The Reality Of Mortgage Modification

Also published on the Atlantic Monthly’s Business Channel.

Why A Decline In Home Prices Should Not Cause Defaults

It seems that we have taken as an axiom the idea that if the price of a home drops below the face value of the mortgage, the borrower will default on the mortgage. That sounds like a good rule, since it’s got prices dropping and people defaulting at the same time, so there’s a certain intuitive appeal to it. But in reality, it makes no sense. Either the borrower can afford the mortgage based on her income alone or not.  However, it does make sense if you also assume that the borrower intended to access the equity in her home before the maturity of the mortgage. That is, the home owner bought the home with the intention of either i) selling the home for a profit before maturity or ii) refinancing the mortgage at a higher principle amount.

If neither of these are true, then why would a homeowner default simply because the home they lived in dropped in value? She wouldn’t. She might be irritated that she paid too much for a home. Additionally, she might experience a diminution in her perception of her own wealth, which may change her consumption habits. But the fact remains that at the time of purchase, she thought her home was worth X. And she agreed to a clearly defined schedule of monthly payments over the life of the mortgage assuming a price of X. The fact that the value of her home suddenly drops below X has no impact on her ability to pay, unless she planned to access equity in the home to satisfy her payment obligations.  Annoyed as she might be, she could continue to make her mortgage payments as promised.  Thus, those mortgages which default due to a drop in home prices are the result of a failed attempt to access equity in the home, otherwise known as failed speculation.

In short, if a home drops in value, it does not affect the cash flows of the occupants so long as no one plans to access equity in the home. And so, the ability of a household to pay a mortgage is unaffected in that situation. This is in contrast to being fired, having a primary earner die, or divorce. These events have a direct impact on the ability of a household to pay its mortgage.

I am unaware of any proposal to date which offers assistance to households in need under such circumstances.

The Dismal Science Of Mortgage Modification

Simply put, available evidence suggests that mortgage modifications do not work.

[IMAGES REMOVED BY UST; SEE REPORT LINK BELOW]

The charts above are from a study conducted by the Office Of the Comptroller of the Currency. The full text is available here. As the charts above demonstrate, within 8 months, just under 60% of modified mortgages redefault. That is, the borrowers default under the modified agreement. If we look only at Subprime mortgages, just over 65% of modified mortgages redefault within 8 months. This may come as a surprise to some. But in my mind, it reaffirms the theory that many borrowers bought homes relying on their ability to i) sell the home for a profit or ii) refinance their mortgage. That is, it reaffirms the theory that many borrowers were unable to afford the homes they bought using their income alone, and were actually speculating that the value of their home would increase.

Morally Hazardous And Theoretically Dubious

Why should mortgages be adjusted at all? Well, one obvious reason to modify is that the terms of the mortgages are somehow unfair. That’s a fine reason. But when did they become unfair? Were they unfair from the outset? That seems unlikely given that both the borrower and the lender voluntarily agree to the terms of a mortgage. Although people like to fuss about option arm mortgages and the like, the reality is, it’s not that hard for a borrower to understand that her payments will increase at some point in the future. Either she can afford the increased payments or not. This will be clear from the outset of the mortgage.

So, it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a case for unfairness at the outset of the agreement. Well then, did the mortgage become unfair? Maybe. If so, since the terms didn’t change, it must be because the home dropped in value and therefore the borrower is now paying above the market price for the home. That does sound unfortunate. But who should bear the loss? Should the bank? The tax payer? How about the borrower? Well, the borrower explicitly agreed to bear the loss when she agreed to repay a fixed amount of money. That is, the borrower promised “to pay back X plus interest within 30 years.” This is in contrast to “I promise to pay back X plus interest within 30 years, unless the price of my home drops below X, in which case we’ll work something out.” Both are fine agreements. But the former is what borrowers actually agree to.

Not enforcing voluntary agreements leads to uncertainty. Uncertainty leads to inefficiency. This is because those who have agreements outstanding or would like to enter into other agreements cannot rely on the terms of those agreements. And so the value of such agreements decreases and the whole purpose of contracting is defeated. In a less abstract sense, uncertainty creates an environment in which it is impossible to plan and conduct business. As a result, this type of regulatory behavior undermines the availability of credit.

But even if we do not accept that voluntary agreements should be enforced for reasons of efficiency, mortgages represent some of the most clear and unambiguous promises to repay an obligation imaginable. The fact that a borrower was betting that home prices would rise should not excuse them from their obligations. There are some situations where human decency and compassion could justify a readjustment of terms and socializing the resultant losses. For example, the death of a primary earner or an act of war or terrorism. But making a bad guess about future home prices is not an act that warrants anyone’s sympathy, let alone the socialization of the losses that follow.

The Elephant In The Room

This notion that Subprime borrowers were victimized as a result of some fraudulent wizardry perpetuated by Wall Street is utter nonsense. Whether securitized assets performed as promised to investors is Wall Street’s problem. Whether people pay their mortgages falls squarely on the shoulder of the borrower. Despite this, we are spending billions of public dollars, at a time when money is scarce and desperately needed, on a program that i) is demonstrably ineffective at achieving its stated goals (helping homeowners avoid foreclosure) and ii) rewards poor decision making and imprudent borrowing. Given the gravity of the moment, a greater failure is difficult to imagine. But then again, we live in uncertain times, so my imagination might prove inadequate.

