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Real Estate Research provides analysis of topical research and current issues in the fields of housing and real estate economics. Authors for the blog include the Atlanta Fed's Jessica Dill, Kristopher Gerardi, Carl Hudson, and analysts, as well as the Boston Fed's Christopher Foote and Paul Willen.

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July 2, 2020

An Update on Forbearance Trends

So far, the principal policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. mortgage market has been forbearance. On March 18, 2020, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) directed the government-sponsored enterprises (GSE) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to suspend foreclosures on single-family mortgages and start offering forbearance and modification plans to distressed borrowers.1

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 27, codified the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac forbearance programs, and included the government housing agency Ginnie Mae. The act directed the agencies to grant borrower requests for forbearance "with no additional documentation required other than the borrower's attestation to a financial hardship caused by the COVID-19 emergency..." In general, servicers of loans not covered by the law have set up similar forbearance programs.

What is mortgage forbearance?
Mortgage forbearance means a mortgage lender (that is, the holder of credit risk) allows a borrower to stop making mortgage payments for a fixed period of time. During that time, the lender does not charge late fees nor initiate foreclosure proceedings but does consider the borrower delinquent on the loan. Under normal circumstances, the lender would report the delinquency and the forbearance plan to credit bureaus. Under not-so-normal circumstances, including natural disasters, lenders often do not report loan status to credit bureaus. The CARES Act explicitly stipulates that forbearance resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic cannot negatively affect a borrower's credit score, so lenders cannot report borrowers in forbearance as being delinquent.

Once the forbearance period expires, the borrower has to make up the missed payments. For example, if the lender implements a six-month forbearance policy, then borrowers would be allowed to defer all payments for up to six months. After the forbearance period ends, the borrower and lender would typically negotiate a repayment plan that makes the lender whole in the long run but does not send the borrower back into distress. During this COVID-19 forbearance episode, Fannie, Freddie, and Ginnie Mae must provide borrowers affordable repayment options, such as converting the arrears into a partial claim, which is a non-interest-bearing second lien due at termination of the loan.

Forbearance is meant to provide short-term relief to financially distressed borrowers without inducing moral hazard by borrowers who do not need assistance. Since no debt is forgiven, the policy, in theory, should not appeal to borrowers who are not liquidity-constrained. Nevertheless, some empirical evidence Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link indicates that some borrowers may be willing to engage in this "strategic forbearance."

While an acceptable exit strategy exists for borrowers, it is contingent on employment and income being restored before the forbearance period ends. For mortgage servicers, the magnitude of forbearance take-up is crucial to their liquidity—especially for nonbank servicers.

A liquidity squeeze arises because mortgage servicers must advance scheduled principal and interest payments to investors regardless of whether the borrower is paying. In addition, servicers must also pay tax and insurance payments.2 Either the borrower or guarantor will eventually reimburse the servicer, but in the short run, servicers must have sufficient liquidity to be able to bridge this gap. Such a squeeze is especially acute for nonbank servicers who not only are relatively thinly capitalized but also do not qualify for liquidity support programs that have been set up for banks. While this was a concern early in the pandemic, the GSEs and Ginne Mae have implemented polices that have helped to alleviate liquidity concerns of nonbank servicers.3

Forbearance take-up rate
In March, estimates of the fraction of households that would use forbearance in the coming months varied widely. On the one hand, optimists believed forbearance take-up would be fairly low because the CARES Act called for a generous increase in unemployment insurance benefits, which should provide many unemployed households with enough income to continue making payments. For example, FHFA director Mark Calabria estimated that only about 2 million GSE borrowers—a take-up rate of less than 5 percent—would seek forbearance.4

On the other hand, pessimists believed the numbers would be significantly higher. Laurie Goodman of the Urban Institute predicted that close to 12 million borrowers would request forbearance, and Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics predicted that around 15 million households, or roughly 30 percent of mortgage borrowers, would miss payments.

To gauge the extent of forbearance, the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) recently initiated a weekly Forbearance and Call Volume Survey of its members. The survey provides a lagged picture of forbearance rates. The latest survey covers more than three quarters of first-lien mortgages, so we believe it is representative of the overall market.

