problem is more serious, as it means that checks won't get where they need to go. Treasury is able to send me a tax refund because I give an address with my tax return. At best Treasury has year-old information, which will be wrong for many people. Those people who most need the money are the people who are most likely to have moved in the last year—economically insecure renters (see Matthew Desmond's Evicted on this). Sending everyone a check really isn't a very good solution.
2. Foreclosure/eviction moratoria are equivalent to an immediate cash injection to the economy.
Fortunately, there's a better solution: an immediate national moratorium on foreclosures, evictions, repossessions, utility disconnects, garnishments, default judgments, and negative credit reporting for all consumers and small businesses. The point of a national collection action moratorium is not to be nice to debtors. A national collection moratorium is a stimulus measure: it has the effect of immediately injecting cash into the economy in that it allows people and businesses to shift funds from debt service obligations to other consumption. It's basically a giant forced loan from creditors to debtors. And it happens immediately, without any administrative apparatus. There's nothing else that will have such a big effect so immediately. Congress should move on moratorium legislation asap as a stand-alone bill to buy itself some more time for a longer-term fix.
Now let's be clear—what I am talking about is not debt forgiveness. It is forced forbearance. The debts will still be owed and may accrue interest and late fees (there may be ways to limit those, but that's another matter). That's important because it substantially reduces the argument that the delay constitutes a Taking—government is always free to change how remedies operate, such as changing foreclosure timelines, etc. without the changes being a Taking.
This is exactly what a moratorium would be doing. A number of states and localities have already undertaken such moratoria, and FHFA and HUD have done so for federally or GSE insured or guarantied loans. But we've got a national crisis, so this should be done uniformly on the federal level using the Interstate Commerce power for the entire consumer and small business debt market. Given that all collection actions involve the mails or wires and that debt markets are national, this seems squarely within the scope of federal power.
Now a collection moratorium is not a permanent fix and will cause some dislocations itself. Consumers/small businesses will eventually need to come current on their obligations, and they may need assistance to do so, but that's something that we can work on later when we're not in free fall. But right now what we need more than anything is time, and a collection moratorium can buy us some time more broadly and more immediately than any other possible step.
The Big Lie just won’t die. The Big Lie, of course, is The Government Made Me Do It theory of the financial crisis, that the housing bubble whose collapse set off the crisis was the product of government policies encouraging affordable home mortgage credit.
A video emerged recently of presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg espousing the Big Lie, and incredibly, the New York Times is running an op-ed that defends the Big Lie. Most of the op-ed comes verbatim from a new book by Christopher Caldwell. Caldwell has written a remarkably misleading piece about government affordable housing policy. It misrepresents that actual legal requirements, gets the relationship between the GSEs and private securitization market entirely backwards, wrongly implies support from scholarship that is saying something altogether different, and relies on outdated scholarship. I get that Caldwell isn't a housing finance expert, and his book is a trade book on the welfare state, but this is exactly the sort of silliness that happens from drive-by analysis. I'm pretty sure that the Times wouldn't run unsourced climate denial claptrap, but this is the housing finance equivalent. Let me highlight several examples.
Last year the Washington Post covered Mick Mulvaney's South Carolina land deal gone sour. It was a pretty amazing case that is fantastic for teaching purposes. Mick's moves would have made some of the most sophisticated distressed debt funds (not to mention a real estate developer president) blush with shame (or green with envy).
I've got an update on the case that appears quite troubling: it seems that the South Carolina court has put everything except the docket entry list under seal, including previously public available documents. If I am correct, this is really disturbing because would indicate a willingness by the South Carolina court system to accommodate Mick's desire to shield keep his business dealings from any public scrutiny, even though there is no legitimate reason that I can see for the court to turn seal all the documents in a public judicial proceeding about a commercial real estate foreclosure action.
Today, Senator Elizabeth Warren unveiled her new plan to reform the consumer bankruptcy system. The plan is simple, yet elegant. It is based on actual data and research (including some of my own with Consumer Bankruptcy Project co-investigators Slipster Bob Lawless, former Slipster, now Congresswoman Katie Porter, and former Slipster Debb Thorne). Most importantly, I believe it will make the consumer bankruptcy system work for American families. And, as a bonus, it will tackle the bad behavior that big banks and corporations currently engage in once people file, like trying to collect already discharged debts, and some non-bankruptcy financial issues, such as "zombie" mortgages.
In short, the plan provides for one chapter that everyone files, combined with a menu of options to respond to each families' particular needs. It undoes some of the most detrimental amendments that came with the 2005 bankruptcy law, including the means test. In doing so, it sets new, undoubtedly more effective rules for the discharge of student loan debt, for modification of home mortgages, and for keeping cars. It also undoes "smaller" amendments that likely went unnoticed, but may have deleterious effects on people's lives. Warren's plan gets rid of the current prohibition on continuing to pay union dues, the payment of which may be critical to allowing people who file bankruptcy to keep their jobs and keep on their feet. Similarly, the plan eliminates problems debtors face paying rent during their bankruptcy cases, which can lead to eviction.
One chapter that everyone files means that the continued racial disparities in chapter choice my co-authors and I have documented will disappear. No means test, combined with less documentation, as provided by Warren's plan, means that the most time-consuming attorney tasks will go away. Attorney's fees should decrease. Warren's plan also provides for the payment of fees over time. People will not have to put off filing for bankruptcy for years while they struggle in the "sweatbox." Costly "no money down" bankruptcy options should disappear. People will have the chance to enter the bankruptcy system in time to save what little they have, which research has shown is key to people surviving and thriving post-bankruptcy.
