Nightmares, Norms and Negative Equity
Thanks, Sarah, Dan, and everyone at Concurring Opinions for inviting me to guest blog.
For a Property professor, these are riveting times. The mortgage nightmare continues. As in much of the country, here in Minnesota, thousands of houses stand vacant and decaying. Parts of Minneapolis have been devastated. But the problem may have crested in the cities.
Not so in the suburbs. Five-year subprime ARM loans that were originated in 2004 and 2005, when McMansions were popping up in suburbs like dandelions in my lawn, are not due to re-set their rates until 2009 and 2010. If home values haven’t improved by then, many of those borrowers will have negative equity – that is, they’ll owe more than their homes are worth. That means they’ll be unable to re-finance for as much as they owe, because lenders won’t lend more than the house is worth.
Legal and economic institutions seem at a loss to cope with the crisis, but not for want of trying. There are lots of plans out there, but none seems satisfying. From an academic’s standpoint, it’s fascinating. Rational choice, on the one hand, and norms of fairness, on the other, are interacting in odd and sometimes surprising ways.
Homeowners with negative equity can be divided into four groups: those who can’t pay their loans, those who might not be able to pay their loans in the near future, those who can pay their loans but don’t want to, and those who can and do pay their loans.
Lenders and government agencies agree that the best choice for dealing with homeowners who can’t pay their loans is to re-work their loans so they can. Lenders don’t want abandoned, unsellable homes, and government agencies don’t want homelessness to spread. Moreover, the presence of one foreclosed house lowers the value of neighboring houses, and increases the risk of more foreclosures.
The FDIC and commercial banks are working frantically on plan to to re-work loans. The problem is that ultimately, in order to make these loans affordable, they’re going to have to be re-valued at the current value of the home. In other words, the principal owed on the house will have to reduced – in many cases, reduced by a lot. It’s an economically rational choice: everyone involved – the homeowner, the lender, the government agency — is better off.
But there are significant negative externalities, and not all of them are cold-bloodedly rational. First, by re-valuing homes now in danger of foreclosure, agencies and lenders could push other homes into danger. Think of it this way: if your neighbor’s nearly identical home is now worth $200K, yours probably is too. And that may push your home into negative equity, and if you need to refinance that ARM, you won’t be able to do it. So by saving one house from foreclosure, we may create the need to save another; and we’ve spread the crisis from our first group into the second. Foreclosures beget more foreclosures, but re-valuing homes to avoid foreclosure may also beget more foreclosures.
Second, the rational choice for our third group – the folks with negative equity who can pay their loans but don’t want to — is to pretend they can’t pay the loan, so that the lender will re-value the home and lower the principal due. And there’s plenty of evidence that those people intend to do just that.
Which, not surprisingly, infuriates the people in our fourth group – people with negative equity who can and do pay their loans. To them, it seems blindingly unfair that similarly situated people are treated preferentially, just because they are unwilling to live with the bad bargains they made. And yet, folks in the fourth group are no worse off whether or not people who can pay but don’t want to get their loans reduced.
But governments violate strongly-felt norms of fairness at their peril. The nightmare, and the tug-of-war between rational choice and social norms, continues.