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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Just Say Yes To Cram Downs

by Tanta on 10/07/2007 11:09:00 AM

A lot of people have raised questions in the comments regarding proposed changes to federal bankruptcy law to accommodate modifications of mortgage loans.

Here's the issue, in a nutshell. Until the 2005 bankruptcy reform, insolvent homeowners could choose Chapter 7 (liquidation) or Chapter 13 (repayment plan) bankruptcy. After the reform bill, for practical purposes most homeowners are limited to Chapter 13.

Chapter 7 filings usually do not result in borrowers keeping their homes, although they can (if the borrower reaffirms the mortgage debt, the court accepts the reaffirmation, and the borrower has the financial capacity to continue to make mortgage payments). In most cases, the BK stay is lifted and the loan is foreclosed.

You can think of Chapter 13 as itself a kind of loan modification: the court establishes a 3-5 year repayment plan for all the borrower's debts, with the unpaid remainder discharged at the end of the repayment plan period. In Chapter 13, the debtor can keep a mortgaged home, as long as he continues to make mortgage payments throughout the plan period, and makes up any past-due amounts (including fees) during the repayment period as determined by the repayment plan. If the borrower does not or cannot continue to pay the mortgage, the stay is lifted and the lender can foreclose.

However, secured debts can be restructured or modified in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, and secured creditors, except the mortgage lender on a principal residence, can be subject to what is called a "cram down." This happens when the amount of the debt is greater than the value of the collateral securing it; the court reduces the value of the secured debt to the market value of the collateral, with the remainder being treated as unsecured (and subject to the same repayment plan/discharge terms as any other unsecured debt). The prohibition of court-ordered modifications for mortgages on principal residences was created in 1978; between 1978 and 1993 most bankruptcy courts interpreted the law to mean that while interest-rate reduction or term-extension modifications were not allowed, home mortgages could still be crammed down.

In 1993, with Nobleman v. American Savings Bank, the Supreme Court held that the prohibition on modifications of principal-residence mortgage loans also included cram downs. The result is that borrowers who are upside down and who have toxic, high-rate mortgages are simply, in practical terms, unable to maintain their homes in Chapter 13.

According to the Center for Responsible Lending:

The language we seek to change was enacted in 1978, a time when virtually all home mortgages were fixed-interest rate instruments with low loan-to-value ratios. The loans were rarely the source of a family’s financial distress. As originally introduced, the House legislation permitted a plan to modify any secured indebtedness, including that represented by a home mortgage.21 During Senate hearings on the proposed legislation, advocates for secured lenders suggested that home-mortgage lenders were “performing a valuable social service through their loans,” and “needed special protection against modification.” At their urging, the original proposal was subsequently amended to insert the exception for mortgages on primary residences. 22 This claim likely succeeded through effective lobbying since, as described below in section III, the merits of the argument are groundless. Whatever the merits of this claim in 1978, however, when home mortgage loans were responsibly underwritten thirty-year fixed rate loans, it plainly does not apply to the practices of subprime mortgage lenders during the last decade.
As far as I'm concerned, if you believe that prior to 1978, when modifications of home mortgages were unrestricted, and in the period of 1978-1993, when term modifications were restricted but cram downs were widely practiced, mortgage lenders offered higher-rate (relative to prevailing market), higher-LTV mortgage terms than they have in the post-1993 period, when they are safe from any restructurings, I would like to discuss a bridge purchase with you. Nonetheless, that reliable source of comic relief, the Mortgage Bankers Association, wants you to think that allowing cram downs or other kinds of loan restructuring would, um, ruin the party:
“Giving judges free rein to rewrite the terms of a mortgage would further destabilize the mortgage backed securities market and will exacerbate the serious credit crunch that is currently hindering the ability of thousands of Americans to get an affordable mortgage,” said Kurt Pfotenhauer, Senior Vice President for Government Affairs and Public Policy for MBA. “The current legislation gives no guidance as to the proper parameters for judges to modify existing loan contracts.”

By allowing judges to rewrite loan contracts and provide whatever relief they individually deem appropriate, HR 3609 would cast doubt on the value of the asset against which the mortgage loan is secured. As a result, lenders and investors would likely demand a higher premium for offering these loans. This premium could come in the form of higher fees, a higher interest rate or the requirement for a larger downpayment, all of which would serve to make the American dream of homeownership less attainable for many Americans.
In other words, the MBA implicitly admits that in the post-1993 era lenders have made low- or no-down loans at interest rates that, while high enough in terms of the blood they extract from strapped borrowers, are still lower than what they would have been if the lenders had had a healthy fear of BK court restructurings. Of course it's beyond ludicrous to argue that being forced to take what they can reasonably get by a BK judge is the "destabilizing" factor here, but you can count on the mortgage industry be ludicrous when dollars are on the table.

In fact, I have some sympathy with the view that mortgage lenders "perform a valuable social service through their loans." That's why, when they stop doing that and become predators, equity strippers, and bubble-blowers instead of valuable social service providers, I like seeing BK judges slap them around. Everybody talks a lot about moral hazard, and the reality is that you're a lot less likely to put a borrower with a weak credit history, whose income you did not verify and whose debt ratios are absurd, into a 100% financed home purchase loan on terms that are "affordable" only for a year or two, if you face having that loan restructured in Chapter 13. If you are aware that your mortgage loan can be crammed down, I'm here to tell you that you will certainly not "forget" to model negative HPA in your ratings models, and will probably pay more than a few seconds' attention to your appraisals. You might even decide that, if a loan does get into trouble, you're better off working it out yourself, via forbearance or modification or short sale, rather than hanging tough and letting the BK judge tell you what you'll accept. That would be a major bummer, right?

But I think my favorite part of the MBA lament is this: "HR 3609 would cast doubt on the value of the asset against which the mortgage loan is secured." Translation: lenders mark to model, but if you let them, BK judges will mark to market.

Is it possible that BK judges would use the lowest plausible "distressed liquidation value" to determine the secured part of the mortgage loan? Sure it is. BK judges don't have parts of their job descriptions that refer to supporting home values or keeping those comps up or controlling "price discovery." The cram down is, precisely, the "mark to market" you don't want to get, which is why the risk of it used to function as a brake on lender stupidity.

I am fully in favor of removing restrictions on modifications of mortgage loans in Chapter 13, but not necessarily because that helps current borrowers out of a jam. I'm in favor of it because I think it will be part of a range of regulatory and legal changes that will help prevent future borrowers from getting into a lot of jams, which is to say that it will, contra MBA, actually help "stabilize" the residential mortgage market in the long term. Any industry that wants special treatment under the law because of the socially vital nature of its services needs to offer socially viable services, and since the industry has displayed no ability or willingness to quit partying on its own, then treat it like any other partier under BK law.