The earliest data from the survey indicate that as of March 8, 2020, the forbearance rate on all loans was below 1 percent, with both Ginnie Mae and Fannie/Freddie loans having forbearance rates of less than one quarter of 1 percent. Forbearance rates rose in the month of April, according to the survey (see the chart). On April 26, overall forbearance rates were at 7.55 percent, up by more than 480 basis points since the beginning of April. The rate of increase slowed in May, and the most recent survey (June 21) shows that the overall take-up percentage fell from the previous two weeks, going from 8.55 percent to 8.47 percent and marking the first decrease in the survey.

chart 01 of 01: Forbearance take-up rates

The data also indicate that there is significant heterogeneity across market segments. The rate for Ginnie Mae loans, 11.83 percent, has been flat for four weeks, while the rate for Fannie and Freddie loans, 6.26 percent, has fallen over the past three weeks. The rate for other loans—including those in private label securitizations (not government guaranteed) and held on portfolio—is 10.07 percent, which is essentially flat for the month of June. For Ginnie loans, this means an increase of more than 1,000 basis point since March 8.

Overall, the actual take-up rates are squarely between the optimistic and pessimistic forecasts.

Looking ahead
The forbearance take-up rates remain elevated, but recently, they have been flat or have fallen. This pattern is consistent with what we've seen in the labor markets—the rate of new unemployment claims has been fallen while the number of unemployed continues to be elevated. The generous increase in unemployment insurance benefits in the CARES Act certainly has helped take-up rates to be lower than the pessimistic forecasts. But the threat that forbearance will transition to foreclosure has regained power because the number of COVID-19 infections is increasing and the CARES Act unemployment insurance benefits will expire at the end of July.

In future posts, we will discuss what we can and cannot learn from past forbearance programs that were related to natural disasters, along with the resolution options available to borrowers who opted into forbearance. For now, we remain cautiously optimistic that the pandemic will subside and the labor market will improve before forbearance and unemployment insurance programs end.

1 [go back] You can find the official press release on the FHFA websiteOff-site link. On the same day, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in consultation with the federal government, implemented a 60-day moratorium on foreclosures and evictions for single-family homeowners with FHA-insured mortgages. In addition, HUD encouraged FHA mortgage servicersOff-site link to offer various loss-mitigation options to distressed borrowers. The options include short- and long-term forbearance options and mortgage modifications.

2 [go back] Servicers of agency loans are required to maintain first-lien status for the GSEs. This implies ensuring that the borrower has paid all property taxes, whether an escrow account exists or not, and that, in certain states, the borrower has met homeowner association commitments.

3 [go back] On April 10, Ginnie Mae set up a lending facility Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link that allows servicers experiencing liquidity issues to borrow funds to make forbearance-related principal-and interest advances. On April 21, the FHFA announcedOff-site link that it would limit the requirements for servicers of Fannie and Freddie loans to forward principal-and-interest payments to investors to four months of forbearance.

4 [go back] Calabria provided this estimate in an April 1, 2020, interview with CNBC video fileOff-site link. In the same interview, he noted that about 300,000 GSE borrowers had already inquired about forbearance.

March 5, 2014

Government Involvement in Residential Mortgage Markets

With the federal funds rate effectively at the zero lower bound, the Federal Reserve has used unconventional forms of monetary policy. Specifically, the central bank has issued forward guidance about the policy path and purchased large amounts of U.S. Treasury bonds and agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) in an effort to lower long-term interest rates. In the case of agency MBS purchases, a goal was to stimulate the housing market by lowering mortgage rates. Two papers presented at the recent Atlanta Fed/University of North Carolina—Charlotte conference, "Government Involvement in Residential Mortgage Markets," examine the extent to which the Federal Reserve has been successful.

