Consequences of an auto loan bubble

With more financing options available for purchasing cars, American driving is up:

By increasing access to cars, lax financing standards also appear to be contributing to a national rise in driving, and with it, declining public transit ridership. In the latest edition of its biennial survey of who’s riding buses and trains in U.S. cities, Transit Center, a public transportation research and advocacy group out of New York, notes that the share of households without vehicles fell 30 percent between 2000 and 2015, with foreign-born residents, who are more likely to earn lower incomes and ride transit, posting even sharper declines.

In the survey, respondents who reported decreasing their bus and train use overwhelmingly replaced transit with private cars. And almost half of respondents who said they’d purchased a car over the past two years received a loan to finance it. Of those, 56 percent said that getting a loan “was easier than they had expected.”

Of course, improved car access among lower-income groups might look to be a positive trend on its face, since a personal vehicle can equate opportunity. So strong is the historic link between car ownership and household income that a trio of transportation equity scholars recently called for subsidizing access to wheels for poor Americans. But fewer rides made by public transportation and more by private automobile is a trend with consequences that transcend the U.S. economy: It feeds the planet’s existential problem of rising carbon emissions, especially since SUV and truck sales have become particularly popular during this auto-loan boom. “The rise in auto debt is evidence that we’re dependent on cars in an unsustainable way,” said Cross.

The new high-water line of defaulted auto loans also suggests that personal vehicles aren’t always golden tickets. Instead, for Americans living paycheck to paycheck, they’re a catch-22: If you don’t have the money and can’t buy a car, you’ll struggle to make ends meet. And if you don’t have the money, but still buy a car, you’re liable to fall even further behind. Vehicles may be the table stakes for playing in the U.S. economy, but in so many ways, it’s getting harder to win.

As noted by many, just as homeownership came within the reach of more people in the 2000s due to creative lending options and subprime options, the same is true of the auto industry. Does this mean that a burst bubble in car loans – due to many people being behind on their vehicle payments – would cause Americans to rethink driving and the reliance on personal vehicles?

I would guess no. At this point in American history, the country is too far in on its dependence on driving. It is not just about driving to work; driving offers opportunities to access cheaper housing, independence for drivers compared to utilizing mass transit which works on consistent schedules and requires being around other people, and a host of consumer and recreational opportunities primarily accessible through driving (think big box stores, shopping malls, fast food places, road trips, etc.). This list does not even account for the auto industry and the construction industry which have huge stakes in more driving.

At the same time, while Americans have resisted public housing, would they be more amenable toward government help in obtaining or paying for cars? Few communities or government agencies have provided cars or money towards cars but it may be necessary in a society heavily dependent on getting around via a car.

 

Subprime mortgages still around

Although they do not appear to be anywhere near the common product as they were in the 2000s, subprime mortgages are still available:

Financial Times reports that subprime mortgage bond issuance doubled in the first quarter of 2018 compared to a year ago, going from $666 million to $1.3 billion. Furthermore, it quotes a financial analyst predicting that issuance for the year will hit $10 billion, which is more than double the $4.1 billion issued last year. For context, the value of American subprime mortgages was estimated at $1.3 trillion in March 2007.

Since the financial crisis, mortgage-backed securities have been almost entirely issued by government-sponsored mortgage facilitators Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and Ginny Mae. And since the financial collapse, those organizations have refused to insure subprime mortgages. The Dodd-Frank regulation passed after the collapse put tight rules around subprime lending that for awhile effectively killed the practice.

But over the last couple years, specialty firms have jumped back into the subprime market, rebranding it as “noprime.” Investors hungry for bonds with higher yields have generated enough demand for those loans to be secularized, just as they were in the run-up to the financial collapse. The result is a rapidly expanding subprime mortgage market.

That subprime mortgages would seep back into the market right now is curious, given the current state of housing. The slow pace of new home construction and few existing homes for sale has led to an inventory shortage that has pushed home prices well out of reach for many low- and middle-income prospective homebuyers.

Subprime mortgages could be lucrative for some, even if it is now widely recognized that they are not a good idea in general for potential homeowners or the broader market and society.

I think the bigger question is whether subprime loans could once again become a mainstream product. What if the housing market continues to be sluggish or potential buyers have a difficult time securing conventional loans or the market suddenly heats up and lots of people want mortgages? Even with the fallout and the long recovery after the burst housing bubble of the 2000s, someone within the next decade will make a public plea for loosening regulations on subprime mortgages or will suggest subprimes are a necessity for serving certain portions of the market.

