Borrowers May Need Protection
Mortgage borrowers transact infrequently, in some cases only once in a lifetime, which means that (unlike purchasing cheese) they do not have an opportunity to learn from experience. Because the transaction amount is large, furthermore, the cost of a mistake is extremely high.
The likelihood of mistakes, furthermore, including deliberate ones induced by unscrupulous loan providers, is high. This reflects the complexities of the transaction, and the fact that the loan provider understands them a lot better than the borrower – a condition referred to by economists as “information asymmetry”.
In most mortgage transactions, the lender writes the contract, and often the borrower doesn’t see it until the closing. Many of the contract provisions are complicated and difficult for borrowers to understand. Mortgage pricing can also be complicated, including multiple lender fees as well as interest rates subject to adjustment. There may also be fees charged by third parties involved in the transaction.
In addition, because mortgage transactions take a lot of time, the borrower scheduled to close on the purchase of a home reaches a point of no-return with a mortgage lender when there is no longer enough time before the closing date to find another lender. That leaves the borrower committed to the home purchase entirely at the mercy of the lender.
Imperfect Markets Versus Imperfect Government
The fact that consumers are not being well served by an imperfect market is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for justifying intervention by Government. Governments are also imperfect, and the remedies they bring to markets may be worse than the disease. Sometimes, furthermore, markets will cure themselves in time if Government stays out of the way.
The case for intervention, therefore, should be based on a considered judgment that the market will not fix the problem itself, that intervention will fix the problem, and that the new problems created by the intervention will be less serious than the one that has been fixed.
Alternative Modes of Protection
Governments have attempted to protect mortgage borrowers in any or all of the following ways:
Market-oriented economists opposed to all types of government regulation usually make an exception for markets characterized by extreme information asymmetry. It is well understood that markets don't work well when one party to transactions has vastly more information than the other.
Because mandatory disclosure is designed to make markets work better, it is viewed much more favorably than price controls, which distort the allocation of credit; or contract controls, which reduce the options available to consumers.
The home mortgage market is a textbook case of information asymmetry. One party is in the market continuously, the other very infrequently -sometimes only once or twice in a lifetime. Furthermore, transactions can be extremely complex. There may be multiple instruments from which to select, multiple options with each instrument, complex pricing arrangements, and frequent price changes. For the borrower, there may be a lot to learn and very little time in which to learn it.
To be sure, complexity varies greatly from one country to another -- the US has the most complexity by far. Many other countries are moving in the same direction, however, propelled by the same forces that have operated in the US: the development of secondary markets and increasing competition. In the European Community, integration is intensifying these pressures. Countries moving rapidly toward greater complexity in their home loan markets, and therefore toward greater information asymmetry, will need to consider mandatory disclosure.
Perhaps the most important principle for making disclosure policy effective is that the number of items that must be disclosed be limited to 10 per day. If the process extends over 2 or 3 days, the number of mandated items can be increased to 20 or 30. I will explain where these numbers come from shortly.
The rationale for this rule is that consumers have a limited attention span. If you feed them too much at one time, they can't absorb it. Disclosures in the US are so voluminous that for most borrowers they are useless. Disclosing everything has much the same effect as disclosing nothing, since most people will absorb nothing.
Beginning in 1998, I began writing a newspaper column on mortgages that invited questions from readers. I have fielded about 12,000 questions since then, and one recurs with amazing frequency: "Why wasn't I told about...?" The content of the question varies over time, e.g., in 2002 it was mostly about prepayment penalties. But the question usually applies to something that was in fact subject to mandated disclosure, as prepayment penalties are.
Every borrower in the US receives a Truth in Lending (TIL) disclosure that reveals whether or not the loan has a prepayment penalty. But this critical item is shown in the middle of a large form full of other information, some of it distracting, most of it useless. Further, the TIL is received by the borrower on the same day he receives multiple other disclosure forms.
As far as the regulator and the lender are concerned, disclosure about a prepayment penalty is made when the borrower receives the TIL. Yet a large percentage of borrowers in fact don't know whether or not they have one. Mandated disclosure is ineffective because of information overload.
Where did I get the 10 items of information referred to earlier as the limit on disclosed items? From my crystal ball. The correct number may depend on the nature of the disclosed item and many other factors, some of which will vary from country to country. I'm not trying to sell that particular number. I'm trying to sell the idea that there should be such a number.