Unanticipated announcements of new large-scale asset purchase programs (LSAPs), or changes in these programs, should have an immediate impact on interest rates under the assumption that the total stock of purchases is what matters. On the other hand, the flow of purchases may independently influence markets through portfolio rebalancing—that is, investors reacting to the removal of duration and convexity from the market—and liquidity effects—that is, ease of reselling assets in the future. Diana Hancock and Wayne Passmore conduct an empirical analysis of the differing effects of the LSAPs in their paper, "How the Federal Reserve's Large-Scale Asset Purchases Influence MBS Yields and Mortgage Rates." Using weekly data from July 2000 to June 2013, the authors estimate a model of MBS yields that controls for market expectations about future interest rates and find that the Federal Reserve's market share of MBSs and Treasuries are negatively related to MBS yields. Under their model, the Fed's holdings of MBSs has lowered MBS yields by 54 basis points and the Treasury holdings have pushed down the MBS yields another 70 basis points. This finding is consistent with portfolio rebalancing and liquidity effects being important determinants of MBS yields.

The finding is important because it suggests that agency MBS yields and mortgage rates will rise when the Federal Reserve reduces its MBS purchases—even if the Fed successfully signals that it intends to keep rates low for an extended time. On the margin, this could serve to dampen housing market activity, including refinancing. Since the beginning of the third phase of quantitative easing (QE3), the Fed's MBS market share has grown from around 17 percent to nearly 24 percent. Given the estimate that each percentage point increase in market share pushes MBS yields down by 2.3 basis points, reducing the Fed’s MBS market share back to a pre-QE3 level would push MBS yields up by around 16 basis points, which is unlikely to be economically meaningful.

While the cost of mortgage refinancing is borne by MBS investors, most of the policy attention is placed on the benefit to borrowers through an increase in their disposable income. In cases where borrowers are underwater and having difficulty making mortgage payments, refinancing can ease borrowers’ financial distress. In "The Effect of Mortgage Payment Reduction on Default: Evidence from the Home Affordable Refinance Program," Jun Zhu, Jared Janowiak, Lu Ji, Kadiri Karamon, and Douglas McManus estimate that during the 2009 to 2012 period, a 10 percent reduction in monthly mortgage payments for participants in Freddie Mac’s Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) resulted in a 12 percent reduction in the monthly default hazard for 30-year fixed rate conventional-conforming mortgages. This likely helped slow the flow of mortgages entering the foreclosure pipeline and gave neighborhoods time to stabilize.

Government involvement in residential mortgage markets takes many forms (see the conference website for papers that examine other forms of intervention). Taken together, the papers discussed here provide evidence that the Federal Reserve's LSAPs and Freddie Mac's HARP did put downward pressure on longer-term interest rates and facilitated refinancing activity that helped to support housing and mortgage markets. The tapering of the MBS LSAPs should not be a cause for concern. The Fed’s strong forward guidance combined with the slow, judicious pace of the taper imply that stagnation of the housing market is unlikely.

Photo of Carl HudsonBy Carl Hudson, Director, Center for Real Estate Analytics in the Atlanta Fed's research department, and

October 4, 2011

The uncertain case against mortgage securitization

The opinions, analysis, and conclusions set forth are those of the authors and do not indicate concurrence by members of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System or by other members of the staff.

Did mortgage securitization cause the mortgage crisis? One popular story goes like this: banks that originated mortgage loans and then sold them to securitizers didn't care whether the loans would be repaid. After all, since they sold the loans, they weren't on the hook for the defaults. Without any "skin in the game," those banks felt free to make worse and worse loans until...kaboom! The story is an appealing one and, since the beginning of the crisis, it has gained popularity among academics, journalists, and policymakers. It has even influenced financial reform. The only problem? The story might be wrong.

In this post we report on the latest round in an ongoing academic debate over this issue. We recently released two papers, available here and here, in which we argue that the evidence against securitization that many have found most damning has in fact been misinterpreted. Rather than being a settled issue, we believe securitization's role in the crisis remains an open and pressing question.

The question is an empirical one
Before we dive into the weeds, let us point out why the logic of the above story need not hold. The problem posed by securitization—that selling risk leads to excessive risk-taking—is not new. It is an example of the age-old incentive problem of moral hazard. Economists usually believe that moral hazard causes otherwise-profitable trade to not occur, or that it leads to the development of monitoring and incentive mechanisms to overcome the problem.

