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Author(s): Davis, Morris A.
Publication Date: July 2010
7 pages; Inventory ID LLA100702; English
However, a case can be made that foreclosures are an undesirable outcome for society in some cases. Many economists think that foreclosures have externalities, meaning people not directly involved in the foreclosure process bear costs every time a house enters foreclosure. For example, foreclosures are estimated to reduce the resale value of nearby homes (Lin, Rosenblatt, and Yao 2007). In addition, foreclosures are associated with other costs that may be socially undesirable, such as the well-being of children (Kingsley, Smith, and Price 2009).
Has the Government Prevented Foreclosures? Since 2007, the federal government has established initiatives and put into place a set of policies to try to reduce foreclosures. One of the first major initiatives, called Hope for Homeowners, was established in the spring of 2008. This program tried to address the first trigger directly to reduce the number of homeowners who were under water by encouraging institutions and investors holding mortgages to “write down” principal on those mortgages until homeowners were no longer under water. Participation in the program by mortgage holders was voluntary, and the program was structured in such a way that few mortgage holders participated (Cordell et al. 2009). For example, only one person received assistance in the first six months of the program’s launch (Arnold 2009).
In February 2009, the Obama administration announced another major initiative to reduce foreclosures, the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) program, funded with $73 billion of TARP money. Implicit in the HAMP program is the notion that delinquencies and foreclosures have occurred because mortgages underwritten during the housing boom were often exotic, expensive, and ultimately unaffordable.
Until recently, HAMP's solution to reduce foreclosures was to modify the terms of these mortgages (by reducing the interest rate, extending the amortization period, and offering some forbearance) for the purposes of making the mortgage “affordable,” meaning the mortgage payment would not exceed 31 percent of the borrower’s income after the mortgage was modified. As originally written, the HAMP program did not require the mortgage lender to reduce any of the borrower's mortgage balance, and many unemployed did not qualify to receive a mortgage modification.
Figure 5 shows data from the Mortgage Bankers Association on 90-day delinquency rates for subprime adjustable-rate mortgages and prime fixed-rate mortgages over the 1998–2009 period. It is clear that subprime adjustable-rate mortgages are much more likely to be seriously delinquent than prime fixed-rate mortgages. These data might help explain why policy makers crafting the HAMP program have, until recently, focused on refinancing people out of exotic or expensive mortgages and into more conventional or less expensive mortgages as a method of reducing aggregate foreclosure rates.
These policy makers might have presumed that refinancing people from mortgages associated with high default rates to mortgages associated with low default rates would, by construction, reduce the overall default rate on all mortgages. There are two problems with this logic. First, people most likely to default are least likely to get a prime mortgage. This implies the mortgage choice at origination may be indicative of the underlying default risk of the borrower. In other words, defaults of subprime mortgages are high because, in some cases, subprime mortgage borrowers had high default risk and could only get a subprime mortgage.
Second, and more important, the recent data suggest that the majority of mortgages currently in default are not subprime mortgages (table 3). Given the current situation, it seems that a program designed to reduce foreclosures in the aggregate should focus on the inherent reasons that households with good mortgages or good credit are defaulting: the double-trigger theory.
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