The Problem with Loan Modifications

by: Donald Marron

Over the past two years, many policymakers have identified loan modifications as key to fighting the mortgage crisis. The rationale for encouraging modifications appears quite simple: foreclosure is expensive for both the borrowers (who lose their home and their credit worthiness) and lenders (who often recover only a fraction of what they are owed). It would therefore seem that loan modifications — reducing payments so that owners can avoid foreclosure — are a potential win-win for both sides.

From that perspective, the slow pace of modifications appears rather mysterious, with potential causes including (a) stupidity on the part of lenders and servicers, (b) flaws in servicing contracts for securitized mortgages, and (c) borrower reluctance to even speak with their lenders.

Both the Bush and Obama administration have initiated a series of policies to encourage modifications, yet results have not lived up to expectations. The Washington Post has a nice article that walks through one of the reasons for this failure. The basic problem is that the argument in favor of loan modifications focuses on only one kind of borrower: those who would make payments with some help but won’t make payments without that help. However, those borrowers are outnumbered by two other types: those who would pay without help and those who won’t pay even with help.

ForeclosureFrom the lender’s point of view, the economics of loan modification must consider all three types of borrowers. Modifying the loan of someone who would pay anyway is, from the lender’s point of view, a pointless giveaway. And modifying the loan of someone who is going to default anyway is just delaying the inevitable. Delay can be expensive, moreover, in an environment of declining house prices.

The WaPo story is based, in large part, on this recent paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The authors summarize their findings as follows:

We document the fact that servicers have been reluctant to renegotiate mortgages since the foreclosure crisis started in 2007, having performed payment-reducing modifications on only about 3 percent of seriously delinquent loans. We show that this reluctance does not result from securitization: servicers renegotiate similarly small fractions of loans that they hold in their portfolios. Our results are robust to different definitions of renegotiation, including the one most likely to be affected by securitization, and to different definitions of delinquency. Our results are strongest in subsamples in which unobserved heterogeneity between portfolio and securitized loans is likely to be small, and for subprime loans. We use a theoretical model to show that redefault risk, the possibility that a borrower will still default despite costly renegotiation, and self-cure risk, the possibility that a seriously delinquent borrower will become current without renegotiation, make renegotiation unattractive to investors.