In the case of mortgage securitization, such mechanisms had been in place, and a high level of trade had been achieved, for a long time. Mortgage securitization was not invented in 2004. To the contrary, it has been a feature of the housing finance landscape for decades, without apparent incident. As far back as 1993, nearly two-thirds (65.3 percent) of mortgage volume was securitized, about the same fraction as was securitized in

2006 (67.6 percent) on the eve of the crisis. In order to address potential moral hazard, securitizers such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the government sponsored enterprises, or GSEs) long ago instituted regular audits, "putback" clauses forcing lenders to repurchase nonperforming or improperly originated loans, and other procedures designed to force banks to lend responsibly. Were such mechanisms successful? Perhaps, perhaps not. It is an empirical question, and so our understanding will rest heavily on the evidence.

The case against securitization
Benjamin Keys, Tanmoy Mukherjee, Amit Seru, and Vikrant Vig released an empirical paper in 2008 (revised in 2010) titled "Did Securitization Lead to Lax Screening? Evidence from Subprime Loans" (henceforth, KMSV) that pointed the finger squarely at securitization. The paper won several awards and, when it was published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2010, it became that journal's most-cited paper that year by more than a factor of two. In other words, it was a very well-received and influential paper.

And for good reason. KMSV employs a clever method to try to answer the question of securitization's role in the crisis. Banks often rely on borrowers' credit (FICO) scores to make lending decisions, using particular score thresholds to make determinations. Below 620, for example, it is hard to get a loan. KMSV argues that securitizers also use FICO score thresholds when deciding which loans to buy from banks. Loan applicants just to the left of the threshold (FICO of 619) are very similar to those just to the right (FICO of 621), but they differ in the chance that their bank will be able to sell their loan to securitizers. Will the bank treat them differently as a result? This seems to have the makings of an excellent natural experiment.

Figures 1 and 2, taken from KMSV, illustrate the heart of their findings. Using a data set of only private-label securitized loans, the top panel plots the number of loans at each FICO score. There is a large jump at 620, which, KMSV argues, is evidence that it was easier to securitize loans above 620. The bottom panel shows default rates for each FICO score. Though we would expect default to smoothly decrease as FICO increases, there is a significant jump up in default at exactly the same 620 threshold. It appears that because securitization is easier to the right of the 620 cutoff, banks made worse loans. This seems prima facie evidence in favor of the theory that mortgage securitization led to moral hazard and bad loans.

Reexamining the evidence
But what is really going on here? In September 2009, the Boston Fed published a paper we wrote (original version here, updated version here) arguing for a very different interpretation of this evidence. In fact, we argue that this evidence actually supports the opposing hypothesis that securitizers were to some extent able to regulate originators' lending practices.

The data set used in KMSV only tells part of the story because it contains only privately securitized loans. We see a jump in the number of these loans at 620, but we know nothing about what is happening to the number of nonsecuritized loans at this cutoff. The relevant measure of ease of securitization is not the number of securitized loans, but the chance that a given loan is securitized—in other words, the securitization rate.

We used a different data set that includes both securitized and nonsecuritized loans, allowing us to calculate the securitization rate. Figures 3 and 4 come from the latest version of our paper.

Like KMSV, we find a clear jump up in the default rate at 620, as shown in the bottom panel. However, the chance a loan is securitized actually goes down slightly at 620, as shown in the top panel. How can this be? It turns out that above the 620 cutoff banks make more of all loans, securitized and nonsecuritized alike. This general increase in the lending rate drives the increase in the number of securitized loans that was found in KMSV, even though the securitization rate itself does not increase. With no increase in the probability of securitization, it is hard to argue that the jump in defaults at 620 is occurring because easier securitization motivates banks to lend more freely.

The real story behind the jumps in default
So why are banks changing their behavior around certain FICO cutoffs? To answer this question, we must go back to the mid-1990s and the introduction of FICO into mortgage underwriting. In 1995, Freddie Mac began to require mortgage lenders to use FICO scores and, in doing so, established a set of FICO tiers that persists to this day. Freddie directed lenders to give greater scrutiny to loan applicants with scores in the lower tiers. The threshold separating worse-quality applicants from better applicants was 620. The next threshold was 660. Fannie Mae followed suit with similar directives, and these rules of thumb quickly spread throughout the mortgage market, in part aided by their inclusion in automated underwriting software.

