At the end of October, the Obama Administration announced changes to the Home Affordability Refinance Program that conceivably will make as many as 2 million more homeowners eligible for refinancing over the next two years. This will lower the default risk for the government sponsored entities and their ultimate backers, the American taxpayers, and should provide some level of economic stimulus.
But it will help housing only indirectly, because it doesn’t address the two strongest headwinds that are depressing housing prices: negative equity and shadow inventory. Addressing these challenges will require new thinking on the strategic use of principal reductions. Although the cost of this approach would be significant, it could be far less than the $699-billion price tag usually associated with negative equity and could save as many as three million more at-risk homeowners.
The drop in mortgage rates to record lows in 2011 has not resulted in the expected surge in refinances. The reasons for the lack of refinance activity include: the prevalence of negative equity; insufficient borrower credit quality or income; GSE hurdles, such as loan-level price adjustments, and investors' unwillingness to give up their rights to require lenders to repurchase loans that did not meet GSE guidelines. Repurchase risk makes lenders less willing to take on more liability and due diligence risk (although Harp II attempts to address some of these concerns).
There already have been many government efforts to aid borrowers in refinancing, which include version one of Harp, Hope for Homeowners and the FHA Short Refinance program. They have not produced sufficient volume to dramatically influence housing market conditions because the eligibility criteria were too tight, the rates offered were too high, or borrowers had qualification constraints.
We have seen adjustments made to Harp, but only time will reveal the full economic stimulus effect of increased refinance activity.
It's important to note that a bond investor’s interest income is a borrower's interest expense. That means that refinancing millions of borrowers and offering them lower rates would reduce household mortgage expenses, but it would also reduce investors' interest income by roughly the same proportion.
History, as a guide, shows that in prior large refinance waves, with only one exception, there was no real discernable impact on consumer spending. The only exception occurred in 2003, when the mortgage market experienced the largest refinance wave ever recorded. Even then, the impact on consumer spending was small and transitory, and the potential refinance wave this time would be smaller. In any case, refinancing existing mortgage balances does not address the fundamental issue of negative equity.
The large number of homes with negative equity is holding back purchase demand for homes by reducing household mobility and elevating the risk that seriously delinquent borrowers will move into foreclosure because they don’t have enough equity to refinance or sell their homes.
As of the third quarter, 22 percent of U.S. homes — nearly 11 million borrowers — were upside down. The average such borrower was upside down by $65,000 and aggregate negative equity was more than $699 billion. If negative equity diminishes, it will greatly aid the housing market recovery by unlocking pent-up demand and reducing foreclosure risk. As would be expected, re-default rates for modifications with principal reduction are much lower than other modification.
There are many concerns with principal reduction, but moral hazard and costs to banks and taxpayers are the two that stand out.
Moral hazard occurs when individuals behave differently when insulated from risk than they do when fully exposed. If servicers give principal reductions to borrowers who are delinquent and in a negative equity position, which insulates them against negative-equity risk, borrowers who are current may purposely become delinquent so that they can also receive a principal reduction.
However, there are many ways to deal successfully with moral hazard:
- Servicers can offer borrowers a principal reduction, but at some cost. This would be similar to a car insurance deductible and could be structured in different ways. For example, servicers could reduce principal in exchange for the borrower giving up a portion of future appreciation.
- A shared-appreciation mortgage that reduces principal could be taxed as a capital gain rather than as ordinary income as is the case today.
- Servicers could also change mortgage terms to include recourse in the event of a default, such as the right to non-housing assets in addition to foreclosing.
Basically, servicers could address the moral-hazard risk associated with principal reduction through appropriate loan terms.
The cost of principal reduction is another large hurdle. It's certain that not all $699 billion dollars in negative equity needs to be forgiven. There are 6.3 million borrowers with first liens only who are current on their mortgage payments and underwater by an average of $52,000, representing $314 billion in total. Within that segment, servicers could target moderately upside down borrowers (110% to 150% LTV) who are most likely to respond to principal-reduction offers. That would help nearly 3 million borrowers (or nearly one third of all negative equity borrowers), at a cost of $118 billion. Although $118 billion is clearly not trivial, it is much more manageable than $699 billion.
Streamlined refinance plans will improve household monthly obligations but it remains to be seen if the will create meaningful economic stimulus. Plans to reduce principle are more likely to greatly aid the housing market recovery by unlocking pent-up demand and reducing foreclosure risk. It is important that these plans also have features that address the moral hazard risk. Targeting principle reductions as described above would aid the greatest number of borrowers for the least amount of money, reduce current and future distressed shadow inventory and put less downward pressure on prices today and in the future.
Mark Fleming is the chief economist of CoreLogic, Inc.