Mar102008

Mortgage Equity Withdrawal

Mortgage Equity Withdrawal

HELOC_MoreMortgage Equity Withdrawal or MEW is the process of obtaining cash through refinancing residential real estate using the accumulated equity as collateral for the loan. Before MEW, a homeowner would have to wait until the property was sold to get their equity converted to cash. Apparently, this was deemed an inefficient use of capital, so lenders found ways to “liberate” this equity with home equity lines of credit or cash-out mortgage refinancing. The impact of MEW on equity is obvious; it reduces it by increasing the loan balance. It has been noted that equity is a fantasy and debt is real, and MEW is the process of living the fantasy with the addition of very real debt. MEW has been utilized by homeowners for home improvement for decades, but the widespread use of this money for consumer spending was an innovation of The Great Housing Bubble. Since consumer spending is almost 70% of the US economy, mortgage equity withdrawal was the primary mechanism of economic growth after the recession of 2001 – a recession caused by the deflation of another asset bubble, the NASDAQ technology stock bubble.

Many people who extracted their home equity lost their homes for lack of ability to refinance or make their new payments. After so many people lost their homes due to their own reckless borrowing, it is natural to wonder why these people did it. Why did they risk their home for a little spending money? First, it was not just a little money. Many markets saw home values increase at a rate equal to the median income. It was as if their home was another breadwinner. The lure of this easy money was too much for many to resist. Also, during the bubble rally people really believed their house values would go up forever, and they would always have the ability to refinance enormous debts at low interest rates and maintain very low debt service costs. Most people did not think it possible they would end up in circumstances where they would lose their homes; however, they did lose their homes; they were wrong, very wrong. Given these beliefs, the equity accumulating in their house was “free money” they just needed to access in order to live and to spend like rich people. Even though they were consuming their net worth, and making themselves poor, they believed they were rich, and they needed to spend accordingly.

Mortgage Equity Withdrawal 1991-2007

Mortgage Equity Withdrawal 1991-2007

 

Most homeowners do not save money for major improvements and required maintenance, and these homeowners often take out home equity lines of credit as a method of mortgage equity withdrawal to fund home improvement projects. The logic here is that renovations improve the property so an increase in property value offsets the additional debt. In reality, home improvement project rarely adds value on a dollar-for-dollar basis, particularly with exterior enhancements which often only return 50 cents on the dollar in value. The home-improvement craze was so common that the term pergraniteel was coined to describe the Pergo fake wood floors, granite countertops, and steel appliances that were popular at the time.

Much of the money homeowners borrowed fueled consumer spending and reinforced poor financial management techniques. It was common during the bubble rally for people to run up enormous credit card bills then refinance every year and pay them off. It is foolish enough to finance consumer spending, but it is even more foolish to pay for this spending over the 30-year term of a typical mortgage. The consumptive value fades quickly, but the debt endures for a very long time. Many people responded to the “free money” their house was earning by liberating their equity as soon as they could so they could buy cars, take vacations, and generally live the good life. This borrow and spend mentality was actually encouraged by lenders who were eager to make these loans and even the government who was benefiting by economic expansion and higher tax receipts.

Gross Domestic Product with and without the effect of Mortgage Equity Withdrawal

Gross Domestic Product with and without the effect of Mortgage Equity Withdrawal

 

The recession of 2001 was caused by the collapse of stock prices and the resulting diminishment of corporate investment. The recession was shallow, but the economy had difficulty recovering mostly due to continued erosion of manufacturing jobs. The Federal Reserve under Alan Greenspan was desperate reignite economic growth, so the FED funds rate was lowered to 1% and kept there for more than a year. It was hoped this increased liquidity would go into business investment to restart the troubled economy; instead, it went into mortgage loans and consumer’s pockets through mortgage equity withdrawal. Basically, the entire recovery from 2001 through 2005 was an illusion creating by excessive borrowing and rampant spending by homeowners. The economy did not grow through production, it grew through consumption.

There are many theories as to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. One of the more intriguing is the idea that Rome fell because it was weakened by the parasitic nature of Rome itself. Rome existed to consume the resources of the empire. Boats would come to the city loaded with goods and leave the city empty. Consumption kept the masses happy and thereby quelled civil unrest. The Roman Empire was the world’s only superpower with an unsurpassed military might. Equally unsurpassed was its ability to consume resources. Does any of this sound like the United States? The United States has clearly become a consumer nation, and the government does not have a problem with borrowing huge sums of money to keep the economic engine of consumption going. In early 2008, the Congress passed a “stimulus” package where many people would receive direct gifts of money to go spend and keep the economy going. Since the Federal Government was already running a deficit, this money was borrowed from future tax receipts and given to the populace to spend. With house prices crashing, direct handouts of borrowed government money were necessary to make up for the loss of borrowed private sector money that used to be available through mortgage equity withdrawal.