Importantly, the GSEs did not establish these FICO cutoffs as rules about what loans they would or would not securitize—they continued to securitize loans on either side of the thresholds, as before. These cutoffs were recommendations to lenders about how to improve underwriting quality by focusing their energy on vetting the most risky applicants, and they became de facto industry standards for underwriting all loans. Far from being evidence that securitization led to bad loans, the cutoffs are evidence of the success securitizers like Fannie and Freddie have had in directing lenders how to lend.

With this in mind, the data begin to make sense. Lenders, following the industry standard originally promulgated by the GSEs, take greater care extending credit to borrowers below 620 (and 660). They scrutinize applicants with scores below 620 more carefully and are less likely to approve them than applicants above 620, resulting in a jump-up in the total number of loans at the threshold. However, because of the greater scrutiny, the loans that are made below 620 are of higher average quality than the loans that are made above 620. This causes the jump-up in the default rate at the threshold.

Figures 5 and 6 show that this pattern also exists among loans that are kept in portfolio and never securitized. The change in lending standards causes these loans, as well as securitized loans, to jump in number and drop in quality at 620 (and 660). However, as figure 3 shows, the securitization rate doesn't change because securitized and nonsecuritized loans increase proportionately. The FICO cutoffs are used by lenders because they are general industry standards, not because the securitization rate changes. This means the cutoffs cannot provide evidence that securitization led to loose lending.

KMSV's rejoinder
But the debate does not end there. In April 2010, Keys, Mukherjee, Seru, and Vig released a working paper (KMSV2), currently forthcoming in the Review of Financial Studies, that responded to the issues we raised. According to the paper, the mortgage market is segmented into two completely separate markets: 1) a "prime" market, in which only the GSEs buy loans, and 2) a "subprime" market, in which only private-label securitizers buy loans. KMSV2 argues that only private-label securitizers follow the 620 rule and, by pooling these two types of loans in our analysis, we obscured the jump in the securitization rate in that market.

The latest round in the debate
We went back to the drawing board to investigate these claims. We detail our findings in a new paper, available here. In the paper, we demonstrate that the pattern of jumps in default—without jumps in securitization—is not simply an artifact of pooling, but rather exists for many subsamples that do not pool GSE and private-label securitized loans. For example, we find the pattern among jumbo loans (by law an exclusively private-label market), among loans bought by the GSEs, and among loans originated in the period 2008–9 after the private-label market shut down. Furthermore, as figure 7 shows, the private-label market boomed in 2004 and disappeared around 2008, while the size of the jump in the number of loans at 620 continued to grow through 2010, demonstrating that use of the threshold was not tied to the private market.

What's more, KMSV's response fails to address the fundamental problem we identified with their research design: following the mandate of the GSEs, lenders independently use a 620 FICO rule of thumb in screening borrowers. Even if some subset of securitizers had used 620 as a securitization cutoff, one would not be able to tell what part of the jump in defaults is caused by an increase in securitization, and what part is simply due to the lender rule of thumb. Consequently, the jump in defaults at 620 cannot tell us whether securitization led to a moral hazard problem in screening.

To put this in more technical jargon, KMSV use the 620 cutoff as an instrument for securitization to investigate the effect of securitization on lender screening. But the guidance from the GSEs that caused lenders to adopt the 620 rule of thumb in the first place means that the exclusion restriction for the instrument is not satisfied—the 620 cutoff affects lender screening through a channel other than any change in securitization.

We also found that the GSE and private-label markets were not truly separate. In addition to qualitative sources describing them as actively competing for subprime loans, we find that 18 percent of the loans in our sample were at one time owned by a GSE and at another time owned by a private-label securitizer—a lower bound on the fraction of loans at risk of being sold to both. Because the markets were not separate, the data must be pooled.

Conclusion
Our findings, of course, do not settle the question of whether securitization caused the crisis. Rather, they show that the cutoff rule evidence does not resolve the question in the affirmative but instead points a bit in the opposite direction. Credit score cutoffs demonstrate that large securitizers like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were able to successfully impose their desired underwriting standards on banks. We hope our work causes researchers and policymakers to reevaluate their views on mortgage securitization and leads eventually to a conclusive answer.

