Sunday, May 18, 2008

Shiller on the Psychology of Foreclosure

by Tanta on 5/18/2008 12:07:00 PM

Gather 'round, children, because Tanta is about to engage in a curiously hard-headed look at an editorial by a famous economist that demands, in every sincere and decent sentence, our kindness and compassion instead. This is blogging at its finest: nobody should get away un-pissed-off about something. And on a Sunday, too.

It's also long blogging at its finest. You knew I'd have to try to figure out how to use the Read More thingy eventually . . .

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The editorial in question is by Robert J. Shiller, who is a professor of economics and finance and famous analyst of speculative bubbles. A specialist in behavioral economics, in the application of psychology to understanding financial markets. A co-founder of Case Shiller Weiss, that house price index we talk about a lot. His editorial, "The Scars of Losing a Home," speaks not of lofty academic economic concepts but of human sympathy, of things that are "really important." With references from famous academic psychologists. I haven't taken this kind of a tiger by the tail since I went after Austan Goolsbee last year.

Yes, it was only a year ago that the distinguished Dr. Goolsbee wrote this on the same editorial page:

And do not forget that the vast majority of even subprime borrowers have been making their payments. Indeed, fewer than 15 percent of borrowers in this most risky group have even been delinquent on a payment, much less defaulted.

When contemplating ways to prevent excessive mortgages for the 13 percent of subprime borrowers whose loans go sour, regulators must be careful that they do not wreck the ability of the other 87 percent to obtain mortgages.

For be it ever so humble, there really is no place like home, even if it does come with a balloon payment mortgage.
I actually think Goolsbee's piece was the high-water-mark of the "subprime helps the poor" talking point. You certainly don't hear much about that these days. Less than two months after Dr. Goolsbee's earnest op-ed, we got an interview in the very same NYT with one Bill Dallas, CEO of the famously defunct Ownit Mortgage, effusively testifying to his own burning desire to help out the unfortunate in a way that finally put paid to the respectability of that line ("'I am passionate about the normal person owning a home,' said Mr. Dallas, who is also chairman of the Fox Sports Grill restaurant chain and manages the business interests of the Olsen twins. 'I think owning a home solves all their problems.'") Plus by now we've got some numbers on the 2007 mortgage vintage, the one that Dr. Goolsbee was afraid wasn't going to ever materialize if we tightened up lending standards too much. A year ago we were looking at a 13% subprime ARM delinquency rate. Per Moody's (no link) the Q4 07 subprime ARM delinquencies were running 20.02%. And that is not, you know, "just" another 7%. By now, those delinquent borrowers in Goolsbee's 13% have probably mostly been foreclosed upon and are off the books. The 20% or so who are now delinquent were either part of the 87% that Goolsbee thought were "successful homeowners" last year, or else they're those lucky duckies who bought homes after the publication date of Goolsbee's plea that we not tighten standards too much.

Of course Shiller wasn't exactly spending his time a year ago defending the subprime mortgage industry on the grounds that it put poor and minority people into ever-so-humble homes with balloons attached. I seem to recall him mostly arguing that homebuyers were engaged in a speculative mania. In a June 2007 interview:
Well, human thinking is built around stories, and the story that has sustained the housing boom is that homes are like stocks. Buy one anywhere and it'll go up. It's the easiest way to get rich.
At the time, that kind of statement struck some of us, at least, as not possibly the entire story either, but in any event a useful corrective to the saccharine silliness of the "Ownership Society" and Bill Dallas solving everyone's problems by letting them put Roots in a Community (for only five points in YSP).

So I hope I can be just a tad startled by the New Shiller:
Homeownership is thus an extension of self; if one owns a part of a country, one tends to feel at one with that country. Policy makers around the world have long known that, and hence have supported the growth of homeownership.

MAYBE that’s why President Bush’s “Ownership Society” theme had such resonance in his 2004 re-election campaign. People instinctively understand that homeownership conveys good feelings about belonging in our society, and that such feelings matter enormously, not only to our economic success but also to the pleasure we can take in it.
So it's no longer irrational exuberance or plain old speculating; it's now an instinctive affirmation of some eternal verity of the human psyche? The ultimate patriotism: the definition of self so tied up in ownership of a slice of the motherland that to rent becomes not only psychologically dangerous--these people without selves can't be up to anything good--but politically dangerous as well? Is it possible that Shiller can mean what he is writing here?

If you just scanned the first few paragraphs of Shiller's op-ed you might come away with the impression of a sincere but somewhat hackneyed plea for us all to have a bit of sympathy for the foreclosed among us, foreclosure not in anyone's experience being a walk in the park. Fair enough. It being Sunday in America, I suspect millions of us are being treated to exhortations to take a kinder view of the unfortunate than we often do; we need those exhortations; we are often lacking in sympathy. Hands up all who disagree.

But you keep reading and you find Shiller trying to explain the "trauma" of foreclosure. And that's where this really gets weird:
Now, let’s take the other perspective — and examine some arguments against the stern view. They have to do with the psychological effects of strict enforcement of a mortgage contract, and economists and people in business may need to be reminded of them. After all, too much attention to abstract economic statistics just might make us overlook what is really important.

