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The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

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May 27, 2020

COVID-19 Mortgage Relief—The Role of Income Support

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a large number of furloughs, layoffs, reductions in hours worked, and wage cuts. Anticipating that many homeowners would consequently have problems paying their monthly mortgage bill, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ordered all mortgage servicers of federally backed debt to provide forbearance to any homeowners affected by the crisis. In addition, bank regulators encouraged lenders to forbear and restructure mortgages for borrowers affected by the shutdown, actions that staved off an immediate wave of foreclosures. At the end of the forbearance window, borrowers will likely be offered a series of repayment schemes: starting with a period of catch-up payments, then moving to extended terms on their mortgage or possibly even rate reductions. However, if the borrower has not returned to work, paying for what is effectively a new mortgage obviously poses a challenge. Options such as creating a modified repayment plan, lowering the mortgage interest rate, or extending the term of the loan might not be enough for a borrower who has experienced a substantial income loss.

In 2009, researchers at the Boston Fed proposed an alternative policy of supplemental mortgage payment assistance targeted to underwater borrowers experiencing a significant reduction in disposable income due to factors such as employment loss or medical costs associated with illness. That 2009 research built on earlier Boston Fed research demonstrating that—during a previous housing market downturn—most underwater households continued to pay their mortgages unless they were hit with a further reduction in earnings or increase in expenses. The idea that mortgage default is caused by both a negative house price shock and a negative income/employment shock is known as the "double trigger" theory of default. However, the empirical evidence on the double trigger theory was limited. Underwater homeowners in areas with increased unemployment appeared to default more, but this was mostly an interesting correlation, not necessarily a causal relationship.

Since the Great Recession, considerable research (here, for example) has tried to identify the central role income shocks play in default. The econometric challenge is that shocks to income from changes in employment or wages tend to be capitalized into house prices. So a community experiencing the second trigger from widespread job loss, say, will likely also experience a drop in house prices, making it difficult to isolate the real cause of default. In a forthcoming paper we consider the unique sources of changes in employment and income arising from the hydraulic fracking boom in Pennsylvania in the late 2000s to isolate the second trigger from the first.

Fracking involves injecting large amounts of water, sand, and potentially toxic chemicals underground at great pressure to break shale formations and release the trapped natural gas. The fracking process also involves piercing aquifers, storing and treating large quantities of contaminated water, and employing heavy equipment. Some evidence shows that these real or perceived negative features lower the value of homes near fracking wells. At the same time, the shale boom increased demand for middle- and low-skilled workers and generated significant royalty payments to many property owners.

Observing the performance of mortgages that originated before fracking began allows us to treat the resulting shale boom as an experiment where household incomes were sustained (or increased) even as housing prices were flat or declining. Using geological information to predict the location of fracking activity, we find that fracking wells significantly raised total household income, from both wages and royalties, and the wells appear to have increased employment in fracking-related industries. At the same time, fracking does not appear to have raised house prices or made it less likely that a household has negative equity. However, fracking does significantly reduce the probability that a mortgage becomes seriously delinquent (that is, when a borrower misses more than a few payments).

In addition, when we use only geology to predict the location of fracking wells, we get a much larger decline in mortgage delinquency, suggesting that more vulnerable communities were quicker to embrace fracking. Finally, the ameliorative effects of fracking were concentrated among borrowers who are likely to be underwater on their mortgages (the first trigger), consistent with the double trigger hypothesis, since the theory predicts that borrowers with positive equity are unlikely to default in the first place.

Our results suggest that an effective strategy for preventing a foreclosure crisis in the current situation is direct support of household income. Indeed, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (commonly known as the CARES Act) contains several income transfers to help sustain household budgets, including expanded unemployment insurance, direct cash payments to most households, and loans to small firms that are forgivable on the condition that they sustain employment through the shutdown. It is our view that these programs are not simply helping to sustain families during the crisis, but they're also limiting disruption to the housing market. Depending on how the crisis evolves in the coming months, further income support for affected households may forestall the need for less efficacious interventions to aid distressed borrowers.