By Ryan Bubb, assistant professor at the New York University School of Law, and Alex Kaufman, economist with the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System

October 20, 2010

Securitized mortgage loan or not, lenders are not restructuring

In a new paper, Agarwal, Amromin, Ben-David, Chomsisengphet, and Evanoff (2010) finally put to rest the widespread belief that securitization massively exacerbated the foreclosure crisis by preventing lenders from renegotiating loans. The authors show that the data do not support the argument articulated by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells in the New York Review of Books:

In a housing market that is now depressed throughout the economy, mortgage holders and troubled borrowers would both be better off if they were able to renegotiate their loans and avoid foreclosure. But when mortgages have been sliced and diced into pools and then sold off internationally so that no investor holds more than a fraction of any one mortgage, such negotiations are impossible.

This post is the first in a three-part series in which we discuss recent studies, including that of Agarwal et al. (2010), providing evidence that the low modification rate has not resulted from an excess of securitized loans, what we call the "institutional view." These studies show, rather, that the low rate comes from lenders having imperfect information. This view—the "information view"—holds that lenders cannot determine whether a delinquent borrower will default even if the lender makes concessions.

While Agarwal et al. (2010) find that lenders fail to renegotiate 93 percent of seriously delinquent securitized mortgages, they also find that the figure drops only to 90 percent for portfolio loans without the supposed problems generated by securitization. Whether that 3-percentage-point difference really reflects securitization frictions is disputable, as we discuss below. But since most renegotiated mortgages fail anyway, it means that the elimination of securitization frictions would at most have reduced the number of foreclosures by less than 2 percent. The authors clearly show that Krugman and Wells and others who argue that securitization frictions were generating millions of unnecessary foreclosures are way, way off base. Securitization may or may not inhibit renegotiation, but most troubled borrowers cannot blame it for their situation, since their lender probably would not have helped them even if the lender owned the loan free and clear.

The trouble with imperfect information
We mention above the two schools of thought about why lenders are reluctant to renegotiate. Proponents of the institutional view argue that securitization creates perverse incentives for mortgage servicers, the agents that collect monthly mortgage payments from borrowers and who are given the responsibility for renegotiating troubled loans. In short, the institutionalists argue that servicers gain little from successful loan modifications, even though the ultimate owners of the mortgages (that is, the investors in the MBS) gain a lot. They claim that so few modifications take place because the incentives of mortgage servicers and investors were not properly aligned when the MBS was created.

The information view, on the other hand, holds that lenders face a difficult decision whenever they are confronted with a delinquent borrower, and they cannot easily predict which of three groups a delinquent borrower belongs to. One group of delinquent borrowers will "cure" on their own, becoming current on their loans without a modification. Another group will wind up defaulting even if they are given a modification. A third group will default without a modification but will remain current if their loans are modified. In other words, only modifications in the third group are profitable for lenders.

Unfortunately, lenders don't have the perfect information needed to place each borrower in the appropriate group. Lenders' profit-maximizing strategy may well make them stingy with modifications in general. Low modification rates mean that many borrowers in the third group will lose homes that could have been saved with a modification. But the low rates also mean that the lender does not incur losses by awarding modifications to borrowers in the first two groups.

Note that those who hold the information view argue that securitization is not an important issue because both MBS investors and owners of whole mortgages face the same information problems when deciding whether a modification is worthwhile.

Compelling evidence for the information view
Agarwal et al. (2010) do not explicitly aim to distinguish between the institutional and information views, but they do provide what we believe to be compelling evidence in favor of the information view. The researchers used a comprehensive database of troubled mortgages, known as the Mortgage Metrics database, to assess loss mitigation efforts by mortgage servicers in all of 2008 and the first five months of 2009. The Mortgage Metrics database contains detailed information on exactly how servicers handled delinquent loans for a wide range of institutions. (Other data sets force researchers to infer whether a modification was made from auxiliary information such as the interest rate or remaining maturity of the loan.) For example, the authors were able to measure how likely servicers were to offer borrowers repayment plans, in which arrears are tacked on to the remaining balance of the loan, as compared with offering concessionary modifications, such as interest-rate cuts or principal reductions. They were also able to determine whether lenders initiated and completed foreclosures or allowed borrowers such exit strategies as deeds-in-lieu-of-foreclosure, and whether lenders did nothing at all, waiting to see if troubled borrowers eventually cure on their own.

