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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Survey Shows 73% of Borrowers Are Not Crazy

by Tanta on 10/16/2007 12:46:00 PM

There has been a fair amount of reporting in the last two days on a survey of ARM borrowers commissioned by the AFL-CIO. As is often the case, what we learn seems to be more about the press's ignorance than anything else.

The clearest description of the results that I've found comes from the AFL-CIO's blog (surprised?):

The poll shows that of those homeowners whose ARMs had reset, 37 percent had interest rates at 8 percent or higher, above the current market rate for prime, fixed-rate loans, and 16 percent had interest rates at 10 percent or higher. After the reset, the average increase in monthly mortgage payments is approximately $291, a 10 percent cut in after-tax pay for a family earning $50,000 a year.

Two in three (64 percent) of those whose rate has reset do not recall their lender telling them how much more their payment would increase, and 32 percent don’t recall being told when their interest rate would increase. Twenty-three percent of all respondents say they had been late making a mortgage payment at least once in the past 12 months. That proportion jumps to 37 percent among those whose rate has increased.

The poll also found substantial support for government action to protect consumers. Fifty-one percent say they think the government should assist people with ARMs facing foreclosures, and 77 percent say the government should do more to regulate the mortgage industry.

Despite a general lack of understanding about their adjustable rate mortgages, 79 percent say they believe the information they received from their lenders was mainly accurate and truthful. Sixty percent say they got their ARMs from mortgage brokers, and 39 percent directly from banks. [Emphasis added]
Without seeing the actual survey question, I am at a loss to know what, precisely, we are to make of the fact that two thirds do not remember the lender disclosing how much the payment would rise. That implies that one third of the respondents seem to remember the lender disclosing an unknowable "fact." ARMs adjust on specified dates, and the rate (and hence payment) are adjusted to a specified formula (index plus margin, subject to caps), but since the index at adjustment is a future value, there is no "disclosure" of how much the payment will increase. If a third of respondents remember being told what their future payment would be (not, say, what it might be if the index value does not change, which is the standard disclosure), then we got some serious problems here, but I don't think it's the same problem that the press thinks it is.

It's also curious that 79% of people feel that the lender disclosed facts honestly, when it seems clear that a majority of borrowers aren't sure what the facts are. There are several possibilities here, one being that borrowers on the whole are likely to trust people who work in financial services and talk in numbers, whether that trust is misplaced or not. Another is that borrowers recognize that they were in fact given truthful information, they simply do not understand it. They don't even know what they're supposed to "know": you cannot, in fact, "know" what your future payment will be with an ARM. If you think you "know" that, you are confused. Similarly, if you don't remember being told when your ARM will adjust, you can actually look at your copy of the note you signed. Do people rely on memories of oral explanations because they do not know how to read these notes? Would they ever have known how to read these notes?

However, press reports don't seem to see the real problem here:
A study commissioned by the AFL-CIO shows that nearly half of homeowners with ARMs don't know how their loans will adjust, and three-quarters don't know how much their payments will increase if the loan does reset.

Nearly three quarters of homeowners (73%) with ARM's don't even know how much their monthly payment will increase the next time the rate goes up.
Not a single one of these sources explains how a person with an ARM might go about finding the information and the calculator necessary to determine what the adjusted payment might be if the index value available today is the one that will be used in a future adjustment.

Is that whole process over a lot of folks' heads? Sure it is. That's why offering ARMs in the mass market to people without much financial sophistication, who probably do really need to know what their payment will be in the future to budget around it, and therefore should be put in fixed rate loans, remains a thoroughly stupid idea. I, however, remain stunned that the press can report that "only" 73% of borrowers do not claim to know the unknowable as if that's the problem.