First, I thought the new SBRA procedure might be a fairly snooze-worthy Chapter 13 on protein supplements (i.e., not even steroids) because the current Chapter 13 debt limit (aggregate) is $1,677,125, while the new SBRA aggregate debt limit is less than double this, at $2,725,625 [note to the ABI: please update the figures in your online Code for the April 2019 indexation]. A couple of obvious and another non-obvious point cut in opposite directions here, it seems to me. First, Chapter 13 is not available to entities (e.g., LLCs), and for individuals, the Chapter 13 debt limits are broken out into secured and unsecured, while the SBRA figure is not. So the SBRA is significantly more hospitable to any small business debtor with only $500,000 in unsecured debt or, say, $1.5 million in secured debt. Flexibility is a virtue, so maybe the SBRA is just a meaningfully more flexible Chapter 13? No, as Bob's post reminded me. In the "conforming amendments" section at the end of the new law is hidden an important modification to the definition of "small business debtor" in section 101(51D), which will now require that "not less than 50 percent of [the debt] arose from the commercial or business activities of the debtor." So no using the SBRA provisions to deal more flexibly with an individual debtor's $500,000 in unsecured debt or a $1.5 million mortgage or HELOC if it's not related to business activity.
Second, this last point is the really intriguing aspect of SBRA for me. For the first time in recent memory, we see a crack in the wall that has insulated home mortgages from modification in bankruptcy. Sections 1322(b)(2) and 1123(b)(5) still prohibit the modification of claims secured by the debtor's principal residence, but the SBRA at last provides an exception to this latter provision: An SBRA plan may modify the debtor's home mortgage (including bifurcation into secured and unsecured portions?!) if "the new value received in connection with the granting of the security interest" was not used to acquire the home, but was "used primarily in connection with the small business of the debtor." A small crack it may be, but this sleeper provision strikes me as an important opening for serious discussion of modification of other non-acquisition home mortgage modifications in Chapter 13, for example. This would be a game changer after the HEL and HELOC craze of the earlier 2000s. It will doubtless provide further evidence that the HELOC market will not evaporate or even change appreciably as small business debtors begin to modify their home-secured business loans. Of course, that depends on a robust uptake of the new procedure. We shall see in 2020.
USA Today just came out with an interesting expose about reverse mortgages and their negative impact, especially in low-income, African American, urban neighborhoods (highlighting a few in my backyard here in Chicago). I have long been interested in reverse mortgages, touted in TV ads by seemingly trustworthy spokespeople like Henry Winkler and Alex Trebek as sources of risk-free cash for folks enjoying their golden years, and I am always on the lookout for explanations of the pitfalls. Most of these breathless critiques strike me as overkill, but the USA Today story reveals fairly compelling real stories of a few of the ways in which a combination of financial illiteracy and sharp marketing tactics can lead to bad outcomes ranging from rude awakening (heirs having to buy back their childhood homes) to tragedy (simple missed paperwork deadlines leading to foreclosure and an abusive accumulation of default and attorney fee charges).
One line really jumped out at me. In defense of their seemingly hard-hearted and Emersonian-foolish-consistencies-being-the-hobgoblins-of-little-minds conduct, an industry spokesperson deflects, "lenders would prefer to extend the deadlines for older borrowers but fear violating HUD guidelines." Another bank official chimes in, “No matter how heinous or heartbreaking the case, it’s not our call. There’s no wiggle room,” adding that the stress of being unable to behave in a commercially and morally reasonable manner “takes a toll on employees.” [Yes, the unquoted characterization of the rigid lender behavior is mine, not the bank official's].
"Really??!!," I wondered. I wouldn't put any outrage past the Trump administration these days, but forcing banks to foreclose because an elderly surviving spouse overlooked a single piece of paperwork and is prepared to fix the problem a few days past the deadline strikes me as ... hard to believe. Is the government complicit in these reverse mortgage tragedies because it forces lenders to observe rules and deadlines rigidly? If so, how sad and frustrating, and yet another sign of the failures of our modern political stalemate between rational compromise and hysteria, where the latter seems to be winning on all sides.
A remarkable new quantitative study finds that over two decades, African American home buyers in Chicago lost between $3 and $4 billion in wealth because of credit apartheid. The study authors from research centers at Duke, UIC and Loyola-Chicago reviewed property records for more than 3,000 Chicago homes. During the 1950s and 1960s, up to 95% of homes sold to black buyers were financed with land installment sale contracts rather than mortgages. Mortgage loans were largely unavailable due to continued redlining by banks and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Instead, a limited group of speculators bought homes for cash and resold them with large price markups to newcomers in the Great Migration. The interest rates for land installment contracts were several points higher than comparable mortgage loans offered to whites. Thus, black home buyers were overcharged for the home price and the interest rate they paid compared with similar white home buyers. The authors quantify this as a 141% race tax on housing.
Buyers financing homes with installment land contracts also face greater risks of losing their homes and accumulated equity than buyers with a deed and mortgage purchase, for reasons we teach, or ought to teach, in any Property Law or Real Estate class in law school. A missed payment on a land contract can mean quick eviction, while a homeowner behind on a mortgage is protected in many states by foreclosure procedures and redemption rights. More importantly, when a bank, FHA or other lender finances a home, the lender has strong incentives to protect the buyer and itself from defective home conditions or title problems. Those protections are missing from the installment land contract financing structure. The Duke study did not include the cost of premature evictions, home repairs, and title problems experienced by black contract buyers, all of which would further magnify the wealth gap between white and black home buyers.
A lot of the criticism of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s student loan forgiveness proposal has focused on how it's not fair to give loan forgiveness to current borrowers when past borrowers repaid their debts. That criticism overlooks the enormous boost Senator Warren's proposal would give to the real estate market. Many previous borrowers are homeowners, and homeowners are going to be one of the major beneficiaries of any student loan debt forgiveness as their home equity value will increase because of the increase in housing demand from deleveraged student borrowers.
By my calculations Senator Warren's proposal for $640 billion in student loan forgiveness could readily translate into $1 trillion of increased home equity value plus an additional $320 billion to $680 billion in GDP growth. That's an amazing win-win-win for student loan debtors, for homeowners, and for those in the home building and furnishing trades.
