Americans are losing their homes to foreclosure in record numbers. There is no agreement as to whether an end is in sight. Federal and State legislators, executives, and judges address the foreclosure crisis daily, with new legislation, policies, directives, and in individual and class litigation, as they attempt to balance the multiple interests at stake, apply rules of law and principles of equity to unprecedented circumstances, and set a course into uncharted waters. Effects of the mortgage meltdown and foreclosure crisis will ripple through the U. S. and global economies for years to come.
In times like these, it’s the little things that mean a lot. For example, a mere 2 pages of the 1279-page Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009 (HR 4173; Title IV, Section 4105(c)) – if it survives the Senate gauntlet - will create a functional research unit in a new Federal Consumer Financial Protection Agency. The research unit will have a mandate to, among other things, conduct research on consumer financial counseling and education in the areas of debt, credit, savings, financial product usage, and financial planning; to identify ways to incorporate new technology for the delivery and evaluation of financial counseling and education efforts; to research, analyze, and report on multiple aspects of consumer behavior with respect to financial products or services, including consumer awareness and understanding of disclosures, communications, costs, risks and benefits, and current and prospective developments in existing and alternative markets for consumer financial products and services.
Though the federal research mandate presently focuses only on consumers, and ignores Wall Street as a subject of empirical inquiry, it is a good start. Theoretical and empirical work in behavioral economics of Wall Street and consumers began before the watershed bailout of 2008, defined some of the questions Congress now asks, and framed broader questions that may help us understand how we got into this mess, make empirically informed decisions to help us get out of it, and prevent a recurrence. Whether a federal research mandate becomes law or not, this research is likely to continue.
For example, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies reported in 2007 that the increase in mortgage defaults and foreclosure was caused by several factors, including borrowers taking out loans they did not understand or that were not suitable for their needs; borrowers having limited ability to evaluate complex mortgage products and often making choices they regretted after the fact; and some mortgage marketing and sales efforts that were designed to exploit consumer ignorance and decision-making weaknesses and encourage consumers to select inappropriate mortgage products that could not be repaid and in fact worsened the consumers’ economic circumstances. Essene & Apgar, Understanding Mortgage Market Behavior: Creating Good Mortgage Options for All Americans, Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University (2007). The authors noted that the field of behavioral economics sheds some light on consumer behavior in the mortgage marketplace. They reported, for example, that consumer preferences are malleable, not fixed, and depend on how their choices are framed and the context and order in which information is presented; and that consumers choose mortgage products without being fully informed about them, due to the products’ complexity, the lack of transparency in the price of the loan, and the timing of disclosures (at the closing table). Further, consumers struggle with choices that involve risks and payments over time. They recommended that consumers be provided with a network of “trusted advisors” to advise them of the risks and benefits of mortgage products, that they should be steered toward beneficial loans, that the mortgage industry should increase self-regulation and improve transparency, and should establish minimum standards for mortgage brokers, loan originators, and lenders.
After the historic bailout of 2008, one of several analyses of the behavioral economics of subprime mortgages suggests that subprime mortgage products were in fact designed, in part, to allow the true costs of the mortgages to be hidden in complex, non-salient features of the loans, and to reach consumers who were not able or inclined to study those non-salient features, and therefore did not comprehend the true cost of these “deferred cost” loans. Bar-Gill, The Law, Economics, and Psychology of Subprime Mortgage Contracts, 94 Cornell L. Rev. 1073 (2009). The author acknowledges that there were cases in which unscrupulous lenders pushed high-risk loans onto borrowers who were incapable of repaying them, and of irresponsible borrowers lying on loan applications or taking out loans they could not repay, but the more common scenario was not one in which the lenders were evil or the borrowers were fraudulent or irresponsible. Rather, Bar-Gill suggests that borrowers - being human - were “imperfectly rational” in that they were “myopic” (placing excessive weight on short-term benefits and insufficient weight on long-term costs of high-risk loans) and overly optimistic about future income, cost of credit, and increases in real estate values. Concurrently, lenders and loan originators - exercising business judgment in the frenzied market for mortgage-backed securities - exploited and reinforced the market demand for financing driven by borrowers’ myopia and optimism. The “main culprit” in this scenario was securitization, in Bar-Gill’s view, which incentivized the intermediaries between the investors and the borrowers with immediate compensation based on quantity, rather than quality, of the underlying loans, in a manner in which their interests were not aligned with either the investors or the borrowers.
