Why the next mortgage crisis may be worse.

Commentary about business and finance.
April 15 2008 8:12 AM

Here Comes the Next Mortgage Crisis

Subprime was just the beginning. Wait until California's prime borrowers start handing their keys to the bank.

(Continued from Page 1)

When those dominoes start falling next year, we may or may not have a subprime bailout plan, and the discussion will start about how to bail out this next tranche of borrowers. The bailout plans on the table now, such as the one put forward by Barney Frank (one of Congress' genuinely cogent financial minds), are reasonably based on the principle of bringing payments down to a point that homeowners can afford.

But where prices fall 40 percent to 60 percent, all that goes out the window. Why? Because in expensive locales like San Diego, tens of thousands of people with 100 percent loan-to-value mortgages and option ARMs are living in homes in which they have no equity and on which they owe a lot more than the house is worth.

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In these places, accepting a government "bailout" that pays them, say, 90 percent of the value of the house to keep from foreclosing will be very tough for lenders, who (if the appraisers don't fudge the numbers) could be forced to take 36 cents or 45 cents on the dollar for their loans. On the other hand, any plan that makes them pay more if they can afford it is hugely disadvantageous for the borrowers, who have option ARMs about to reset and are much better off handing the keys to bank—and maybe even scooping up the foreclosed house down the street.

If you're one of the "homedebtors" (a fantastic neologism coined by the anonymous blogger IrvineRenter on the Irvine Housing Blog) in this position, you might start thinking very seriously about just how attached you are to the wisteria vine snaking over the basketball hoop on your garage. That's what a lot of other California borrowers will be doing.

The luckiest of those are the ones who used option ARMs to buy a house. For them, walking away is easy: Their loans are "nonrecourse," and the lenders can't go after them for more than the value of the house. The choice is harder for those who used the loans to refinance. The quirks of real-estate law regarding refi loans make it possible (though not necessarily easy) for lenders to try to get back more money even after taking the house.

If you think, however, that should make lenders a lot happier, forget it. LoanSafe's Bedard says that even in this group, most of the option ARM borrowers he talks to—some of them living in $800,000 houses—are already considering walking away from their deeply depreciated homes as soon as the rates reset.

Bet on this: Whatever moral qualms are being urged on borrowers to keep them from walking away from their mortgages, they'll count for a lot less than the economic reality facing borrowers whose homes have fallen in value by half. Lenders had no reservations about selling borrowers loans with rising payments that would be poisonous in a rising market. Now it seems borrowers have no reservations about leaving those lenders with the risks they begged to take.

Consider, too, that, yes, going through a foreclosure kills your credit rating and makes it a lot harder to buy a new house—but as more and more prime borrowers go into foreclosure, it's perfectly possible that buying a new home a year later will in the near future be as routine and unsurprising as the once inconceivable idea that you can get a whole batch of new credit cards two years after a bankruptcy.

Of course, all those people stuck between rising mortgages and falling prices are free to follow Paulson's advice: Keep making payments on an outsized mortgage, and take a bullet for the greater economic good. Fortunately for them, and perhaps unfortunately for the economy, a lot of them will come to the realization that they just don't have to.

Mark Gimein is a New York-based writer.

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