I'll be testifying on Tuesday at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on housing finance that is focused on Chairman Crapo's reform outline. My written testimony may be found here. Suffice it to say, I'm skeptical. I argue that a multi-guarantor system is a path to disaster and that the right approach is a single-guarantor system with back-end credit-risk transfers. Oh wait, we already have that system in all but name. The system has been totally reformed since 2008. So why are we looking to do anything major with housing finance reform? Hmmm.
An unsustainable run-up in consumer housing debt and other debt was a fundamental structural cause of the 2008 global financial crisis. Following four years of painfully slow decline, total U.S. consumer debt has now risen back above its 2008 peak, with the growth led by student loan and auto loan debt. Mortgages outstanding are not quite at their 2008 levels, but student loan and auto loan growth more than makes up for the modest home loan deleveraging. Americans are back up to their eyeballs in debt, but now some of the debt burden has shifted from baby boomers to millennials. While the cost of health care may be a key electoral issue for the over-50 crowd, under-40s will be listening for policymakers to offer solutions on student loans.
This working paper is a longitudinal empirical study of lower-income homeowners, including a subset of bankruptcy filers, produced with an interdisciplinary team of cross-campus colleagues, including Professor Roberto Quercia, director of UNC's Center for Community Capital. We just posted this version on SSRN for the first time yesterday in light of continued interest in its questions and findings. The abstract does not give too much detail (see the paper for that), but here it is:
We examine the personal bankruptcy decisions of lower-income homeowners before and after the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA). Econometric studies suggest that personal bankruptcy is explained by financial gain rather than adverse events, but data constraints have hindered tests of the adverse events hypothesis. Using household level panel data and controlling for the financial benefit of filing, we find that stressors related to cash flow, unexpected expenses, unemployment, health insurance coverage, medical bills, and mortgage delinquencies predict bankruptcy filings a year later. At the federal level, the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform explains a decrease in filings over time in counties that experienced lower filing rates.
Historian Ed Balleisen and I have just posted a paper of interest to Credit Slips readers who are interested in consumer protection, financial crises, and inputs into post-crisis policymaking more generally. I will let the abstract speak for itself:
Edward J. Balleisen & Melissa B. Jacoby
Like other major events, the Global Financial Crisis generated a large and diffuse body of academic analysis. As part of a broader call for operationalizing the study of crises as policy shocks and resulting responses, which inevitably derail from elegant theories, we examine how regulatory protagonists approached consumer protection after the GFC, guided by six elements that should be considered in any policy shock context. After reviewing the introduction and philosophy of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, created as part of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, we consider four examples of how consumer protection unfolded in the crises’ aftermath that have received less attention. Our case studies investigate a common set of queries. We sought to identify the parties who cared sufficiently about a given issue to engage with it and try to shape policy, as well as the evolving nature of the relevant policy agenda. We also looked for key changes in policy, which could be reflected in various forms—whether establishing an entirely new regulatory agency, formulating novel enforcement strategies, or deflecting policy reforms.
The Article concludes with an overall assessment and suggestions for other focal points for which our approach would be useful. The examples span a range of other domestic and global policy contexts.
Before it was the global financial crisis, we called it the subprime crisis. The slow, painful recovery, and the ever-widening income and wealth inequality, are the results of policy choices made before and after the crisis. Before 2007, legislators and regulators cheered on risky subprime mortgage lending as the "democratization of credit." High-rate, high-fee mortgages transferred income massively from working- and middle-class buyers and owners of homes to securities investors.
After the crisis, policymakers had a choice, to allocate the trillions in wealth losses to investors, borrowers or taxpayers. U.S. policy was for taxpayers to lend to banks until the borrowers had finished absorbing all the losses. The roughly $400 billion taxpayers lent out to banks via the TARP bailout was mostly repaid, apart from about $30 billion in incentives paid to the mortgage industry to support about 2 million home loan modifications, and $12 billion spent to rescue the US auto industry. The $190 billion Fannie/Freddie bailout has also returned a profit to the US Treasury. Banks recovered quickly and are now earning $200 billion in annual profits. Of course, equity investors, particularly those wiped out by Lehman and many other bankruptcies, or by the global downturn generally, lost trillions as well. The long-term impact, however, was to shift corporate debt to government balance sheets, while leaving households overleveraged.
Thomas Herndon has calculated that 2008-2014 subprime mortgage modifications added $20 billion to homeowner debt (eroding wealth by $20 billion). In other words, all the modification and workout programs of the Bush and Obama administrations did not reduce homeowner debt by a penny. In fact, mortgage lenders added $20 billion (net) fees and interest onto the backs of distressed homeowners. During the same period, $600 billion in foreclosure losses were written off by private mortgage-backed securities investors, implying a similar or greater loss in wealth for foreclosed homeowners. These data include only the private-label side of the housing finance market; adding the debt increase and wealth losses for Fannie and Freddie homeowners could conceivably double the totals.
Nearly 9 million homes were foreclosed from 2007 to 2016. While some were investor-owned, even those often resulted in the eviction of tenant families. Four and one-half million homeowners still remain underwater, i.e. owe more mortgage debt than the value of their home.
While baby boomers' housing wealth was decimated by foreclosures and increasing mortgage debt, millennials piled on student loan debt, closing the door to home buying and asset building. A recovery built on incomplete deleveraging, and new waves of consumer debt buildup, contains the seeds of the next crisis. While various pundits bemoan the resurgent federal fiscal debt, we would do well to address policies that continue to stoke unsustainable household debt.
Various tax law scholars have commented on the tax fraud allegations in the recent New York Times story. Equally important is the story's reminder that our housing finance system, and the real estate fortunes it has spawned, have depended for nearly a century on the largess of government.
Fred Trump, the president's father, built the fortune that Donald Trump inherited after avoiding or evading millions in estate and gift taxes. Fred's fortune was almost entirely due to his savvy exploitation of federal government housing subsidies. When Roosevelt's New Dealers struggled to put the economy back on its feet, they invented the FHA mortgage insurance program, and Fred Trump was one of FHA's first profiteers. As recounted in Gwenda Blair's wonderful book, Fred went from building one house at a time to building Huge middle-class apartment complexes when he was first able to tap into government-backed FHA loans.