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Systemic Counterparty Confusion: Credit Default Swaps Demystified

It Is A Tale Told By An Idiot

The press loves a spectacle. There’s a good reason for this: panic increases paranoia, which increases the desire for information, which increases their advertising revenues. Thus, the press has an incentive to exaggerate the importance of the events they report. As such, we shouldn’t be surprised to find the press amping up fears about the next threat to the “real economy.”

When written about in the popular press, terms such as “derivative” and “mortgage backed security” are almost always preceded by adjectives such as “arcane” and “complex.” They’re neither arcane nor complex. They’re common and straightforward. And the press shouldn’t assume that their readers are too dull to at least grasp how these instruments are structured and used. This is especially true of credit default swaps.

Much Ado About Nothing

So what is the big deal about these credit default swaps? Surely, there must be something terrifying and new about them that justifies all this media attention? Actually, there really isn’t. That said, all derivatives allow risk to be magnified (which I plan to discuss in a separate article). But risk magnification isn’t particular to credit default swaps. In fact, considering the sheer volume of spectacular defaults over the last year, the CDS market has done a damn good job of coping.  Despite wild speculation of impending calamity by the press, the end results have been a yawn . So how is it that Reuters went from initially reporting a sensational $365 billion in losses to reporting (12 days later) only $5.2 billion in actual payments? There’s a very simple explanation: netting, and the fact that they just don’t understand it. The CDS market is a swap market, and as such, the big players in that market aren’t interested in taking positions where their capital is at risk. They are interested in making money by creating a market for swaps and pocketing the difference between the prices at which they buy and sell. They are classic middlemen and essentially run an auction house.

Deus Ex Machina

The agreements that document credit default swaps are complex, and in fairness to the press, these are not things we learn about in grammar school – for a more detailed treatment of these agreements, look here. Despite this, the basic mechanics of a credit default swap are easy to grasp. Let’s begin by introducing everyone: protection buyer (B) is one party and swap dealer (D) is the other. These two are called swap counterparties or just counterparties for short. Let’s first explain what they agree to under a credit default swap, and then afterward, we’ll examine why they would agree to it.

What Did You Just Agree To?

Under a typical CDS, the protection buyer, B, agrees to make regular payments (let’s say monthly) to the protection seller, D. The amount of the monthly payments, called the swap fee, will be a percentage of the notional amount of their agreement. The term notional amount is simply a label for an amount agreed upon by the parties, the significance of which will become clear as we move on. So what does B get in return for his generosity? That depends on the type of CDS, but for now we will assume that we are dealing with what is called physical delivery. Under physical delivery, if the reference entity defaults, D agrees to (i) accept delivery of certain bonds issued by the reference entity named in the CDS and (ii) pay the notional amount in cash to B. After a default, the agreement terminates and no one makes anymore payments. If default never occurs, the agreement terminates on some scheduled date. The reference entity could be any entity that has debt obligations.

Now let’s fill in some concrete facts to make things less abstract. Let’s assume the reference entity is ABC. And let’s assume that the notional amount is $100 million and that the swap fee is at a rate of 6% per annum, or $500,000 per month. Finally, assume that B and D executed their agreement on January 1, 2008 and that B made its first payment on that day.  When February 1, 2008 rolls along, B will make another $500,000 payment. This will go on and on for the life of the agreement, unless ABC triggers a default under the CDS. Again, the agreements are complex and there are a myriad of ways to trigger a default. We consider the most basic scenario in which a default occurs: ABC fails to make a payment on one of its bonds. If that happens, we switch into D’s obligations under the CDS. As mentioned above, D has to accept delivery of certain bonds issued by ABC (exactly which bonds are acceptable will be determined by the agreement) and in exchange D must pay B $100 million.

Why Would You Do Such A Thing?

To answer that, we must first observe that there are two possibilities for B’s state of affairs before ABC’s default: he either (i) owned ABC issued bonds or (ii) he did not. I know, very Zen. Let’s assume that B owned $100 million worth of ABC’s bonds. If ABC defaults, B gives D his bonds and receives his $100 million in principal (the notional amount). If ABC doesn’t default, B pays $500,000 per month over the life of the agreement and collects his $100 million in principal from the bonds when the bonds mature. So in either case, B gets his principal. As a result, he has fully hedged his principal. So, for anyone who owns the underlying bond, a CDS will allow them to protect the principal on that bond in exchange for sacrificing some of the yield on that bond.

Now let’s assume that B didn’t own the bond. If ABC defaults, B has to go out and buy $100 million par value of ABC bonds. Because ABC just defaulted, that’s going to cost a lot less than $100 million. Let’s say it costs B $50 million to buy ABC issued bonds with a par value of $100 million. B is going to deliver these bonds to D and receive $100 million. That leaves B with a profit of $50 million. Outstanding. But what if ABC doesn’t default? In that case, B has to pay out $500,000 per month for the life of the agreement and receives nothing. So, a CDS allows someone who doesn’t own the underlying bond to short the bond. This is called synthetically shorting the bond. Why? Because it sounds awesome.

So why would D enter into a CDS? Again, most of the big protection sellers buy and sell protection and pocket the difference. But, this doesn’t have to be the case. D could sell protection without entering into an offsetting transaction. In that case, he has synthetically gone long on the bond. That is, he has almost the same cash flows as someone who owns the bond.