How Disastrous is Senator Clinton’s Mortgage Proposal?
Richard Thaler and Susan Woodward paint her proposal as some massive interest rate ceiling:
What would happen if scheduled rate increases were halted? Although it might make some borrowers happy, such a freeze could potentially poison the mortgage market and quickly exacerbate the slump in housing prices. If lenders and investors do not receive the interest payments they expected, they will be wary going forward. Should they avoid providing funds for adjustable rate mortgages, since the government would have just proven that the terms can be changed if difficulty arises? Should they avoid all mortgages, since the government now seems to prioritize short-term concerns for borrowers? Maybe they should avoid lending in the United States altogether? Such a policy would clearly send a dangerous message far beyond our borders. Two trillion dollars of U.S. national debt is held by foreign governments. Interest rates on this debt are low in part because foreigners trust the U.S. to pay back its loans as promised. The rates would surely be higher if its holders thought the U.S. could renege on its promises to pay. But this is precisely the expectation America would encourage by unilaterally changing the terms on $2 trillion in mortgages held by investors around the world.
While that sounds awful, let’s back up a second:
In an older posting on her Web site, Senator Clinton describes the policy as applying only to sub-prime mortgages. But most of her recent speeches do not include that qualifier, and since Hillary is nothing if not careful, one can only conclude she is either expanding her proposal to all adjustable rate mortgages, or at least would like voters to think so.
Thaler and Woodward later concede:
The Clinton proposal is a blunt tool applied too broadly to problems that are, in principle, contained and specific. Only 3.1 percent of prime (good credit) ARM loans are seriously (90 days or more) delinquent. The disconcerting delinquency rate of 16 percent is for the subprime sector–which is alarming, to be sure, but 84 percent are not seriously delinquent. Over the last three years there was an unusually large volume of aggressive lending activity with flaws at several levels. Some borrowers were led into loans they did not understand. These people deserve some concern. Other loans were made to speculators who do not live in the homes and were betting that house prices would continue to go up. The inhabitants of these homes deserve our concern, but the investors do not. It is now clear that there were too few checks and controls to assure reasonable loan underwriting practices (for example, no escrow accounts for taxes and insurance) or even good recordkeeping. An accurate assessment of the current mortgage problem would probably reveal no more than 700,000 loans with distressed borrowers. Why, then, would the U.S. government rewrite eleven million loans, or even all 3.4 million subprime mortgages? Any intervention should be targeted at the borrowers who are truly in trouble, especially those who were likely duped by unscrupulous mortgage lenders. The numbers suggest these victims are disproportionately poor, young, and African American. Looking forward, the government needs to take steps to make this market more transparent and make it easier for borrowers to make good choices. But it would be irresponsible to do this by ruling millions of legal contracts null and void.
Could there be common ground here? Thaler and Woodward argue for a targeted approach as opposed to some broad based “command-and-control approach”. Their recommendation makes sense to me as seems to be what Senator Clinton may have been saying in that older posting.