Most importantly, the database contains an extensive list of attributes of the troubled loans, which permitted the authors to look at the relationship between the likelihood of modification and such loan-level attributes as the borrower's credit history, and whether the loan was held in an MBS or in a lender's individual portfolio.

As we noted above, lenders sometimes offer delinquent borrowers repayment plans, giving them the chance to repay the loan under the original terms of the mortgage. Significantly, the repayment plan requires borrowers to pay back any arrears, usually with interest. Lenders may also offer troubled borrowers forbearance, which means the borrowers pay lower payments for some time and then make up the arrears at the end of the forbearance period. These two types of mortgage help are temporary measures aimed to help the troubled borrower through a difficult period. By contrast, loan modifications are specific, permanent changes to the terms of a mortgage after origination.

Among other things, the Agarwal et al. (2010) paper invalidates the argument that a focus on modifications is too narrow, proposed by Piskorski, Seru, and Vig (2010) and Mayer (2010: 18), and that other methods, like repayment plans and forbearance, were important forms of loan renegotiation. Table 2 in the paper shows quite definitively that loan modifications accounted for the vast majority of the resolutions of troubled loans that did not involve foreclosure proceedings during the crisis period.

"One message is quite clear: Lenders rarely renegotiate"
The paper has three additional major findings, one of them that loan modifications are indeed rare. According to Table 1.A, fewer than 10 percent of borrowers received a loan modification in the first six months after becoming 60-days delinquent (missing two mortgage payments). In other words, 90 percent of borrowers who became delinquent received no substantive assistance from the lender. This finding mirrors Adelino, Gerardi, and Willen (2010), who calculated the frequency of modification using a different data set over a slightly different time period. The Adelino, Gerardi, and Willen (2010) paper also reports a modification frequency under 10 percent, and concludes, "No matter which definition of renegotiation we use, one message is quite clear: lenders rarely renegotiate."

Another finding of the Agarwal et al. (2010) paper sheds some light on the debate between institutional and information explanations for the infrequency of modifications. Although securitization seems to have had some effect on the likelihood of modification in their data, the effects are economically small and difficult to interpret. Table 3 shows that loans securitized either by the government-sponsored enterprises (GSE), such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or by private institutions, which often handled subprime or jumbo loans, were between 3 and 6 percent less likely to receive a modification than were whole loans held in the portfolios of banks.

In some sense, this finding is evidence for the institutional school, since loans in MBSs were less likely to receive modifications. But while the 3- to 6-percentage-point difference is large relative to the overall modification rate, it is still small relative to the total number of troubled loans. Essentially, servicers do nothing to help 90 percent of delinquent private-label borrowers, compared to 87 percent of portfolio loans. Even if we assume that the entire 3-percentage-point difference between portfolio and private-label loans is a treatment effect related to problematic incentives in private securitization contracts (pooling and servicing agreements), it is still just 3 percent of delinquent mortgages. Moreover, given the extremely high redefault rates that have characterized modifications during this period, this difference translates into a reduction in foreclosure frequency of less than 2 percent. In other words, under this (extreme) assumption, if we solved all of the issues with private securitization contracts, we could prevent 2 percent of the foreclosures.

No evidence for causal link between securitization and modification
Even this measure of the effect of poor institutional incentives may be too big. There are at least two good reasons to doubt a truly causal relationship between private securitization contracts and the frequency of renegotiation. The first reason is that, as the Agarwal et al. (2010) paper finds, loans securitized by the GSEs were actually much less likely to receive a modification than even the privately securitized loans. The conventional wisdom on the link between securitization and renegotiation (see Piskorski, Seru, and Vig 2010) pointed the finger at specific details in private securitization contracts that failed to align the incentives of servicers and investors. But this story applies only to privately securitized loans, not to agency loans. None of the institutional "facts" that the Piskorski, Seru, and Vig (2010) paper proposes apply to the GSEs, since the GSEs retain all of the credit risk when they securitize a loan. When a GSE loan becomes delinquent, it effectively turns into a portfolio loan. The GSEs have full discretion to modify any loan at any time for any reason and stand to enjoy all of the benefits. Agarwal et al. (2010) point out that the "precarious financial position of the GSEs in 2008 prior to their conservatorship may have made it difficult for them to engage in modifications and the attendant loss recognition," but this argument applies to only half of the period under study. After conservatorship started in September of 2008, capital was no longer a concern for the GSEs.

