October 2, 2022

Local Governments Join The Strategic Default Movement

As if creditors didn’t have enough worries with nonperforming consumer debt and defaulting  real estate mortgages, it now appears that another wave of debt defaults has started – this time by municipal borrowers.

Consider the City of Buena Vista, Virginia, that recently defaulted on a bond payment due July 15th:

WSJ– Buena Vista, Va., borrowed $9.2 million through a bond offering in 2005 to refinance a municipal golf course. It pledged as collateral, of all things, its City Hall and police station.

Now, amid financial difficulties, the city says it can’t pay its debt, triggering a showdown over these public buildings.

On the other side of the battle is a big New York insurance company, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., which is obligated to pay bondholders if the city defaults.

Municipalities across the U.S. are struggling with huge debts and shrinking revenue, making them vulnerable to similar situations. Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, is publicly flirting with bankruptcy. And when Central Falls, R.I., couldn’t pay its debt recently, it handed its finances to a receiver.

ACA Financial  insured the $9.2 million “moral obligation” bond offering, under which Buena Vista promised to pay the debt if revenues from the golf course were inadequate.  The golf course turned out to be a bust, and the City has been losing money every year just to keep it open. 

In 2005, at the peak of the lending/real estate bubble, ACA Financial did not foresee a problem with insuring a loan not backed by the full faith and credit of the issuing municipality.  This overly optimistic underwriting decision is likely to result in a 90% loss for ACA since the collateral backing the $9.2 million loan is only worth about $1.1 million and the borrower is under no legal obligation to pay (only a “moral obligation”).

The insurer has much to lose. The collateral is worth just a fraction of the debt. The bonds are secured by the golf course itself, but it is valued at just about $950,000, Mr. Kearney says.

The City Hall, part of the collateral, is a small two-story building constructed in the 1960s. Like the newer police station, it is worth just a few hundred thousand dollars, Mr. Kearney guesses, though nobody has bothered to appraise it.

Defaulting on debt has become a rational choice for many debtors.  Many defaults are forced due to unemployment, income loss or depleted savings.  More challenging for lenders are “strategic defaults” by borrowers who have ability to pay but chose not to, due to loss of collateral value backing the loan. 

In the case of Buena Vista, the mayor stated that “No one has been able to give us any solution short of a dramatic tax increase”.  Exactly how “dramatic” a tax increase would be required was unmentioned but here are some numbers to consider:

-Under the circumstances, Buena Vista could probably negotiate a reduction in the interest rate to 3% from the current 7.2% and extend the term to 25 years

-Buena Vista has approximately 2,300 families (total population 6,222) and the median household income is $41,900

-The monthly payment on a $9.2 million loan over 25 years at 3% is $43,627

-The payment due from each household to pay off the bond issue would be $18.96 per month, equivalent to foregoing around 3 cups of coffee per month at Starbucks

Is default Buena Vista’s only viable option or have they joined the Strategic Default Club?

Strategic Defaults – The Difference Between The Rich And “Other People”

Million Dollar Home Owners Falling Off The Cliff

“I think you’ll find the only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money” – Mary Colum

If the difference between the rich and “other people” is money, why are the rich walking away from their mortgages just as fast as anyone else?   This question is examined in a recent New York Times article which cites a serious delinquency rate of 1 in 7 for homeowners with a mortgage over $1 million compared to a delinquency rate of 1 in 12 for smaller mortgages.  The Times’ conclusion is that the biggest defaulters on mortgages are ruthless rich folks with no scruples.

Without citing specific statistical analysis, the Times article seems to draw the conclusion that anyone with a million dollar mortgage would have substantial financial resources that could be tapped to keep the mortgage current.   This may well be the case for some, but drawing from my own experience in the mortgage industry, many homeowners with the million dollar mortgages are financially thin and over leveraged.   For a variety of reasons ranging from ego, poor financial planing or irrational exuberance, many purchasers walk into million dollar homes with empty pockets.

Many of the million dollar homes now in default were purchased when eager buyers believed that home values could only go up and that buying as much home as possible simply meant larger profits down the road.  A ten percent gain on a million dollar home results in a handsome $100,000 gain – ten times the profit from purchasing a $100,000 home.

