The Housing Recovery Has Stalled

Over the past year, everyone has come to agree that a housing recovery is happening. It wasn’t happening everywhere, but overall , the country was seeing a housing revival. But over the past couple of months, this recovery has started to stall and most people haven’t noticed yet.

Look at housing starts:

Housing Starts.
Housing starts increased from the end of 2011 through most of 2012, but have since fluctuated between around 850,000/month and 1,000,000/month. In fact, starts are in a downward trajectory the last couple of months. In July, single-family housing starts fell 2.2%, against expectations of growth, to reach their lowest levels since November of last year. The data may be noisy, but the overall trend in 2013 is clear: housing starts have stalled.

So far, it’s not clear that people have noticed. Take Wonkblog’s Neil Irwin, who wrote about housing starts last week. He noted the dual forces of increased housing starts and rising mortgage rates, concluding:

But the July data is the first real evidence we’ve seen of whether higher mortgage rates will affect the housing industry more broadly. And the early signs, at least, are that builders are not being scared off by higher mortgage rates that make the houses they sell less affordable.

The data seems to tell the exact opposite story.

As Irwin notes, interest rates have risen dramatically since May:MortgageSince then, housing starts have fluctuated. The increase in July was just the result of a poor result in June. Housing starts are still below there May level. So, as mortgage rates have risen, are builders “not being scared off”? The answer is unclear. It’s certainly, not a “yes,” as Irwin writes. It’s also only a couple of months of data. But it’s worrisome data at that. The economy is already recovering at a tepid place and a slowdown in housing would further reduce it.

This is yet another fundamental reason that President Obama should nominate Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve. Yellen is more dovish than Larry Summers and at least one economist believes the recent rise in rates is because Wall Street fears a Summers-led Fed would reduce asset purchases faster than a Yellen-led one would. If Obama does select Summers and interest rates rise, it could lead to even further contraction in the housing market and hamper the recovery even more. Given the recent data, that’s not a risk the President should take.

Eminent Domain Could Be a Powerful Tool in Housing

My post this morning focused on the major flaw in Richmond, California’s plan to use eminent domain for underwater mortgages, but it is always not a bad idea. Eminent domain could have a beneficial use in the housing market.

First, let’s look at a simple housing market. If an underwater borrower falls behind on his payments, the lender (the bank) may decide to either foreclose on the property or to restructure the loan. Foreclosures are costly and time-consuming for banks so sometimes, banks will choose to write down the principal of the loan so that the homeowner becomes back above water and can refinance. The homeowner then makes payments to the bank on his refinanced loan. The bank doesn’t earn as much as it did had the borrower stayed current on the original loan, but it still earns more than if it had gone through with the foreclosure.

But this system becomes a lot more complicated when loans are securitized and sold off to many different investors. This creates a collective action problem. If the government – or any company – wanted to write down the principal of mortgages to bring them back above water, it would have to acquire almost every tranche of the mortgages. If just a few investors refuse to sell, the firm would not own enough of the loans and would be unable to write down the principal. Thus, no company wants to devote its resources to contacting and coordinating with many investors without any guarantee of a payoff at the end. This is a classic collective action problem.

There are also three other small yet important problems that eminent domain solves:

  1. Servicer incentives. Banks normally outsource many aspects of their lending program to servicers as banking activities become more complicated. For instance, servicers collect payments, pay taxes, modify loans and supervise the foreclosure process. Unfortunately, servicers aren’t looking out for homeowner interests – they care about their own bottom line.  This is a problem, because servicers earn the most in fees when borrowers are delinquent or during the foreclosure process. This gives servicers an incentive to not help borrowers become current. It’s also costly for servicers to modify a loan so even if a bank and the borrower both are in favor of principal reduction, the servicer may stand in the way.
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  2. Pooling and Servicing Agreements. A further problem is that servicers are limited in how much they can modify loans by pooling and servicing agreements (PSA). Most loans have been securitized and sold off to many investors, but this creates a problem: investors don’t want the servicer to make huge changes to the loan without their approval, but also want to give servicers some flexibility to make minor adjustments. The rules for what servicers can and cannot do are outlined in the PSA that accompanies the mortgage. Most PSAs only allow the servicer to modify up to five percent of the loan without supermajority approval from investors. If servicers want to significantly reduce the principal on the loan, they must spend resources coordinating with numerous investors, without any guarantee that investors will ultimately approve the principal reduction. The high coordination costs offer little reason for servicers to modify the loans
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  3. Tranche Warfare. A little known problem with principal reduction is that once the loan is securitized, different investors have different appetite for principal reduction. For instance, investors who own the senior tranches of a loan are most likely to be paid off  and may not want the servicer to modify the loan. The owners of the junior tranches, on the other hand, are less likely to receive payment and have greater incentives to reduce the principal. If the servicer does make significant modifications, it is giving the owners of the junior tranches preferential treatment at the expense of investors in the senior tranches. The servicer is technically supposed to represent the interests of the mortgage owner, but when there are multiple owners and their interests diverge, the servicer is left with few acceptable options. At the extreme, investors in the senior tranche could sue the servicer if it modifies the loan. Thus, many servicers have been hesitant to modify loans for fear of legal action against them, even if the majority of owners of the mortgage would prefer to modify it.