Setting limits means setting priorities. As a general matter, setting the number low and selecting the most important items increases the probability that those items will be effectively disclosed. As the number of disclosed items increases to include items of less importance, the probability that the most important items will be effectively disclosed declines.
A reader has pointed out to me that some borrowers could extract what they need from the most overblown set of disclosures, suggesting that I have overstated the case. I don't agree. Borrowers who know what to look for don't need mandatory disclosure; they can get the information they want by asking for it. Mandatory disclosure is for borrowers who don't know what to ask for, and therefore don't know what to look for in voluminous disclosures.
Responsibility for mandatory mortgage disclosures should be lodged in one agency. That agency can be held accountable for the results, whereas if there is more than one agency involved, none of them will be fully accountable.
With multiple agencies, furthermore, limiting the number of disclosure items will be extremely difficult. Neither agency is likely to consider the impact of the other on the borrower's capacity to absorb information. If the agencies are required to consult, expect a turf war in which each is convinced that its items should have priority. In addition, divided responsibility may lead to competing disclosure formats, which confuse borrowers.
In the US until very recently, responsibility was divided between the Federal Reserve System (FRS), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Divided responsibility seemed early on to be a completely logical solution to two different problems. One problem was a wide diversity in the way in which the cost of credit was calculated and reported between different types of credit, and by different lenders in the same market. The legislative remedy, called "Truth in Lending" (TIL), applied to all consumer loan markets, not just home mortgages. It was natural to delegate regulatory responsibility to the FRS, which, as the central bank, had broad responsibilities for all loan markets.
The second problem was a series of abuses in connection with real estate settlement charges. The legislative remedy, called Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), pertained only to real estate markets. Hence, it was natural to delegate regulatory responsibility to HUD, which was the principal Federal housing agency.
But the price of divided responsibility was an ineffective disclosure system. Each agency developed its own disclosure form, without any consultation with the other. The total number of items on both forms was grossly excessive, with useful information intermixed with useless information. There was no way for a borrower to reconcile the information on the two forms.
The system of divided responsibility ended in 2012 with the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which took over responsibility for all mortgage-related disclosures.
Disclosing the Cost of Credit
The cost of credit is the centerpiece of mandatory disclosure. A critical requirement for effective disclosure of credit cost is comparability. A quoted credit cost of "6%" by lender A should mean the same thing as a 6% quote by lender B. Further, the true cost of a 6% mortgage should be identical to that of a 6% automobile loan and a 6% personal loan.
Conceptual uniformity: One requirement of comparability is conceptual uniformity. The most widely used concept for measuring interest cost is the internal rate of return (IRR). On a mortgage, the IRR is (i) in the equation below:
Controls on Interest Rates
Government imposed price controls almost always take the form of a maximum interest rate. In theory, if the market power of lenders maintains market rates above what they would be under competition, Government could make the market work better for borrowers by setting a maximum rate equal to the competitive rate. But this would require that Government have the knowledge and tools needed to determine the competitive rate, the discipline required to apply this knowledge consistently, and the flexibility to adjust the rate as needed, which could be daily. This is too much to expect of government.
More likely, government will set the rate too low, resulting in few loans being made, or too high which may result in market rates higher than those that would have prevailed otherwise. So long as there are multiple loan providers that borrowers can shop, Governments should leave the interest rate unregulated.
Controls on Lender Fees
Shopping is less effective if borrowers have to concern themselves with differences in lender fees as well as in rates. The worst of all worlds for borrowers is the practice of charging different fees for different services, which are not fully disclosed until the borrower is well along in the transaction.
Government can easily take fees out of the picture by setting a single charge for all lenders. This would allow borrowers to shop the interest rate. A second best would be to require that every lender post one price covering all their services. Borrowers would then have to consider differences between lenders in fees as well as in rates, but at least they would know what these are upfront.
Controls on Third Party Charges
The mortgage process may involve services contributed by third parties, such as appraisals, credit reports, title insurance, flood insurance, mortgage insurance, and closing/recording services. Borrowers will be over-charged for these services if they are required to pay for them. If lenders are required to pay for these services, passing the cost along in their rate and fee, it will cost borrowers less.
Lenders pay less for third services than borrowers. Lenders purchase in bulk and are knowledgeable purchasers, borrowers aren’t. When lenders purchase, the service providers must compete in terms of price. When borrowers purchase, they rely on the lender to select the service provider, who compete for referrals from lenders. This is sometimes referred to as “perverse competition” because it raises prices rather than lowering them.