Looking beyond the causes to some of the effects of the mortgage meltdown, a recent discussion paper summarizes behavioral economic aspects of homeowner perceptions of default and foreclosure, psychological factors that affect homeowner decisions to not “walk away” from homes with negative equity even though it may be financially prudent to do so, and behavior of loan servicers in making decisions concerning modification of mortgage loans. White, Underwater and Not Walking Away: Shame, Fear and the Social Management of the Housing Crisis, Arizona Legal Studies Discussion Paper No. 09-35 (December 2009). Research shows that humans are easily overwhelmed by the mathematical calculations involved in evaluating the financial benefits and costs of “strategically defaulting” on a mortgage, have cognitive biases that impair their ability to grasp the long-term benefits of default, suffer from selective perception that causes them to fail to see evidence that their homes are suffering steep declines in value that may not be recovered in their lifetimes, tend toward “optimistic overconfidence” that home prices will “bounce back” and their homes will soon be worth more than they paid, and make decisions based on emotional biases that prevent them from accepting that their homes are worth tens- or hundreds-of-thousands of dollars less than they owe for them. White points out that risk analysts have studied the relationships between default and such factors as loan-to-value ratio, current equity, affordability, credit scores, geography, and unemployment – but have not extensively studied the relationship between default and psychological factors such as guilt, shame, embarrassment, and fear. White argues that lenders, loan servicers, government, credit reporting services, non-profits, and other cultural forces reinforce the latter, and act amorally in asymmetrically imposing shame, fear, and guilt on homeowners who may be financially better off defaulting on their mortgages, and should not be stigmatized because they can no longer afford to make a financially imprudent mortgage payment. He concludes:
Regardless of the precise policy prescription, it is time to put to rest the assumption that a borrower who exercises the option to default is somehow immoral or irresponsible. To the contrary, walking away may be the most financially responsible choice if it allows one to meet one’s unsecured credit obligations or provide for the future economic stability of one’s family. Individuals should not be artificially discouraged on the basis of “morality” from making financially prudent decisions, particularly when the party on the other side is amorally operating according to market norms and could have acted to protect itself by following prudent underwriting practices. The current housing bust should be viewed for what it is: a market failure – not a moral failure on the part of American homeowners. White, supra, p. 52
Future directions for influencing public policy with behavioral science research are suggested by Amir and Lobel, Stumble, Predict, Nudge: How Behavioral Economics Informs Law and Policy, 108 Colum. L. Rev. 2098 (2009). The authors review two recent behavioral economics books by leading scholars in the field (Thaler & Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth & Happiness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions (New York: HarperCollins, 2008)), and suggest that – in order to more effectively influence public policy and law – the field should include multidisciplinary research in economics, psychology, sociology, and organizational behavior, and field studies on salient policy questions, in addition to traditional laboratory experiments. They propose that law and multidisciplinary behavioral studies explore “. . . contexts and spheres of action in which individuals behave irrationally and those in which experience, expertise, information and incentives have elevated market actors close to the status of true ‘Econs’. . .,” and suggest that the research complement an emerging “new governance” model to enhance problem-solving, self-regulation, and government-industry cooperation.
The time is ripe for a multidisciplinary effort to provide theoretical and empirical foundations for law and policy governing economic relations among consumers, loan originators, loan servicers, underwriters and issuers of mortgage-backed securities, and investors in mortgage-backed securities. The foregoing small sample of recent scholarship in the field provides some indication of what we know, and some guidance as to where we may go from here.