First, we have to consider that we cannot squarely place the blame for the current mortgage mess on the homeowner. It seems to be shared among mortgage brokers, mortgage originators, appraisers, regulatory agencies, securities ratings agencies, the chairman of the Federal Reserve and the president of the United States (who did not issue any warnings, but instead has consistently extolled the virtues of homeownership).

Because homeowners facing foreclosure must bear the brunt of the pain, they naturally feel indignation when all of these other parties continue to lead comfortable, even affluent lives. Trying to enforce mortgage contracts may thus have a perverse effect: instead of teaching homeowners that they should respect the contracts they sign, it may incline them to take a cynical view of the whole mess.
We need to modify mortgage contracts to keep homeowners from becoming cynical? That's somehow more respectable an idea than the one saying we should throw them out on the street to "teach them a lesson"? If Shiller is serious that all those other parties are "to blame," then why isn't the obvious solution to throw them out on the street? There seems to be an assumption here that nothing can be done to punish those who are "really" to blame, so we're left managing the psyches of those who can be punished. And that's not cynical?

This the point at which Shiller dredges up the most stunningly unfortunate quote from William effing James (1890) to define the "fundamental" psychology of homeownership:
Homeownership is fundamental part of a sense of belonging to a country. The psychologist William James wrote in 1890 that “a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank account.”
Now, that's breath-taking. Horses. Yachts. His wife and his children. Ancestors. The whole late-Victorian wealthy male WASP defining the "Self" (with a capital!) as the wealthy male WASP surveying his extensive possessions, an oddly-assorted list that ranks the family and friends somewhere after the clothes and the house. (Yes, James did that on purpose.) The kind of sentiment that was a caricature of the late-Victorian male even in 1890. And Shiller drags this out in aid of generating sympathy for homeowners? Really? You couldn't find some psychological insight about the emotional relationship of people to their homes that doesn't speak the language of the male ego surveying his domain, sizing himself up against all the other males to see where he ranks?

(James on the psychological effect of losing one's property: " . . . although it is true that a part of our depression at the loss of possessions is due to our feeling that we must now go without certain goods that we expected the possessions to bring in their train, yet in every case there remains, over and above this, a sense of the shrinkage of our personality, a partial conversion of ourselves to nothingness, which is a psychological phenomenon by itself. We are all at once assimilated to the tramps and poor devils whom we so despise, and at the same time removed farther than ever away from the happy sons of earth who lord it over land and sea and men in the full-blown lustihood that wealth and power can give, and before whom, stiffen ourselves as we will by appealing to anti-snobbish first principles, we cannot escape an emotion, open or sneaking, of respect and dread.")

I'm actually, you know, in favor of some sympathy for homeowners, but one thing that does get in the way of that for a lot of us is, well, the rather disgusting shallowness that a lot of them displayed on the way up. There is this whole part of our culture that has sprung into being since 1890 that takes a rather severe view of conspicuous consumption, unbridled materialism, and totally self-defeating use of debt to buy McMansions, if not yachts. We were treated to a fair amount of that kind of thing in the last few years. In fact, we had Dr. Shiller explaining to us last year that a lot of folks just wanted to get rich, quick, in real estate.

It is undeniably true, I assert, that not everyone was a speculatin' spend-thrift maxing out the HELOCs to buy more toys, and that part of our problem today with public opinion is that we extend our (quite proper) disgust for these latter-day Yuppies to the entire class "homeowner." But it is surely an odd way to engage our sympathies for the non-speculator class to speak of it in Jamesian terms as the man whose self is defined by his Stuff, and whose psychological pain is felt most acutely when he recognizes that he is now just like the riff-raff.

It's worse than odd--it's downright reactionary--to then go on to that evocation of homeownership as good citizenship and good citizenship as "feel[ing] at one with [the] country." This puts a rather sinister light on Shiller's earlier insistence that we need to make sure people don't get too "cynical."

I see that Yves at naked capitalism was just as disgusted by Shiller as I am:
Now admittedly, this is not a validated instrument, but a widely used stress scoring test puts loss of spouse as 100 and divorce at 73. Foreclosure is 30, below sex difficulties (39), pregnancy (40), or personal injury (53). Change in residence is 20.

Note that if we as a society were worried about psychological damage, being fired (47) is far worse than foreclosure (30), and if it leads to a change in financial status (38) and/or change to a different line of work (36) those are separate, additive stress factors. Yet policy-makers have no qualms about advocating more open trade even though it produces industry restructurings that produce unemployment that does more psychological damage than foreclosures. As a society, we'll pursue efficiency that first cost blue collar jobs, and now that we've gotten inured to that, white collar ones as well (although Alan Blinder draws the line there).

But efficiency arguments don't apply to housing since we are sentimental about it. And it's that sentimentality that bears examination, since it engendered policies that helped produce this mess.
I would only add that we are about five years too far into a war that has not made a majority of us "feel at one with that country." I think of another really important policy change we could be pursuing right now to shore up everyone's psychological estrangement from their patriotic self-satisfaction. But "efficiency arguments" don't apply to wars, either.

My fellow bleeding heart liberals like Goolsbee found themselves defending the subprime industry in the name of increasing minority homeownership. Now we're treated to the spectacle of Shiller arguing for homeowner bailout legislation in the same terms that Bush used to defend the "Ownership Society." Housing policy, I gather, makes strange bedfellows. It certainly makes strange editorials.

Read on . . . if you dare . . .