What’s the problem with financialization?

This is post 2 in my HAMP and principal reduction series. For the introductory post see here.

The series is motivated by Peter Ganong and Pascal Noel’s argument that mortgage modifications that include principal reduction have no significant effect on either default or consumption for underwater borrowers. In post 1 I explained how the framing of their paper focuses entirely on the short-run, as if the long run doesn’t matter – and even uses language that indicates that people who take their long-run financial condition into account are behaving improperly. I call this exclusive focus on the short-run the ideology of financialization. I note at the end of post 1 that this ideology appears to have influenced both Geithner’s views and the structure of HAMP.

So this raises the question: What’s the problem with the ideology of financialization?

The short answer is that it appears to be designed to trap as many people into a state of debt peonage as possible. Debt peonage, by preventing people who are trapped in debt from realizing their full potential, is harmful to economic performance more generally.

Here’s the long answer.

By focusing attention on short-term payments and how sustainable they are today, while at the same time heaping heavy debt obligations into the future, modern finance has had devastating effects at both the individual and the aggregate levels. Heavy long-term debt burdens are guaranteed to be a problem for a subset of individual borrowers, such as those who are unexpectedly disabled or who see their income decline over time for other reasons. Mortgages with payments that balloon at some date in the future (such as those studied in Ganong and Noel’s paper) are by definition a gamble on future financial circumstances. This makes them entirely appropriate products for the small subset of borrowers who have the financial resources to deal with the worst case scenario, but the financial equivalent of Russian roulette for the majority of borrowers who don’t have financial backup in the worst case scenario. (Remember the probabilities are in your favor in Russian roulette, too.)

Gary Gorton once described the subprime mortgage model as one where the borrower is forced to refinance after a few years and this gives the bank the option every few years of whether or not to foreclose on the home. Because the mortgage borrower is in the position of having sold an option, the borrower’s position is closer to that of a renter than of homeowner. Mortgages that are structured to have payment increases a few years into the loan – which is the case for virtually all of the modifications offered to borrowers during the crisis – similarly tend to put the borrower into a situation more like that of a renter than a homeowner.

The ideology of financialization thus perverts the whole concept of debt. A debt contract is not a zero-sum transaction. Debt contracts exist because they are mutually beneficial and they should be designed to give benefits to both lenders and borrowers. Loans like subprime mortgages are literally designed to set the borrower up so the borrower will be forced into a renegotiation where the borrower can be held to his or her reservation value. That is, they are designed to shift the bargaining power in contracting in favor of the lender. HAMP modifications for underwater borrowers set up a similar situation.

Ganong and Noel treat this distorted bargaining situation as if it is normal in section 6 of their paper, where they purport to characterize “efficient modification design.” The first step in their analysis is to hold the borrowers who need modifications to their reservation values (p. 27).[1] Having done this, they then describe an “efficient frontier” that minimizes costs to lenders and taxpayers. A few decades ago when I studied Pareto efficiency, the characterization of the efficient frontier required shifting the planner’s weights on all members of the economy. What the authors have in fact presented is the constrained efficient frontier where the borrowers are held to their reservation values. Standard economic analysis indicates that starting from any point on this constrained efficient frontier, direct transfers from the lenders to the borrowers up until the point that the lenders are held to their reservation value should also be considered part of the efficient frontier.

In short, Ganong and Noel’s analysis is best viewed as a description of how the financial industry views and treats underwater borrowers, not as a description of policies that are objectively “efficient.” Indeed, when they “rank modification steps by their cost-effectiveness” they come very close to reproducing the HAMP waterfall (p. 31): the only difference is that maturity extension takes place before a temporary interest rate reduction. Perhaps the authors are providing valuable insight into how the HAMP waterfall was developed.

The unbalanced bargaining situation over contract terms that is presented in this paper should be viewed as a problem for the economy as a whole. As everybody realized post-crisis the macroeconomics of debt has not been fully explored by the economics profession and the profession is still in the early stages of addressing this lacuna. Thus, it is not surprising that this paper touches only very briefly on the macroeconomics of mortgage modification.

In my view the ideology of financialization with its short term focus has contributed significantly to growth of a heavily indebted economy. This burden of debt tends to reduce the bargaining power of the debtors and to interfere with their ability to realize their full potential in the economy. Arguably this heavily indebted economy is losing the capacity to grow because it is in a permanent balance sheet recession. At the same time, the ideology underlying financialization appears to be effectively a gamble that it’s okay to shift the debt off into the future, because we will grow out of it so it will not weigh heavily on the future. The risk is that, by taking it as given that g > r over the long run, this ideology may well be creating a situation of permanent balance sheet recession where g is necessarily less than r, even given optimal monetary policy.

[1] The authors justify this because they have “shown” that principal reductions for underwater borrowers do not reduce defaults or increase consumption. Of course, they have shown no such thing because they have only evaluated 5-10% of the life of the mortgage – and even that analysis is flawed.

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