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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

We Are NOT All Subprime Now, Thank You

by Tanta on 4/16/2008 07:44:00 AM

Kind reader AK (bless you) sent me the link to this awful Slate piece on "walking away." It's a fact-free rehashing of the increasingly popular "walkaways are the new subprime" meme, worthwhile only as a kind of crystallization of everything that is wrong with this "story." Its burden of wisdom is the simple assumption that while those subprimers couldn't afford their mortgages, the Option ARM borrowers just don't want to be underwater after their loans recast and, um, they either can or can't afford their mortgages depending on how you do or do not look at it.

What kind of logic do you expect from an essay that begins:

California is to mortgage lending what Chicago is to pork bellies.
California (the whole state) has a famous exchange on which future prices of mortgage lending are determined? Well, no:
For years, that meant it was a place with soaring house values; today, the foreclosure rate across the state is twice the national average and going up fast.
"That meant"? Home prices in California bubbled and then busted because homes were traded like commodities futures? We're two sentences into the piece here and the wheels have already come off the logical wagon. The tone is set for the lede:
California should be the poster child for a mortgage-loan bailout. In few other places have so many taken on such onerous debts with so little equity. Unfortunately, the crisis in California is going to get much worse, and there is no bailout that will solve it. Why? Because if the first stage of the foreclosure crisis was about people who could not afford their mortgages, the next stage will be about people who have every reason not even to try to pay their mortgages.
As usual, I'm amazed at how short memories are, since the "subprime crisis" was only just last year. And why just last year, when we had been originating large volumes of subprime loans for years prior to that? Well, 2007 was when those people who couldn't afford their mortgage payments suddenly lost the ability to refinance or to sell the home ahead of foreclosure. And why was that? Because home values were sliding in high-subprime-concentration markets. So maybe the price declines as of a year ago were "only" single-digits, as opposed to the "40%-50%" our intrepid Slate reporter forecasts for California. So? Underwater is underwater: if you cannot or do not wish to bring cash to the closing in order to sell your home, and you cannot maintain the payments, you end up in foreclosure, whether you're 5% under or 50% under.

Insofar as there's any sort of point here, it seems to be the unsurprising one that so-called "prime" borrowers last longer in an RE bust than subprime borrowers do. By the time prime borrowers get to the end of their ability to handle crushing mortgage payments, RE values have dropped further than they had for subprime borrowers. What else are we to make of this:
The most common subprime loans were known as "2/28" in the industry: 30 years, including a two-year teaser rate before the interest rate rose. Now these loans have reset, and we're seeing the fallout.

But prime borrowers, too, got loans that started out with low payments; if you bought or refinanced your house in the last few years, it's not unlikely that you have one. With an "option ARM" loan you have the "option" (which most borrowers happily take) of paying less than the interest; the magic of "negative amortization." The loan grows until you hit a specified point—the exact point varies with the lender; with Countrywide, it'll come after about four and a half years—when the payment resets to close to twice where it was on Day 1. . . .

The really amazing thing is that the meltdown in California is already happening and virtually none of these loans have yet reset.

Option ARM loans were heavily marketed to upper-tier home buyers in California. It's hard to know how bad the option ARM crisis will be before it actually happens, but Moe Bedard, an advocate in Southern California who advises homeowners on foreclosure and blogs about the crisis at says that the difference in the time until the rate rises is the main reason that upper-middle-class Orange County (now facing foreclosures at a rate merely twice the national average) hasn't yet been hit as badly as places like Riverside.
The 2/28 "subprime" foreclosure crisis also started well before most of those loans had reset, as the failed flippers and borrowers with crushingly high DTIs even before reset were trapped by even modest drops in value. It shouldn't be surprising that Option ARM failures are beginning to occur before the payment recast.

But, as with the CBOT analogy, what's the point here? That well-heeled Orange County OA borrowers will not be able to afford doubled mortgage payments when their OAs reset, and that by then they will be underwater by 40%? This makes them "walkaways," whereas the subprime borrowers were just plain old "foreclosures"? The way I see it, we have two choices here. We can take the perspective that "we're all subprime now," or we can insist that in fact "we" aren't subprime, "we" are walkaways, and that's different.

Such "rebranding" leads inexorably to this sort of fantasy:
Consider, too, that, yes, going through a foreclosure kills your credit rating and makes it a lot harder to buy a new house—but as more and more prime borrowers go into foreclosure, it's perfectly possible that buying a new home a year later will in the near future be as routine and unsurprising as the once inconceivable idea that you can get a whole batch of new credit cards two years after a bankruptcy.
What a foreclosure and a "killing" of your credit rating does to you is make you "subprime." "Prime" is not a birthright; it is not an immutable characteristic like having blue eyes. The confident assertion that credit will be easily and quickly available to these borrowers formerly known as prime rests on a hidden assumption that they are unlike any other "subprime" borrower, and therefore will get preferential treatment in a year or two.

Mystification aside, this is a prediction that the subprime mortgage lending industry--and the investors therein--will have recovered sufficiently in just a year that this new large crop of subprime borrowers with a year-old FC on their records will be deluged with mortgage offers. Perhaps that will happen, but what makes anyone think it will happen just because these were once "prime" borrowers? Most subprime borrowers were once prime. With the exception of borrowers who have never had any credit, which is a fairly small group, subprime borrowers once had prime credit, and did not manage it well, and therefore now have cruddy credit records and FICOs. How, exactly, will these "walkaways" be any different from any other subprime borrower?

The whole thing is so nonsensical that I am forced to the conclusion that for this (and many other writers), "subprime" is code for "poor people" and "prime" is code for "middle and upper class people," hence the need for distinguishing terms for loan failure: "foreclosure" for the poor, "walkaway" for the non-poor. Foreclosure is something that happens to you against your will; "walkaway" is something you do to the bank as an exercise of control over your finances. If we can maintain these illusory distinctions, we can maintain "our" distance from "them."

In the realm of rhetoric, that is. I for one suspect that the economics of mortgage lending in a year or two will be somewhat less fantasy-driven than that.