Regulating Subprime Mortgages

The Economist’s Free Exchange blog today attacks

Elizabeth Warren, who would

like to regulate the subprime mortgage market. Given the name of the blog,

it’s quite easy to predict where it comes down on such matters. But in fact

the issue is not quite as black-and-white as either the Economist or Dr Warren

might like to think.

Warren, likes to compare mortgages to toasters. We regulate the latter, she

says: why don’t we regulate the former? To which the Economist tartly replies:

Safety regulations on toasters don’t keep me from overpaying for one at Williams

Sonoma when I could get the same item for half the price down the street.

The only way to correct that problem is to shop around.

Well, yes, up to a point. The problem is that no one ever made money on a Williams

Sonoma toaster, or thought of it as an "investment". Mortgages, on

the other hand, are the route to home ownership, which, over the past few years,

has been the best route to wealth. I only need to look at my peers back in the

UK: some of them were lucky or smart enough to buy property ten years ago, while

others didn’t. The former have now, pretty much without exception, made more

money on their property than they have by working; the latter, on the other

hand, have helplessly watched the bottom rung of the property ladder get further

and further out of reach.

In such a situation, some people don’t ask a lot of questions when a fast-talking

mortgage salesman tells them that they can afford to buy a house. And for most

of the past ten years, people who took out mortgages with low teaser rates did

very well for themselves. When the mortgages adjusted upwards after two years,

they simply refinanced, gleeful as they made much more money in the property

market than they did in salary.

In financial terms, what they were doing was making a highly leveraged bet

on property prices. By the time you added in points and fees and the like, they

were paying a lot of money for their loans, but the monthly payments were affordable,

and the potential profits were enormous.

A lot of these people ended up making a lot of money. If Elizabeth Warren had

her way, then no one could have extended them an adjustable-rate mortgage if

they weren’t likely to be able to make the mortgage payments a couple of years

down the line. The thinking here is entirely akin to the thinking which restricts

hedge-fund investments to the very rich: risky, leveraged bets should be confined

only to people who have a lot of money to begin with.

But of course there are all manner of risky investments which are open to any

and all, from biotechnology stocks to the roulette wheel. And as risky investments

go, housing at least gives you a nice place to live, as well as an opportunity

to get onto the property ladder.

I’m reasonably sympathetic to Dr Warren’s cause, however. For one thing, poor

individuals should not be put into any kind of investment which only works until

it doesn’t. If the only hope for a person with an adjustable-rate mortgage is

that they will be able to refinance it in two years’ time with the equity they

build from a rising property market, then that mortgage is simply not appropriate

for them.

And while the Economist likes to think that we all "shop around"

for our mortgages, the fact is that not everybody does, and that shouldn’t be

a license to take advantage of people who would easily qualify for prime-rate

loans and sell them subprime loans instead. In San Francisco on Saturday night,

a cab driver, pegging me (correctly) as a tourist, decided to take an extremely

circuitous route to my hotel in order to maximize his fare. He was regulated,

although obviously not regulated enough. My mortgage adviser should be regulated

too, to stop him from taking me down the subprime road when a much cheaper-to-me

(though far less lucrative to him) option exists. This is a common problem,

which means that the present set of regulations is clearly inadequate.

Finally, one hesitates to take the Economist’s side in this debate when it

comes out with stuff like this:

Nor does even the worst mortgage have a 1-in-5 chance of putting the family

on the street. Though some observers have bandied about a 20% figure for delinquencies

on subprime mortgages, the more commonly accepted figure is somewhere in the

13-15% range. And that is delinquencies, not foreclosures, which are currently

running below 5% of subprime mortgages. I expect that latter figure to rise.

But not to 20%.


been here before. But, to reiterate: 5% of subprime mortgages is not the

same thing as 5% of subprime borrowers. If I take out an adustable-rate mortgage

and refinance it before it resets, and then refinance that mortgage

before it resets, and then default on the third mortgage, then I’ve

taken out three mortgages in all, two thirds of which suffered no default or

delinquency at all. Here’s

Tanta, a woman who knows whereof she speaks:

It is perfectly possible, at least hypothetically, to have a situation in

which 40% of subprime homeowners eventually end up in foreclosure or short

sale or jingle mail, but only after three or four loans, so that on any given

month, on the current total book of outstanding subprime loans, "only"

4% are currently in foreclosure.

No one knows what percentage of houses which were originally bought with the

help of a subprime loan will eventually end up in foreclosure. But we know that

the percentage of subprime mortgages in foreclosure figure, no matter how high

it rises, will always be no more than a lower bound for the actual figure.

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