Monday, August 26, 2013

Adjustable-Rate Mortgages

I am a home owner. Or if I've been playing too many video games, I am a home pwner (your domination is my vacation). Because of this, I tend to get reams of junk mail offering me fantastic refinancing deals. Hooray!

Now, since you've likely deduced that I've a bit of a training in economics, it naturally follows that I have no idea what the yield curve looks like on any particular day. I am however unusually blessed with an eagle-eyed spouse who takes every opportunity to keep from forking over cash moneys to lenders. She loathes interest, whereas I'm stupid enough to think its social benefit is all unicorn glitter and ballerinas pirouetting in a, I don't know, a glade or something. I flatter myself to think I'm on the side of a larger truth, whereas she actually keeps our household ledger in the black. It should be immediately obvious to anyone that she far and away provides a much larger marginal benefit to our household, so it should come as no surprise that she tracked down a few of these offers and looked a little closer.

Surprise, surprise, the ones that sound too good to be true are precisely that. They're either 15 year mortgages (we're not even remotely able to handle that) or they're adjustable rate.

For those of you who've never had to wrangle with the niceties of home financing, an ARM works a little like this: you start out for a couple of years with a relatively low fixed (say, 3%) interest rate on your loan, and when this sweetheart period is up, you start paying interest a bit over the floating market rate. Here, look at this:

That's what a yield curve looks like when it's at home. Source. How you'd calculate your floating rate is that you'd consult your crystal ball to see what this guy will look like each payment cycle down the life of your loan, find the time left on your mortgage on the abscissa, follow it up to the curve then head West young man to the rate on the ordinate. Since you're not the US Treasury, you pay some basis points above that (I'm not sufficiently familiar with the system to say exactly how much). If you're lucky enough, the yield curve will remain nice and low so that you don't get rear-ended by bigger and bigger interest components of your mortgage payment.

Which is what happened to folks in 2008.

Five years ago.

I'll not try to parse the substance of the response to the financial crisis. What I will do is ask why the Ban Barnstormers haven't so much as wiggled their wings at what seems to be an exploitative lending practice. Compared to, say, payday lending, the ARM seems a hell of a lot more deceptive.

Or does it? There's really no information asymmetry to speak of, right? Borrowers in effect become speculators, taking rather large uncovered positions over future market movements (think of the tremendous downside risk implicit here), but it's not like they're being tricked by lenders. In contrast, under a fixed rate mortgage, it is the lender (well, actually the taxpayer so long as we have Fannie and Freddy) who accepts the long-tail downside risk. But who should (normative claim alert!!!) accept the downside risk? It seems to me as if most folks hew to the opinion that it ought to be the big, faceless, indifferent corporations. People get all bent askew over Glass-Steagall (really!), but not so much as a lifted eyebrow when there's this huge industry-wide practice that heaps systemic risks on the shoulders of ordinary citizens.

Don't get me wrong, I think that as long as folks actually understand what it is they're agreeing to (and they have a pretty strong incentive to learn about what it is they're agreeing to for the next thirty years!), any ex post regret is their own ever-loving fault. But I also think that this moral and economic calculus applies in equal measure to other lending markets that people have at various times lit the pitchforks and grabbed the torches over.

So how about it? Are the regrets felt by ARM holders of the right type to make this type of loan non-euvoluntary? What does that imply for the regulatory scheme? Do we have different caveat emptor goalposts here? What to do about it?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?