Thursday, January 31, 2008

That Awesome Bankruptcy Bill

While I do think no-or-little-money-down combined with the general corrupt carnival atmosphere of the whole lending/housing markets in recent years are the major explanations, one certainly can't dismiss the likely role of the Bankruptcy Bill in all of this.

The issue at stake revolves around so-called delinquency rates, the proportion of people who fall behind on their debt repayments. When American households have faced hard times in previous decades, they tended to default on unsecured loans such as credit cards and car loans first – and stopped paying their mortgage only as a last resort. However, in the last couple of years households have become delinquent on their mortgages much faster than trends in the wider economy might suggest. That is particularly true of the less creditworthy subprime borrowers. More­over, consumers have stopped paying mortgages before they halt payments on their credit cards or automotive loans – turning the traditional delinquency pattern on its head. As a result, mortgage lenders have started to face losses at a much earlier stage than in the past.

“In the past, if a household in America experienced financial problems it tended to go delinquent on its credit cards, but kept on paying its mortgage,” says Malcolm Knight, head of the Bank for International Settlements, the central banks’ bank. “Now what seems to be happening is that people who have outstanding mortgages that are greater than the value of their home, or have negative amortisation mortgages, keep paying off their credit card balances but hand in the keys to their house . . . these reactions to financial stress are not taken into account in the credit scoring models that are used to value residential mortgage-backed securities.”

One possible explanation is that it has become culturally more acceptable this decade for people to abandon houses or stop paying in the hope of renegotiating their home loans. The shame that used to be associated with losing a house may, in other words, be ebbing away – particularly among homeowners who took out subprime loans in recent years, as underwriting standards were loosened. Consumers may also be rationally re-evaluating the costs that come with defaulting on different forms of debt, in the light of recent bankruptcy law reforms in America.

All of this cultural "shame" stuff is nonsense. But bankruptcy laws exist largely for the benefit of creditors, not debtors, and if you don't make it a reasonable path for people who are underwater to take then they'll choose another course. And so they send in the keys and walk away from the house.