In his fascinating 1954 testimony before the Senate Banking Committee (begins at p. 395), Fred Trump explains how he purchased the land for the Beach Haven apartments for roughly $200,000, put the land in trust for his children and paid gift taxes on a $260,000 land valuation, and then obtained a a $16 million FHA mortgage to build the apartments. Fred's corporation owning the buildings netted $4 million from the loan proceeds above and beyond the construction costs, and the land belonging to the Trump childrens' trust was valued by the City tax assessors at $1.3 million as a result of the FHA mortgage transaction and apartment construction. In other words, Fred Trump parlayed his $200,000 investment into a $4 million cash profit for his business and a $1.3 million ground lease producing $60,000 annual income for his children. In his testimony he conceded that this would have been impossible without the FHA government loan guarantee.
Peter Dreier and Alex Schwartz have written a nice exposé of the irony in President Trump's proposals to slash the very government housing finance subsidies to which he owes his personal fortune.
The Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975 is a key piece of fair lending legislation. It requires mortgage lenders to report data on loan applications and loans funded that enables both government and private groups to monitor lending patterns for violations of the Fair Housing Act and Equal Credit Opportunity Act (as well as state fair lending laws). In 2015 the CFPB adopted a new HMDA rule that would expand the number of data fields collected by some 25 fields, effective Jan. 1, 2018. This is being decried as an unreasonable burden on small institutions and a bipartisan collection of Senators on the Senate Banking Committee have proposed a bill that would exempt financial institutions that made less than 500 open-end loans or 500 close-end loans in each of the previous two years from the new HMDA reporting requirements.
There's no question that the new HMDA requirements add something to financial institutions regulatory burden. But a look at what these requirements are shows that the burden is really de minimis. It's not going to make-or-break a small financial institution. Below is a list of all 25 new data fields. As you will see, after each one I have indicated whether it is data that is already required for the TILA-RESPA Integrated Disclosure (TRID) or would normally be in a loan underwriting file. If it is in either, then it is simply a matter of having adequate software to plug that data into HMDA reporting. Asking a bank to have integrated mortgage underwriting and reporting software doesn't seem like an unreasonable request, but none of this is stuff that should take very long to do even by hand-entry of data (something I've done plenty of). I've dotted all my i's and crossed my t's here, but the bottom line is this. Almost every piece of information required under the new HMDA rule is already being collected by the lender for either its own underwriting purposes or for compliance with other regulatory requirements. In other words, this just ain't a big deal. My guess would be that the total additional compliance costs is a few thousand dollars per year for this.
The CFPB itself estimates (see p. 66308) per the Paperwork Reduction Act requirement that for truly small banks total HMDA compliance costs (which includes existing costs) will be between 143 and 173 hours of time annually. Even at $100/hr (which is far more than a compliance staffer at a small bank makes), this would total, at most, $17,300 annually. Around half the fields are new, so we're looking at around $8,650 annually in additional costs for small banks as the high-end estimate. So this leave me wondering why the pushback against the new HMDA rule.
Am I missing something here? This just doesn't seem to be a game changer for small financial institutions, and it will cause some serious damage to HMDA data in some communities and even some entire states in which large financial institutions don't have much of a presence.
As the subprime foreclosure crisis grinds down slowly (there are still roughly 3 million pre-crisis subprime mortgages outstanding, many of them delinquent), and the HAMP program sunsets, the time has come to appraise the total damage done. In the ten years from 2007 through the end of 2016, about 6.7 million foreclosure sales were completed, and another 2 million or so short sales and deeds-in-lieu of foreclosure brought the total home losses to about 8.7 million, according to HOPE NOW.
Subprime mortgages accounted for 2 million of those foreclosure sales and perhaps another 500,000 of the stressed sales. The 2.5 million total home losses roughly matches predictions made at the onset of the crisis, and exceed by a considerable number the total number of subprime mortgages made to first-time home buyers from 2000 to 2007. In other words, subprime mortgages subtracted more than they added to home ownership.
The pre-crisis loans are by no means all resolved. About one million active mortgage loans were modified under the HAMP program, meaning that interest rates and payments were reduced for up to five years. Many of those mortgages will face steep rate and payment increases in the coming years, and many are also in negative equity, making sale or refinancing difficult or impossible. A total of around 8 million mortgages were modified under various programs at some point, although a significant portion of those later ended up among the 8 million home losses. The good news is that the number of homes whose mortgage exceeds the market value (underwater or negative equity) has declined from 30% of homes to fewer than 8%. The bad news is that just under 8% of homes are still underwater, a precarious situation that remains historically unprecedented.
These stats and many others can be found in an excellent new monthly housing finance data compendium from the Urban Institute.
How much in punitive damages is enough to punish unlawful conduct and deter its repetition? $45 million was one bankruptcy court's opinion, in the case of a wrongful home foreclosure and eviction in knowing violation of the automatic stay.
The court described the plaintiff-debtors’ treatment by defendant Bank of America as Kafkaesque, and found their deeply emotional testimony (one of them attempted suicide during the ordeal) completely credible, awarding more than $1 million in actual damages for the loss of housing and emotional distress. The court also noted that Bank of America had repeatedly settled cases with federal and state regulators for hundreds of millions, and even billions, of dollars, in recognition of serious and repeated compliance failures, including some related directly to servicing home mortgages.
The fascinating 107-page opinion grapples at length with the dilemma of awarding enough punitive damages to effectively deter the defendant while avoiding an unseemly windfall to the plaintiffs. The solution: the decision awards $40 of the $45 million punitive award to consumer advocacy organizations and the five public California law schools. Citing an Ohio case, state statutes and several law review articles, the court proposes this split award technique as an appropriate step forward in the federal common law of §362(k) punitive damages. An interesting appeal is sure to follow.