Miami in front of the Supreme Court arguing for damages due to subprime loans

The Supreme Court just heard a case presented by the city of Miami that they should receive monies from banks because of the subprime loan crisis:

The story begins, Rugh said, in the late 1990s, when banks began marketing high-risk, high-fee home loans to black and Latino borrowers, especially those living in segregated neighborhoods. In a study published in 2015, Rugh and his co-authors examined 3,027 home loans in Baltimore (one of the few cities that has successfully settled a Fair Housing Act lawsuit against a bank) made between 2000 and 2008.When they controlled for basic loan characteristics such as credit score, down payment, and income, they found that black borrowers were channeled into higher-risk, higher-fee loans than were white borrowers with similar credit histories. These findings were compounded for black borrowers living in predominantly black neighborhoods: The study found that relative to comparable white borrowers, the average black borrower in Baltimore paid an estimated $1,739 in excess mortgage payments from the time the loan was made, a figure that was even higher for black borrowers in black neighborhoods…

In an amicus brief filed in support of Miami, a group of housing scholars argued that there is a direct link between the harm to borrowers documented by people such as Rugh and financial losses incurred by cities. Citing more than a decade of economic and sociological research from a variety of sources, Justin Steil, a professor of law and urban planning at MIT and one of the authors of the brief, explained, “the data is well established that foreclosures do lead to decreases in neighboring property values, which then lead to decreases in city revenues. Foreclosures,” he added, “also lead to more expenditures by the city in re-securing those properties, dealing with the vandalism, squatting, fires. And if the neighborhoods don’t recover, it just remains an ongoing problem for those communities to deal with.”

Supporters of the banks in this case say that if anything, leaders of cities like Miami encouraged the influx of credit into their municipalities. “I really think Miami wants to have this both ways,” said Mark Calabria, director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute. “If the banks weren’t doing business in Miami, they’d have a problem with that. It’s hard for me to believe that Miami would have been better off if Bank of America and Wells Fargo hadn’t been there.”

There are a lot of interesting aspects of this case, including the question of whether cities were harmed by loans made to individuals. But, there is little question in the sociological and additional social sciences literature: minority borrowers were steered toward loans with worse terms. (And other research suggests these worse terms for minorities extends to other areas including car loans and rental housing.)

Let’s say the court case goes in Miami’s favor and they receive some money. Two questions: (1) what do they do with this money? (2) What responsibility does the city have for not combating these loans in the first place and what are they responsible forward regarding disadvantaged neighborhoods? I hope one of the outcomes of this effort is not that cities can punt on their own policies and solely blame banks.

Comparing Greece’s debt problem with the McMansions of the 2007-2008 subprime crisis

One writer links the issues with McMansions in the last decade with the debt issue in Greece:

Sometimes the best way to summarize a complex situation is with an analogy. The Greek debt crisis, for example, is very much like the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-08.

As you might recall, service workers earning $25,000 annually got $500,000 mortgages to buy McMansions in subprime’s go-go days. The applicant fudged a bit here and there on income and creditworthiness, and lenders reaping huge profits from originating and selling mortgages were delighted to ignore prudent underwriting standards and stamp “low-risk” on the mortgage because it was quickly sold to credulous investors…

The loan was fundamentally imprudent and risky because the borrower was not qualified for a loan of such magnitude. But since the risk was distributed to others, the banks ignored the 100% probability of eventual default and skimmed the profits upfront.

Greece was the subprime borrower, and its membership in the euro gave the banks permission to enter the credit rating of Germany on Greece’s loan application. Though anyone with the slightest knowledge of Greece’s economy knew it did not qualify for loans of such magnitude, lenders were happy to offer the loans at interest rates close to those of Greece’s northern neighbors, and then sell them as low-risk sovereign debt investments.

In effect, the banks were free-riding the magical-thinking belief that membership in the euro transformed risky borrowers into creditworthy borrowers.

Two quick thoughts:

1. Most analogies made about McMansions are not likely to reflect well on such homes. Here, McMansions are part of huge financial problems. Later in the piece we have more negative ideas about McMansions:

Meanwhile, the poorly constructed McMansion is falling apart…So the hapless subprime borrower with the crumbling McMansion and Greece both have the same choice: decades of zombie servitude to pay for the crumbling structure, or default and move on with their lives.

Not exactly attractive options. Yet, the assumption here is that all or most McMansions fall apart within ten years or so. Is this truly the case with McMansions – do they have more repair issues than other homes? Perhaps Consumer Reports could sort this out for us since they like collecting such data.

2. I don’t recall seeing strong evidence that the subprime crisis was primarily driven by people purchasing McMansions. Rather, mortgages were granted that were too risky. But, how many of these loans were actually made for McMansions as opposed to other kinds of housing? The whole housing market was doing crazy things, not just in the McMansion sector.

 

Wells Fargo pays more than $175 million to settle case of steering minorities to worse mortgages

This is part of what discrimination looks like today: Wells Fargo has just agreed to a big settlement for offering minorities worse terms on mortgages.