Bottom line: Government should require that any service required by a mortgage lender as a condition for the granting of a mortgage must be paid for by the lender.
|2015||Mortgage Consumer Protection in Europe||Hans-Joachim Dübel|
|November 2014||The 2013 Home Mortgage Disclosure Act Data||Neil Bhutta|
|2014||Economic Growth and Government Spending in Saudi Arabia: an Empirical Investigation||Saad A. Alshahrani|
|2014||Directives on Credit Agreements for Consumers Relating to Residential Immovable Property||European Parliament and the Council of the European Union|
|2014||Surveillance of Mortgage Credit The Approach of the Banking Regulator||Eric Parrado|
|November 2013||Mortgage Market Conditions and Borrower Outcomes: Evidence from the 2012 HMDA Data and Matched HMDA–Credit Record Data||Neil Bhutta|
|2013||Protecting Consumers from Irresponsible Mortgage Lending||Consumer Financial Protection Bureau|
|2013||Ability-to-Repay and Qualified Mortgage Standards under the Truth in Lending Act||Consumer Financial Protection Bureau|
|2012||FSA Policy Statement PS12/16: Mortgage Market Review - Feedback on CP11/31 and Final Rules||Financial Services Authority|
|2012||Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on credit agreements relating to residential property||Council of the European Union|
|2012||Standards for Social Performance Management in Lending||Social Performance Task Force|
|2012||Credit Crunch: Is the CFPB Restricting Consumer Access to Credit?||US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform|
|2012||2012 Truth in Lending Act (Regulation Z) Mortgage Servicing Proposal||Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection|
|2012||Protecting Consumers in Markets That Don’t Work For Them: The Case of the Home Loan Market||Jack Guttentag|
|2011||Long Term Safety Nets to Protect Mortgage Borrowers||Colette Best|
|2011||The Financial Conduct Authority: Approach to Regulation||Financial Services Authority|
|2011||Homeownership Education and Counseling: Do We Know What Works?||J. Michael Collins|
|2011||Directive on credit agreements relating to residential property Impact Assessment (Accompanying document)||European Commission|
|2011||The Smart Campaign's Client Protection Principles||The Center for Financial Inclusion|
|2011||G20 High-Level Principles on Financial Consum||OECD|
|2010||Mortgage Information Sheet on Australia: What Happens if My Mortgage is Enforced?||ASIC|
|2010||A Consumer’s Guide to Mortgages in Uganda||International Finance Corporation|
|2010||Protecting Mortgage Borrowers||Jack Guttentag|
|2010||The Basic Facts About Your Mortgage Loan||Alex J. Pollock|
|2010||Credit licensing: Responsible lending conduct||Australian Securities & Investments Commission|
|February 2009||Consumer Handbook on Adjustable-Rate Mortgages||Federal Reserve|
|2009||MoneyMadeClear Guide - Leaflet on Mortgage Arrears||Financial Services Authority|
|2009||Mortgage Product Substitution and State Anti-Predatory Lending Laws: Better Loans and Better Borrowers?||Anthony Pennington-Cross, Souphala Chomsisengphet, Raphael Bostic, Kathleen C. Engel, and Patricia A. McCoy|
|2009||"Consumer Information and Protection," In Housing Finance Policy in Emerging Markets||Hans-Joachim Dübel|
|2009||Public Consultation on Responsible Lending and Borrowing in the EU||European Commission|
|2009||Principles & Guidelines for Out of Court Consumer Mortgage Workouts||Financial and Capital Market Commission|
|2009||Consumer Information and Protection||Hans-Joachim Dübel|
|2009||Financial Literacy and Consumer Protection: Overlooked Aspects of the Crisis||OECD|
|2008||Money Made Clear Guide: Just the Facts about Mortgages||Financial Services Authority|
|2007||Disclosure Requirements and the Sub-prime Meltdown||Jack M. Guttentag|
|2007||Dysfunctional Home Mortgage Markets: Suitability Standards and Other Remedies||Jack M. Guttentag|
|2002||Making Mandatory Mortgage Disclosure Effective: Some Guidelines||Jack M. Guttentag|
Jack Guttentag is a Professor-Emeritus of Finance and has been a member of the faculty of the Wharton School since 1962. Dr. Guttentag is presently co–director of the Zell/Lurie Real Estate Center’s International Housing Finance Program.