Credit Slips is delighted to welcome first-time guest blogger, Professor Gary Neustadter. A renowned innovative teacher, Professor Neustadter specializes in debtor-creditor law, contracts, consumer protection, and legal practice. His classic work, When Lawyer and Client Meet: Observations of Interviewing and Counseling Behavior in the Consumer Bankruptcy Law Office, is a must-read, particularly worth revisiting as the nature of legal practice changes in the last decade driven by BAPCPA and the technology.
His new article, Randomly Distributed Trial Court Justice: A Case Study and Siren from the Consumer Bankruptcy World, is one of the most exciting pieces of scholarship that I've had the pleasure of reading. Gary offers all those interested in civil justice and economic rights a rare window directly into the justice system. While the picture that he portrays is far from pretty, his article approaches the effect of great art: it challenges us to question our assumptions and our perspectives.
Welcome, Gary, to Credit Slips. We look forward to your insights.
Sharing news of this post-election civil rights conference on December 2, 2016 that, notably for Credit Slips, features pathbreaking research by Professors Mechele Dickerson and Bob Lawless (in collaboration with Dov Cohen and the late Jean Braucher) on the intersection of race with debt and bankruptcy and an exploration of how this research informs policymaking and advocacy going forward. Time permitting, I will address a different intersection between race and debt: collecting judgments arising from police misconduct when cities file for bankruptcy. Thanks to Professor Ted Shaw and the Center for Civil Rights for recognizing the role debtor-creditor research can play in the quest for equality.
Register using this link.
The headlines look pretty bad: the DC Circuit Court of Appeals held the CFPB's structure to be unconstitutional in a case call PHH v. CFPB, which deals with kickbacks in captive private mortgage reinsurance arrangements allegedly in violation of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act. In fact, however, the ruling is a blessing in disguise for the CFPB. While the 110 page decision is filled with inflammatory rhetoric, it gives the CFPB's detractors very little succor in the end. The CFPB lost on the decision's rhetoric, but won on the practical implications. Although the CFPB’s current structure was declared unconstitutional, the court also immediately remedied the flaw by declaring that the CFPB Director is now removable by the President at will, rather than only "for cause" as provided for by the Dodd-Frank Act. There are four critical implications from this ruling:
A new paper by Franceso D'Acunto and Albert Rossi, both at the University of Maryland's Department of Finance, contends that the Dodd-Frank Act resulted in "a substantial redistribution of credit from middle-class households to wealthy households", as lenders reacted to regulations by reducing credit to middle-class households and increasing it to wealthy households. This conclusion is based on a regression analysis of loan and ZIP-code level HMDA data. The redistribution point is a serious charge to be leveled at the Dodd-Frank Act, and you can bet that this paper is going to be repeatedly cited by Congressional Republicans in their attempts to repeal Dodd-Frank.
Unfortunately, the paper is founded on a pair of mistaken factual claims about the legal landscape that are so staggering that I am puzzled how they could have been made in good faith. Once these mistakes are corrected, it becomes apparent that the paper's analysis cannot actually support its claims because it is testing the wrong thing. The paper is observing changes in the mortgage market that pre-date the implementation of Dodd-Frank. By definition, then, these changes cannot have been caused by Dodd-Frank. What the paper shows (without realizing it) is that there has been a redistribution of credit from middle class households to wealthy ones, but that it wasn't caused by Dodd-Frank. Whoops.
Over on Twitter, Michael Barr noticed that there's an eerie similarity between Wells Fargo employees team members being incentivized to open up unauthorized deposit and credit card accounts for consumers and another practice that got Wells in trouble in 2011, falsifying borrower income and employment information in order to sell debt consolidation, cash-out refinance mortgage loans at sub-prime rates (often to prime borrowers). Wells entered into an $85 million consent order with the Federal Reserve Board in July 2011 over these practices. (See summary here.) The consent order noted that it was Wells incentive-based compensation and minimum sales quotas that drove the employee fraud:
B. Under Financial's sales performance standards and incentive compensation programs, Financial sales personnel, called "team members," were expected to sell (a) a minimum dollar amount of loans to avoid performance improvement plans that could result in loss of their positions with Financial, and (b) a minimum dollar amount of loans to receive incentive compensation payments above their base salary.
This rather expensive consent order should have been a giant red flag for Wells Fargo's compliance department, for Wells Fargo's board of directors, and for John Stumpf, Wells Fargo's Chairman/CEO. It should have caused Wells Fargo to reexamine its loan officer compensation structures throughout the bank. One assumes that the consent order did not come out of the blue in July 2011, but was likely the result of months if not years of investigation and negotiation. That suggests that Wells should have been aware of problems with its compensation system substantially before it began firing employees in 2011 over the unauthorized account openings. As ugly as things already look for Wells, we might learn that things were in fact worse.
A new CMBS issuance is set to test whether regulators will treat the 5% retained credit risk under Dodd-Frank as loans or bonds. The difference matters because there are different capital charges for loans and bonds. If regulators treat the retained credit risk as bonds (which matches the technical form of the retained interest), then the risk retention requirement will be much more onerous. If they treat the retained credit risk as loans, it is just as if the bank securitized only 95% of the loans, rather than 100%.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency has finally announced a program to reduce principal balances of distressed home mortgages held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, eight years into the foreclosure crisis. Too little, too late would be an understatement to describe this initiative. According to the agency’s announcement, they expect about 33,000 homeowners to be eligible to have their mortgage debt reduced to the value of their homes. According to the Zillow negative equity report, more than 6 million homeowners have mortgage debt exceeding their home value, and almost a third of all homeowners are effectively underwater, meaning that their equity is less than 20% of the home value, making it difficult to sell or refinance.