At least 34,000 African-American, Hispanic and other minority borrowers paid more for their mortgages or were steered into subprime loans when they could have qualified for better rates, according to the Department of Justice. The DOJ settled a fair-lending lawsuit with Wells Fargo, the nation’s largest mortgage lender, on Thursday…

The complaint also says that between 2004 and 2008, “highly qualified prime retail and wholesale applicants for Wells Fargo residential mortgage loans were more than four times as likely to receive a subprime loan if they were African-American and more than three times as likely if they were Hispanic than if they were white.”

During the same period, the complaint says, “borrowers with less favorable credit qualifications were more likely to receive prime loans if they were white than borrowers who were African-American or Hispanic.”

Wells will pay at least $175 million to settle the case; it denies any wrongdoing in settling. Bank of America agreed to pay $335 million in settling similar charges in December.

This is not unusual: audit studies have shown that minorities tend to have more difficulty renting, securing a car loan, getting a job, and getting mortgages compared to whites.

Even though I have looked at several news reports on this, here is what I really want to know: is this a large enough settlement for Wells Fargo to really care? In other words, is this a light fine or a heavy fine? And perhaps more importantly, how do we know that they and other banks won’t pursue similar tactics in the future?

More foreclosures on the way in 2012?

While many might hope for economic progress during 2012, some are suggesting that another wave of foreclosures will hit during 2012:

In 2011, the “robo-signing” scandal, in which foreclosure documents were signed without properly reviewing individual cases, prompted banks to hold back on new foreclosures pending a settlement.

Five major banks eventually struck that settlement with 49 U.S. states in February. Signs are growing the pace of foreclosures is picking up again, something housing experts predict will again weigh on home prices before any sustained recovery can occur…

Online foreclosure marketplace RealtyTrac estimated that while foreclosures dropped slightly nationwide in February from January and from February 2011, they rose in 21 states and jumped sharply in cities like Tampa (64 percent), Chicago (43 percent) and Miami (53 percent).

One big difference to the early years of the housing crisis, which was dominated by Americans saddled with the most toxic subprime products — with high interest rates where banks asked for no money down or no proof of income — is that today it’s mostly Americans with ordinary mortgages whose ability to meet payment have been hit by the hard economic times…

Is this the final wave?

If it is primarily “hardworking, everyday Americans” who bear the brunt of the 2012 foreclosures, will the coverage of foreclosures and the proposed remedies change? In previous years, it has been easy for some to suggest that those who made and accepted subprime mortgages deserved what they had coming as they extended their credit and debt too far. If this year’s foreclosures are now occurring to people who didn’t overextend themselves yet still fell prey to the economic crisis, will the narrative change?

Federal government looking into redlining practices

During the economic crisis of recent years, mortgages have been more difficult to obtain for many compared to what was available in the mid 2000s. With these tighter lending practices, the US government is looking deeper into possible redlining practices by lenders:

At the Justice Dept., a new 20-person unit dedicated to fair lending issues received a record number of discrimination referrals from regulators in 2010 and has dozens of open cases, according to a recent agency report. Potential penalties can reach into the millions of dollars. “We are using every tool in our arsenal to combat lending discrimination,” Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Div., told a conference of community development advocates in Washington in April.

To some banks the crackdown has come as a surprise, say consultants and lawyers representing financial institutions in discussions with regulators. Like Midwest BankCentre, some lenders are being cited for failing to operate in minority and low-income census tracts near their branches, even when they have never done business there before. “If you put your branches only in upper-income areas, the regulators are not accepting that anymore,” says Warren W. Traiger, a lawyer at BuckleySandler in New York, which advises banks on fair lending issues.

Mortgage refinancing activity doubled in white neighborhoods but dropped sharply in minority neighborhoods in a sample of major U.S. cities in 2008 and 2009, according to Paying More for the American Dream, an April study by a group of seven community development nonprofits. “The pendulum has swung back too far the other way,” says Kevin Stein, associate director of the California Reinvestment Coalition in San Francisco, one of the report’s authors.

Several things strike me as interesting about this:

1. As the article notes, this oversight goes back to the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). I wonder how the HMDA data, data lenders must report every time someone applies for a mortgage (including factors like race), has been a part of these government efforts. With this data, regulators (and others) can get an idea of who lenders approve for loans and who they do not.

2. The Drudge Report headline about this article,  “Obama admin pushing banks to offer subprimes again…,” seems somewhat misleading. There is little to indicate in this article that the government is telling lenders they should make subprime loans. Rather, it sounds like the government is suggesting that lenders need to make their products available to all people. One adaptation to this in order to account for worse credit scores or other factors might be for the lenders to offer subprime loans in order to protect some of their investment. But there is little indication the government is saying that lenders have to offer subprime loans.

3. Access to credit really is an important issue. If it is not widely available or limited to certain groups, the purchasing power of consumers for goods like houses or cars can be severely limited. And this can then have a large impact on the greater economy.