The second reason to doubt a causal link between securitization and modification is that the financial crisis triggered by the failure of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing heavy intervention by the federal government make it problematic to view behavior after September 2008 as "market-based approaches to stem mounting mortgage losses" (Agarwal et al. 2010, 1) By October 2008, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) had become law, and the government effectively owned stakes in many of the major commercial and investment banks. These banks also happened to be the largest mortgage servicers. In fact, TARP explicitly linked the provision of assistance to banks on their willingness to assist borrowers. That JP Morgan announced in February 2009 a foreclosure moratorium in a letter to Congressman Barney Frank, the head of the congressional committee tasked with overhauling regulation of their industry, illustrates the political considerations in dealing with troubled mortgages. Thus, by the end of 2008, political considerations played a central role in any calculation of the relative merits of renegotiating or foreclosing on a loan. For this reason, Adelino, Gerardi, and Willen (2010) focus on the period prior to September 2008. They find that, while the overall likelihood of modification is roughly the same, the difference in modification activity attributable to private-label mortgages is much smaller: only 1 percentage point.

Finally, Agarwal et al. (2010) show that information asymmetries matter, which is the third main finding of the paper. A key impediment to renegotiation is the self-cure risk, or the possibility that a delinquent borrower will resume repayment and eventually cover the balance of the loan in full. Any concession the lender made to such a borrower would thus be wasted. The authors show evidence of precisely this mechanism at work, finding

...much lower rates of modification for troubled borrowers with higher FICO scores and lower LTV ratios, which is the group with ex ante greatest likelihood of self-curing their delinquency.

The growing literature disputing the institutional argument
In showing that information, not institutions, is at the heart of the renegotiation issue, the authors build on an increasingly large body of evidence, which includes the Adelino, Gerardi, and Willen (2010) paper mentioned above. They are further supported by Ghent (2010) and Rose (2010), who both debunk the myth that the absence of securitization facilitated widespread renegotiation during the Depression (more on this topic in upcoming posts). In fact, Wechsler (1984)1 shows that many of today's anti-deficiency laws, which limit the ability of lenders to pursue borrowers for the difference between the loan balance and the amount recovered in foreclosure, originated as a policy response to the particularly harsh treatment of defaulting mortgagors during the Depression. Moreover, Hunt (2010) exhaustively studied securitization contracts and found little to support for the claim that private securitization explicitly distorts the incentives of servicers of securitized loans as compared to portfolio loans, writing that:

Certain general standards are extremely common [in private securitization contracts]: Servicers typically must...act in the interests of investors, and service loans in the same manner as they service their own loans.

Finally, we note the work of Mayer, Morrison, Piskorski, and Gupta (2010), which perfectly illustrates the difficulty in identifying borrowers who are truly in financial distress and thus suitable for a loan modification. The authors find that the announcement of a generous loan modification program caused borrowers to default on their mortgages.

It is our hope that the Agarwal et al. (2010) paper will put an end to three years of misguided public policy. The appeal of renegotiations was that they appeared to allow policymakers to prevent foreclosures at little cost to investors, lenders, or taxpayers and without unfairly helping anyone. The reality is that preventing foreclosures costs money, and it's time we had a debate about how or whether we want to spend money rather than trying to convince ourselves that we can prevent millions of foreclosures by tweaking the incentives of financial intermediaries.

By Paul Willen, research economist and policy adviser at the Boston Fed (with Boston Fed economist Christopher Foote and Atlanta Fed economist Kris Gerardi)


1 Wechsler, S., 1984. "Through the Looking Glass: Foreclosure by Sale as De Facto Strict Foreclosure-An Empirical Study of Mortgage Foreclosure and Subsequent Resale." Cornell Law Review, 70:850