Aggregate value of homes in the US rose from $10.9 trillion in 1998 to $28.3 trillion in 2006, then declined to $19.5 by the beginning of 2012, recovering somewhat in the past three years. This one-third decline in home values was not accompanied by a one-third decline in mortgage debt. Residential mortgage debt peaked at 10.6 trillion in 2006, and then declined to 9.5 trillion by the end of 2012, just a 10% easing. The overhang of home mortgage debt remains a huge impediment to consumer spending, wealth accumulation and the closing of the racial wealth gap in the United States. It is regrettable that the FHFA continues to take such a narrow view of its role as the regulator of our secondary mortgage market utilities and fails to pursue the social values that our taxpayer-backed housing finance system ought to advance.
Tara Twomey is just a keen observer of the consumer finance world, and she recently alerted me to a trend. Reverse mortgages are being aggressively hawked as a valuable financial planning tool, and the media is picking up the story. Even the reverse mortgage industry rag is excited at its publicity rash. While I'm all for consumer finance journalism, these articles often report on studies that bear little resemblance to most Americans' situations.
First a quick definition of reverse mortgages: a loan secured by a home that pays the homeowner money based on accumulated home equity with loan repaid in the future. In its most straightforward form, the homeowner gets a lump sum of cash and must repay the loan when she dies (presumably out of the proceeds of the house that is sold upon her death.) Reverse mortgages are a complex product marketed specifically to older Americans. (If you doubt the complexity, read Tara's great article that ponders how a reverse mortgage should be treated in a homeowner's bankruptcy.) Precisely for this reason, FHA requires counseling for its reverse mortgage, called a Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM).
While we can hope that homeowners receive adequate information and make fully-informed decisions, the chatter about reverse mortgages is starting out their inquiry into reverse mortgages with some questionable math. The problem isn't the math itself, of course, but the assumptions. In a typical example featured in these stories, the couple owns a $400,000 home and has retirement savings of $1 million. Yeah, you read that right--tax-deferred, non-social security retirement savings of a cool mil'. Reality: about one-third of Americans have no retirement savings/pension at all. Even among those in the 55-64 year age bracket, one in five has zero dollars in retirement savings. Zero--to state the obvious--is a long way from $1 million. Even after excluding those with no savings, the typical account balance of near-retirement households was only $104,000. Again, a long way from $1 million.
Long ago, when Elizabeth Warren was building support for the CFPB, she argued there needed to be a dedicated "cop on the beat" for consumers. Check out the press release, CFPB Study Finds Reverse Mortgage Advertisements Can Create False Impressions, for evidence that the CFPB is hard at work in educating consumers. While its study identified more fundamental confusion about reverse mortgages, those attracted to the financial promises in reverse mortgage research or ads should check the math against their own means.
As California Monitor, my staff and I fielded tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, questions from homeowners. The hardest conversations were the easiest from a legal perspective. If someone's home was foreclosed in California, we advised there was little, if any, likely recourse. The California Homeowner Bill of Rights created a new remedy for consumers, but for homeowners before its January 2013 effective date, the options were nearly nil.
The California Supreme Court, in a decision that surprised many, staked out a clear right for homeowners to contest in court whether the foreclosing party had proper rights in the mortgage to allow it to foreclose. In Yvanova v. New Century Mortgage Corp, the court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded to allow the plaintiff to present her action alleging wrongful foreclosure. The court was careful to stay away from the merits, making no ruling on whether the plaintiff could prove the assignment was void. But, I this the court engaged in a bit of chicanery in declaring that its "ruling in this case is a narrow one." Yvanova is a big change from the developing body of lower court cases in California denying a borrower standing to file a claim based on violations of the the terms of a pooling and servicing agreement.
The LA Times story identifies a number of open questions that must be answered to know if any homeowners will actually win damages in wrongful foreclosure cases based on pre-Homeowner Bill of Rights' actions. For one thing, the statute of limitations for wrongful foreclosure is uncertain in California--partly because the state has had so few cases. While I think the court is correct on the law in Yvanova, the wheels of justice may have turned too slowly to help people. As a case study, the opinion may best be used as evidence of the importance of faster, legislative remedies for consumers such as the Homeowner Bill of Rights over developing the common law. The opinion is well-done, however, and merits a read, particularly for its quotation from the Miller opinion: "Banks are neither private attorneys general nor bounty hunters, armed with a roving commission to seek out defaulting homeowners and take away their homes in satisfaction of some other bank's deed of trust."
With a fiasco as big as the financial crisis, one of the only positive outcomes is there are a lot of lessons for the future. As Credit Slips thinks about how the administration might influence the resolution of Puerto Rico's bond problems, I think there are a few points from the financial crisis to consider.
First, and foremost, is the importance of explaining the issue. Particularly in times of crisis, the explanation/education end of things tends to be pushed to the back of policymakers. "Action" is favored over explanation, but ultimately if the public does not understand what is at stake and the administration's goals, the White House and others quickly have to waste time on the defensive or retreat into silence. Neither strategy helps the problem. One need only look at all the calls to audit or disband the Federal Reserve Board in the wake of the crisis actions around Bear Stearns to see the long-term problems that come from policy without a good public relations campaign. If you need another example, read this great and short piece by William Sage, called Brand New Law! The Need to Market Health Care Reform.
Second, lawyers are fairly lousy at administration. They negotiate hard but the practicability of getting relief is not their strength. We can take a lot of blame for this as law school professors, in that we should teach skills in organizational behavior, project management, etc, especially for those interested in policy. With the financial crisis, the problem was not that the HAMP loan modification term was too stingy or bad on its substance. The problem was severe delays and tangles in rolling out the relief. Jean Braucher has an excellent piece--the title, Humpty Dumpty and the Foreclosure Crisis, gives away the punchline. Whatever is done with respect to Puerto Rico needs to be efficiently administered. In this regard, I think the involvement of seasoned chapter 11 bankruptcy lawyers is a great development. These lawyers are used to being keenly focused on administrative costs in an insolvency situation, and provide a much needed counter-perspective to traditional Washington policymakers. I think if more consumer bankruptcy lawyers had been consulted during the design of HAMP and similar Making Homes Affordable programs, those programs could have been more consumer-friendly, using where people stumble in bankruptcy to identify likely obstacles in obtaining a loan modification (such as submitting paperwork and describing one's own financial situation accurately).
