April 26, 2012
Can home loan modification through the 60/40 Plan really save the housing sector?
padding-top: 5px !important; margin-bottom: 0px !important; padding-bottom: 2000px !important; }
margin-bottom: 0px !important; padding-bottom: 0px !important; }
margin-bottom: 0px !important; padding-bottom: 0px !important; }
In a recent article in the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, Manuel Santos, a professor at the University of Miami, claims to offer a simple solution to "save the housing sector." Called the "60/40 Plan," his proposal is the centerpiece of a business called 60/40 The Plan Inc. Santos’s article is, in our opinion, written less like an academic article and more like promotional material.
The developer of the 60/40 Plan, Gustavo Diaz, is seeking a patent for the proposal. Unfortunately for the stressed mortgage market, his idea is simply a specific variant of a long-standing mortgage-servicing practice known as "principal forbearance." In general, principal forbearance occurs when the mortgage lender grants a temporary reduction of a borrower’s monthly mortgage payment, often reducing the payment by a significant fraction, with the stipulation that the borrower repay this benefit, with interest, at a later date.
Principal forbearance is a loss-mitigation tool that mortgage lenders and servicers have been using for decades. In fact, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are currently using this technique as a loss mitigation tool and alternative to principal forgiveness (which Federal Housing Finance Agency Acting Director Edward DeMarco discussed here). Private mortgage lenders have also widely used principal forbearance, especially in the first few years of the recent foreclosure crisis.
April 05, 2012
Debunking a popular myth about mortgage lending
In their research paper "The New Deal and the Origins of the Modern American Real Estate Loan Contract in the Building and Loan Industry," Jonathan Rose and Kenneth Snowden discuss financial innovation in the mortgage market in the 1930s. The main focus of the paper is the switch among building and loan societies (B&L) from amortization-by-share-accumulation to amortization-by-direct-reduction. To the typical reader—even one interested in the mortgage market—the topic sounds, to put it gently, quite esoteric. But I think this is an excellent paper and highly relevant to anyone interested in the financial crisis.
The authors systematically debunk a highly popular story about the history of mortgage lending in the United States. Rather than explain the story, I will quote Robert Kuttner, who exposited it in The American Prospect in July 2008:
Before the Roosevelt era, virtually all mortgages were short term loans of five years or less, typically interest-only, with the principal due and payable at the end. If the homeowner could not roll over the loan, he lost the house. As foreclosures skyrocketed, the New Deal invented the modern, long-term, self-amortizing mortgage.
Kuttner is not an economist, but most economists are equally fond of the story. As Nobel Prize winner Franco Modigliani wrote, in a book coauthored with industry expert Frank Fabozzi: "Until [the Depression], mortgages were not fully amortized, as they are now..., but were balloon instruments in which the principal was not amortized, or only partially amortized at maturity, leaving the debtor with the problem of refinancing the balance."
November 17, 2011
Taking on the conventional wisdom about fixed rate mortgages
The long-term fixed rate mortgage (FRM) is a central part of the mortgage landscape in America. According to recent data, the FRM accounts for 81 percent of all outstanding mortgages and 85 percent of new originations.1 Why is it so common? The conventional wisdom is that the FRM is a great product created during the Great Depression to bring some stability to the housing market. Homeowners were defaulting in record numbers, the story goes, because their adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) adjusted upward and caused payment shocks they could not absorb.
In a Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs hearing on October 20, some experts presented testimony that followed this conventional wisdom. As John Fenton, president and CEO, Affinity Federal Credit Union, who testified on behalf of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, laid out in his written testimony:
Prior to the introduction of the 30-year FRM, U.S. homeowners were at the mercy of adjustable interest rates. After making payments on a loan at a fluctuating rate for a certain period, the borrower would be liable for the repayment of the remainder of the loan (balloon payment). Before the innovation of the 30-year FRM, borrowers could also be subject to the "call in" of the loan, meaning the lender could demand an immediate payment of the full remainder. The 30-year FRM was an innovative measure for the banking industry, with lasting significance that enabled mass home ownership through its predictability.
Of course, this picture of the 30-year FRM as bringing stability to the housing market has profound implications for recent history. Many critics attribute the problems in the mortgage market that started in 2007 to the proliferation of ARMs. According to the narrative, lenders, after 70 years of stability and success with FRMs, started experimenting with ARMs again in the 2000s, exposing borrowers to payment shocks that inevitably led to defaults and the housing crisis. Indeed, one of the other panelists at the hearing, Janis Bowdler, senior policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, argued in her written testimony that "when the toxic mortgages began to reset and brokers and lenders could no longer maintain their refinance schemes, a recession ushered in record-high foreclosure rates."
I argue, on the other hand—both in my testimony at the hearing and in this post—that the narrative of the fixed rate mortgage as an inherently safe product invented during the Depression that would have mitigated the subprime crisis because it
October 04, 2011
The uncertain case against mortgage securitization
The opinions, analysis, and conclusions set forth are those of the authors and do not indicate concurrence by members of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System or by other members of the staff.
Did mortgage securitization cause the mortgage crisis? One popular story goes like this: banks that originated mortgage loans and then sold them to securitizers didn't care whether the loans would be repaid. After all, since they sold the loans, they weren't on the hook for the defaults. Without any "skin in the game," those banks felt free to make worse and worse loans until...kaboom! The story is an appealing one and, since the beginning of the crisis, it has gained popularity among academics, journalists, and policymakers. It has even influenced financial reform. The only problem? The story might be wrong.
In this post we report on the latest round in an ongoing academic debate over this issue. We recently released two papers, available here and here, in which we argue that the evidence against securitization that many have found most damning has in fact been misinterpreted. Rather than being a settled issue, we believe securitization's role in the crisis remains an open and pressing question.
The question is an empirical one
Before we dive into the weeds, let us point out why the logic of the above story need not hold. The problem posed by securitization—that selling risk leads to excessive risk-taking—is not new. It is an example of the age-old incentive problem of moral hazard. Economists usually believe that moral hazard causes otherwise-profitable trade to not occur, or that it leads to the development of monitoring and incentive mechanisms to overcome the problem.
In the case of mortgage securitization, such mechanisms had been in place, and a high level of trade had been achieved, for a long time. Mortgage securitization was not invented in 2004. To the contrary, it has been a feature of the housing finance landscape for decades, without apparent incident. As far back as 1993, nearly two-thirds (65.3 percent) of mortgage volume was securitized, about the same fraction as was securitized in