August 30, 2016

Housing Bubble Causes – Why Did It Happen?

The housing bubble was caused by an expansion of credit that enabled irrational exuberance and wild speculation. The expansion of credit came in the form of relaxed loan underwriting terms including high debt-to-income ratios, lower FICO scores, high combined-loan-to-value lending including 100% financing, and loan terms permitting negative amortization.

Addressing the conditions of expanding credit is a legitimate focus for intervention in the credit markets. Another major lending problem is unrelated to the terms: low documentation standards. The credit crunch that gripped the markets in late 2007 was exacerbated by the rampant fraud and misrepresentation in the loan documents underwriting the loans packaged and sold in the secondary mortgage market.

It is essential to an evaluation of the viability of a mortgage note to know if the borrower actually has the income necessary to make the payments. When investors lost confidence in the underlying documents, the whole system seized up, and it was not going to work properly until the documentation improved to reflect the reality of the borrower’s financial situation. Any remedy for the housing bubble must address the issue of poor documentation in order to facilitate the smooth operation of the secondary market.

There are some factors that created the housing bubble that cannot be directly regulated. One of these is the lax enforcement of existing regulations as described previously. Even though lenders and investors lost a great deal of money during the price crash, their behavior during the bubble was still predatory. Lenders peddled unstable loan programs to borrowers who could not afford the payments. They did not do this to obtain the property as is ordinarily the case with predatory lending; they did it to obtain a fee through loan origination. Since they felt insulated from the losses to these loans being packaged and sold to investors, they were in a position to profit at the expense of borrowers, the definition of predatory lending.

Another factor that cannot be regulated is the crazy behavior of borrowers caught up in a speculative mania. It is not possible to stop people from overpaying for real estate, but it is possible from preventing them from doing so with borrowed money. If people wish to risk their own equity in property speculation, it is their money to lose, but when lender money is part of the equation, the entire financial system can be put at risk, which it was during the housing bubble.

The fickle nature of borrowers became apparent during the decline of the bubble when many borrowers behaved in a predatory manner refusing to make payments on loans they could have afforded to make because the property had declined in value. Borrowers who were grateful to receive 100% financing and what was perceived at the time to be favorable loan terms were not hesitant to betray the lenders when their speculative investment did not go as planned.

The 30-year fixed-rate conventionally-amortizing mortgage with a reasonable downpayment is the only loan program proven to provide stability in the housing market. Many of the “affordability” products used during the housing bubble and many of the deviations from traditional underwriting standards created the bubble. Mortgage debt-to-income ratios greater than 28% and total indebtedness greater than 36% have a proven history of default. Despite this fact, debt-to-income ratios greater than 50% were common in the most extreme bubble markets.

Limiting debt-to-income ratios is critical to stopping loan defaults and foreclosures. Lower FICO scores was the hallmark of subprime lending. FICO scores provide a fairly accurate profile of a borrower’s willingness and ability to pay their debts as planned. Low FICO scores are synonymous with high default rates. Limiting availability of credit to those with low FICO scores was a historic barrier to home ownership because these people default too much. The free market solved this problem. Subprime was dead.

High combined-loan-to-value (CLTV) lending including 100% financing is also prone to high default rates. In fact, it is more important than FICO score. FICO scores are very good at predicting who will default when downpayments are large, but when borrowers have very little of their own money in the transactions, both prime and subprime borrowers defaulted at high rates. Many prime borrowers are more sophisticated financially, and the unscrupulous recognized 100% financing as a perfect too for speculating in the real estate market and passing the risk off to a lender.

The primary culprits that inflated the housing bubble were the negative amortization loan and interest-only loans where lenders qualified buyers on their ability to make only the initial payment. As the housing bubble began to deflate, Minnesota and some other states passed laws restricting the use of negative amortization loans and required lenders to qualify borrowers based on their ability to make a fully amortized payment. The Minnesota law is a good template for the rest of the nation.

Any proposal to prevent bubbles from reoccurring in the residential real estate market must properly identify the cause, provide a solution that is enforceable, and allow for the unhindered working of the secondary mortgage market. The solutions outlined below are both market-based, meaning it does not require government regulation, and regulatory based, meaning it entails some form of civil or criminal penalties to prevent certain forms of behavior leading to market bubbles.

All changes are difficult to implement and the solutions presented here would be no exception. Any policies which prevent future bubbles will be opposed by those who profit from these activities and homeowners who are in need of the next bubble to get out of the bad deals they entered during the Great Housing Bubble. Despite these difficulties, it is imperative that reform take place, or the country may experience another housing bubble with all the pain and financial hardship it entails.

Lawrence Roberts is the author of The Great Housing Bubble: Why Did House Prices Fall?
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