Third, and finally I think the financial crisis reminds us not to get lost in the billions of dollars at stake and the high finance concepts. Behind every bond, there are real people--investors, Puerto Rican residents, taxpayers, and others. The quality of a solution to Puerto Rico's financial problems is not a Wall Street issue; it is a Main Street issue.
I just read a terrific new paper by Gary Neustadter of Santa Clara University Law School, called "Randomly Distributed Trial Court Justice: A Case Study and Siren from the Consumer Bankruptcy World." It presents a monumental empirical study of a debt buyer's litigation campaign to pursue essentially identical contract and fraud claims against hundreds of secondary mortgagors in state courts, federal District Courts, and federal Bankruptcy Courts. The paths and outcomes of these materially identical cases are so different in so many surprising (and often disturbing) ways, the paper offers a really stunning look behind the curtain of our often arbitrary trial-level justice system. And Neustadter's telling of the story is gripping--I read the paper and most of its footnotes from beginning to end in one sitting, unable to put it down. The revelations in this paper are a gold mine for civil proceduralists generally and bankruptcy practitioners in particular. It offers a cautionary tale and useful playbook for lawyers (and perhaps judges) in how to make many aspects of our system more effective. Get it while it's hot!
My ears perk up whenever I hear the musical words "synthetic collateralized debt offering". (Bill Bratton and I did write the paper on history of these crazy things, after all....) So, it was with interest that I read a Wall Street Journal editorial decrying Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's use of synthetic CDOs to transfer credit risk on mortgages to the private market through the STACR and Connecticut Avenue programs. Unfortunately, the WSJ piece does not accurately describe what Fannie and Freddie are doing and fails entirely to understand why unfiltered private capital is a recipe for financial instability in housing markets.
There’s an interesting new article out on the celebrated Massachusetts U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case that suggests that the defendant, Antonio Ibanez, was at the center of a property fraud ring. It's not clear to me that there was anything illegal about Ibanez's activities, but even if there were, I don't think it much matters.
Here's an opportunity to supervise a consumer financial protection clinic that has done some great work - information on the position and how to apply here.
The Supreme Court made a noteworthy contribution to the crescendo in our national conversation about race in its recent Texas v. ICP Fair Housing Act decision.
The Court affirmed that the Fair Housing Act prohibits not only explicit racial discrimination, but also policies and practices that have the effect of excluding or harming racial minorities.
In marked contrast to its Voting Rights Act and other decisions, the Supreme Court (5-vote majority) in this case did not declare that racism has nearly ended, nor that the time for corrective laws is coming to an end. Justice Kennedy, the perennial swing voter, grounded the continuing vitality of disparate impact analysis in the sad legacy of various policies, including redlining, steering, and restrictive covenants, a legacy that insures the persistence of geographic segregation of races in the United States, and perpetuates our vast opportunity and wealth gaps. In his opinion, he harkens back to the Kerner Commission's conclusion that the uprisings of the 1960s arose in no small measure from the ghettoization and racial apartheid of American cities.
As a matter of legal doctrine the issue was straightforward. The Fair Housing Act has been interpreted consistently for more than forty years by all lower federal courts to prohibit housing and housing finance practices that exclude or discriminate against racial minorities in their effects. For example, a town's zoning plan that completely prohibits multifamily housing construction violates the Fair Housing Act when the result is to perpetuate the virtual exclusion of black families from the town. In the housing finance sphere, a bank's refusal to make mortgage loans in certain zip codes, or below a certain dollar amount, will violate the FHA if it has an unjustified disparate impact on minority homebuyers. Congress has re-enacted and amended the FHA without ever disapproving the application of disparate impact analysis.
Often, the difference between disparate impact and disparate treatment is a matter of proof, not of underlying facts. For example, in the exclusionary zoning cases, there is often evidence of racial animus at least among some members of the excluding suburb's governing bodies, but perhaps not enough to link a particular zoning vote to that racism. Some disparate impact cases are about racism by subterfuge. Others are about implicit bias, or even thoughtless discrimination. Disparate impact analysis, per Justice Kennedy, "permits plaintiffs to counteract unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment."
One undoubted consequence of disparate impact analysis is that banks are under an affirmative obligation not to perpetuate the legacy of racism and the racial wealth divide with home lending practices and policies that have no business justification. No doubt, in the aftermath of the decision banks will protest that they must now enact racial quotas or make risky mortgage loans to unqualified borrowers. Housing lenders depend on an vast array of explicit and implicit state subsidies. The Fair Housing Act does not require making loans that won't be repaid. It does impose an affirmative public duty to make home loans in a way that closes rather than widens our nation's racial divide.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Bank of America in Caulkett v. Bank of America. Basically the Court found itself bound by its previous decision in Dewsnup and didn't think that any of the distinctions presented (by yours truly among others) between Dewsnup and Caulkett were compelling. I continue to disagree, not least because the Court never explains why the distinctions weren't compelling, or even state what those distinctions were. Given the lengthy opinions that the Court usually issues, I'd like to think that it could have taken the time to explain itself in this regard, if only to help guide future litigants.
What all this means is that that I owe Bob Lawless a dinner: I had been much more optimistic about the outcome of the case following oral argument.
Over the last few years, the US Department of Justice has reached settlements with nearly every major lender with regard to the lending procedures for FHA (Federal Housing Administration) loans. The legal basis for the settlements were alleged violations of the False Claims Act. The total recovery is about $3 billion dollars.
In the wake of lengthy and expensive investigations and negotiations, lenders have basically . . . whined. Jamie Dimon said the company was "thoroughly confused" by the FHA's investigations and said he was going to "figure out what to do." That task might be a whole lot easier due to Chase's competitor, Quicken Loans. On Friday, Quicken sued the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, asking the court for a declaratory judgment and injunction that would halt the government's efforts to bring Quicken to settle its alleged FHA liability. I love this lawsuit!!!