Eminent domain solves all three of these problems. Since the municipality owns all parts of the mortgage, the potential for tranche warfare no longer exists (solving problem No. 3). In addition, the city does not need a servicer and does not have to use a PSA so the limitations of the agreement no longer exist as well (solving problems No.1 and No. 2). Most importantly, the collective action problem associated with high cooperation costs is eliminated as well.

A House in Richmond, CA (Photo: Ed Andersen)
A House in Richmond, CA (Photo: Ed Andersen)

Since the city or company is a single entity, it does not have to worry about wasting resources coordinating between many investors. Instead, eminent domain requires all investors to sell at fair market value, eliminating the risk that a few investors defect and refuse to reduce the principal. Eminent domain solves the collective action problem.

That’s where the value of eminent domain is in the housing market. However, it requires that the government to at least offer a fair market value – something Richmond is not doing. Why is Richmond not doing it? Because the only way Mortgage Resolution Partners (MRP), the firm supplying the capital for the proposal, will profit is by paying below market value. Without those profits, MRP would not be interested in the deal. By itself, Richmond doesn’t have the funds to purchase the loans at fair value. It needs MRP’s financial backing and in return, it’s ripping off the original investors so MRP can profit. That’s why this deal is unconstitutional and will surely fall apart in the courts. But don’t overlook the fact that done correctly, eminent domain can be a powerful tool to overcome the collective action problem in modifying loans. It just wasn’t done correctly here.

Misaligned Incentives in the Housing Market

For one of my classes this semester, I have to write a blog post by 5pm each Sunday on the readings for class. Unfortunately, the blog is private so I can’t just link over to it, but I think my last post is worth re-posting here (my first two posts weren’t as insightful). As I wrote the post, I discovered how truly messed up our system is. In a way, everyone has an incentive to create a bubble in the housing market – until it pops of course. It’s a massive tragedy of the commons. Everyone does what is best for themselves and everyone is hurt in the end. It’s a big reason why we need regulators who’s livelihoods are unrelated to housing market and thus can provide neutral, effective oversight to prevent such a bubble. It’s certainly a very difficult problem and one that we haven’t solved yet.

Here’s the full post:

This week’s articles focused on the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the rampant fraud throughout the mortgage lending industry. For me, this is the most infuriating aspect of the entire crisis – everyone is to blame from lenders to borrowers to the government.

As Binyamin Appelbaum, Lisa Hammersly Munn and Ted Mellnik document in their series “Sold a Nightmare,” and Michael Hudson reveals in his piece on Countrywide Financial Corp., mortgage lenders participated in a number of fraudulent and unethical activities that eventually lead to a huge rise in foreclosures. Borrowers themselves were not blameless either. Many took on loans they knew they could not afford.

However, one aspect of the sub-prime mortgage crisis that has been overlooked is the government’s involvement in it. Here is where we find an incredible number of poorly aligned incentives that significantly contributed to the crisis.

Let’s look at incentives from a general level: Politicians want to be reelected and to attain higher office, and they do so by pleasing their constituencies. What’s one way for them to please their constituencies? Make houses more affordable and available. In fact, this may be the single best way for politicians to make their constituents happy. After all, one of the most crucial aspects of the American Dream is homeownership. Politicians have a huge incentive to promote homeownership.

And across the country, we saw lower less government oversight and a rise in government-insured loans. This, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is once again with incentives. Government-insured loans incentivize lenders to create loans as quick as they can, ignoring borrowers’ income, credit and ability to repay their loans. When the government insures loans, lenders have no default risk on those loans.

Now, certainly, the government was not promoting fraud here. If the program had been successful, more low-income individuals would have received loans, some of whom would have defaulted. The government would have eaten the cost of those defaults but this was the acceptable tradeoff of increased homeownership amongst low-income individuals. Continue reading “Misaligned Incentives in the Housing Market”