Sunday, February 14, 2010

Predatory Lending

While the practice of Predatory Lending is difficult to define, it is easy to see the results, people stuck with high priced loans that they cannot get out of. Today I saw a couple of references to an article in the Washington Post that reports more than half of of the mortgages in the US have an interest rate that is greater than 6% while for the last year the mortgage interest rate has been hovering around 5%. This means that over half the homeowners in the US are unable to refinance their mortgages to take advantage of a lower interest rate.

Many people think of predatory lending as something like payday lending to the poor. In practice it happens at all levels of the economy. At the highest level there are the exploits of the "economic hit man" whose job was to enable the selling of economic development loans to poor countries that could ill afford them. Recently, the economic woes of Greece may have been exacerbated by clever derivative swaps from Goldman Sachs, designed to hide the true nature of the debt that it owed.

Predatory housing loans inflamed the housing bubble, sticking the middle classes with high priced loans cleverly disguised with low initial teaser rates. Now the middle classes are stuck with loans that they cannot refinance because their houses are underwater or because they do not have a job, a good enough job or the credit rating for the refinance to go ahead. This is a yet further drag on the economy, already in recession. As the Washington Post article says:
"More refinancing activity would have helped household budgets, but also the national economy because homeowners might have spent some of the extra cash they pocketed, giving the recovery an added lift."
Homeowners do have an option. As Roger Lowenstein writes in the New York Times "Walk Away From Your Mortgage". Part of his argument is that banks are walking away from their mortgage obligations, and the American people should not feel obliged to behave better than the corporations who sold them their home loans in the first place. I would add to that argument that much of the vitality of the US economy comes from labor mobility. Having people stuck in a home that they cannot sell because their loan is underwater and unable to get a job nearby is yet another drag on the economy.

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