Clearly, the biggest surprise in consumer borrowing since the crash has been the explosive expansion of student loan debt. It has surpassed both auto lending and credit card lending. And, since it ties with Payday Lending and pre-crash sub-prime mortgage lending for the thinnest underwriting there are defaults aplenty.
Consumer advocates are rightly urging the Department of Education to provide simpler and clearer paths forward for consumers with student loans in default but many people still need a helper. As defaults in mortgage loans and on credit card loans have fallen, providers who live on the profits of counseling people who default on those loans have turned their attention and their advertising and marketing to consumers who are in trouble on their student
The New York Times carried an important story about the risky investment moves of life insurance companies. There's a lot of good stuff in the story, but it missed an important angle, namely the consumer harm that has already resulted from bank affiliation with captive reinsurers in the private mortgage insurance space, namely inflated and unecessary private mortgage insurance premiums because of illegal kickback arrangements.
At the onset of the current foreclosure crisis, banks bemoaned their inability to get homeowners in default to respond to their generous offers of loan modifications and other foreclosure alternatives. Homeowners, it seemed, were like ostriches with their heads in the sand. Outreach efforts were launched to bring the homeowners in from the cold. Foreclosure sales, banks told us, were the worst possible outcome, and everything should be done to avoid them.
Fast forward a few years, and we no longer hear about those unresponsive homeowners. In fact, the mortgage servicing industry, starting around 2009, was rapidly overwhelmed with homeowners seeking loan modifications and other workouts. Soon homeowners were the ones complaining about getting no responses from servicers. Diligent homeowner attorneys uncovered the robosigning scandal, courts and regulators demanded that servicers clean up their act, and foreclosure cases languished while servicers gave homeowners applying for loan modifications and short sales the runaround. Today the banking industry complains of spending too much time talking to homeowners, claiming that long foreclosure delays resulting from homeowners massively coming in from the cold are just wasting everyone’s time and money.
Is the foreclosure crisis over? Yes and no. Since 2007, about six million homes have been sold at foreclosure sales (Foreclosures Public Data Summary Jan 2015). Today, about one million homes are still somewhere in the foreclosure process. Homeowners behind in their payments have declined from 15% at the 2010 peak of the crisis to less than 8% now (MBAA delinquent plus in foreclosure at 12/31/14). Most of the still-troubled loans were originated before 2007. The best news is that new foreclosure starts are now down to pre-crisis levels, at less than one-half of one percent of all mortgages, if we take 2006 to be the pre-crisis level.
So new home loans, those made since 2008, are doing very well, and what remains is the legacy of those bad loans that triggered the crisis, right? Not exactly.
The first problem is to define what we mean by pre-crisis levels. Subprime mortgages expanded rapidly from 2000 to 2007, accounting for an ever-increasing share of all mortgages, and skewing delinquency rates upwards. So for a real pre-crisis baseline, we need to go back to earlier times, or to look at mortgage default rates for prime and FHA loans only. Today in 2015 there are virtually no subprime mortgages being originated. As the inventory of old subprime loans winds down, we should expect to see default rates well below those for the early 2000s, and we are not there yet.
The second problem is negative equity. At the end of 2014, 16.9% of residential mortgages were underwater, i.e. the debt exceeded the current home value. Home price appreciation is not projected to solve this problem any time soon. This situation is historically unprecedented, and leaves millions of homeowners at continuing risk of default should the economy falter.
The third problem is the fragile inventory of nontraditional and modified loans that remain from the subprime bubble. There are perhaps 3 to 4 million active mortgages that were modified to avoid foreclosure in the past seven years. Some of these have temporarily low rates, as low as 2%, that will adjust upwards soon. Others have large balloon payments or payment terms than extend for 40 years, making repayment or refinancing difficult. And of course there are still plenty of homeowners stuck in non-amortizing mortgages or ARMs that are vulnerable to coming interest rate hikes.
At this point, we can begin to identify some lessons from the long and painful process of deleveraging America's homeowners. In future posts I hope to look at some available data showing what worked and what didn't, as we consider various policy measures to reform housing finance and mortgage foreclosure.
I'm testifying before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday at a hearing entitled "Preserving Consumer Choice and Financial Independence." I'm the only non-industry witness (no surprise there). For those interested, my testimony is linked here. Here's the highlight:
Community banks face a serious structural impediment to being able to compete in the consumer finance marketplace because they lack the size necessary to leverage economies of scale. The CFPB has repeatedly acted to ease regulatory burdens on community banks in an attempt to offset this structural disadvantage. While community banks continue to face serious problems with their business model, their profits were up nearly 28% in the last quarter of 2014 over the preceding year, which strongly indicates that they are not being subjected to stifling regulatory burdens.
Ultimately, if Congress wants to help community banks, the answer is not to tinker with the details of CFPB regulations... Instead, if Congress cares about community banks it needs to take action to break up the too-big-to-fail banks that receive an implicit government guarantee and pose a serious threat to global financial stability. Until and unless Congress acts to break up the too-big-to-fail banks, community banks will never be able to compete on a level playing field.
With my attention drawn to other matters, my personal blogging has been light for the past month. One of the things that had my attention was the Caulkett case currently pending before the Supreme Court. The issue in Caulkett is whether a wholly underwater second mortgage can be avoided in a chapter 7 bankruptcy. Without any value to reach, a wholly underwater second would not seem to be an allowed secured claim within the meaning of section 506.
Along with fellow Credit Slips blogger, John Pottow, and Professor Bruce Markell, I filed an amicus brief in Caulkett supporting the debtor. One of our points is that Long v. Bullard, which supposedly stands for the proposition that "liens ride through bankruptcy," involved other issues entirely. I'll try to expand on that point in another blog post. But, we were not alone in representing Credit Slips in the case. Blogger Adam Levitin filed his own superb amicus brief supporting the debtor that provides an in-depth look at the facts, evidence, and policy around second mortgages. All of the briefs in the case can be found at SCOTUSBlog.
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