A few short years ago, at the height of the housing bubble, income was deemed irrelevant when banks granted mortgage approvals.   The proverbial strawberry picker or fast food cashier with average credit could use exotic mortgage programs to buy at any price level chosen, without the bother of a down payment or income verification.    Ever increasing home values then allowed cash extraction from a refinance or second mortgage, once again without the hassles of verifying income.  It should come as no surprise that wannabe millionaires taking the biggest risks now have the highest default rates.

According to the Federal Reserve, “half of the defaults are driven purely by negative equity” when the mortgage debt exceeds 150% of a property’s value.  Since high priced homes have seen large declines in value, it should come as no surprise that many strategic defaults will occur at the high end of the market by homeowners with million dollar mortgages.  The open question is – does having a million dollar mortgage imply a wealthy homeowner?

If a statistical study was done on the net worth of defaulting homeowners who have million dollar mortgages, it would probably reveal that many of these alleged “rich” homeowners have an embarrassingly low or negative net worth.  Consider the findings from one of the most influential studies on the mind set and lifestyles of the wealthy from The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy, by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko.

Characteristics of the millionaire next door:

  • Avoids buying status objects or leading a status lifestyle
  • 97% are homeowners with an average home value of $320,000, occupying the same home for over 20 years
  • The average millionaire lives well below his means and spends below his income level

The rich did not get rich by being poor stewards of capital or chasing housing bubbles.  The bulk of those defaulting on million dollar mortgages (strategically or otherwise) are simply poor people, living in big houses they could never afford in the first place.

Living Large

Living Large

Japan’ Solution To Debt Crisis – Expand Zombie Banking

Japan’s Zombie Banking Taken To New Levels Of Lunacy

Japan’s real estate and stock market bubbles burst in the early 1990’s.   Since then, twenty years of non stop Government stimulus programs have failed and left Japan with the highest debt to GDP ratio in the world and two decades of lost economic growth.   The costly attempt to have failed banks prop up failed companies has lead to a massive misallocation of capital and resulted in Zombie Firms and Zombie Banks.

Banks were not forced to recognize the condition of their balance sheets and were encouraged to continue lending to firms that were themselves unprofitable. Anil Kashyap labels these “zombie firms.”

Zombie banks continued to direct capital to zombie firms. This charade continued for more than a decade, with the result that the once-powerful Japanese economy was completely stagnant for that period. The government’s main response was to dramatically increase spending on infrastructure and frantically try to get Japanese households to save less and consume more. The resulting “lost decade” of economic growth cost Japan more than 20% of GDP.

Japan has now decided to exponentially expand policies that have not worked for two decades by forcing banks to agree to debt moratoriums.

Oct. 6 (Bloomberg) — Japanese banks’ bad loans won’t be driven higher by a proposed moratorium on debt payments by struggling small companies, said Financial Services Minister Shizuka Kamei.

Lenders won’t have to classify loans encompassed by the plan as non-performing, Kamei, 72, said in an interview yesterday at his office in Tokyo. That means they won’t be forced to boost provisions when borrowers postpone repayments of interest or principal, he said. At the same time, Kamei vowed to push banks to extend more credit to small businesses after bankruptcies hit a six-year high in Japan.

“We’re going to get financial institutions to provide these firms with more loans,” said Kamei. “Banks won’t have to treat debt on which they provide a moratorium as bad.”

Japan’s three largest banks, including Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc., posted combined losses of almost $14 billion last fiscal year as bad-debt charges surged.

“There is a potential for any proposal along the lines Kamei has made of debt moratoriums to backfire horribly,” said David Threadgold, a Tokyo-based analyst at Fox-Pitt Kelton. The plan could make banks more reluctant to lend to small firms, Threadgold said.

The moratorium, postponing repayment of principal and interest, will be extended to individuals as well as firms Kamei said. It will aim at giving relief to companies with about 100 million yen ($1.1 million) or less in capital.

“As long as I’m financial services minister, I’m not going to leave small companies in the lurch unable to get loans,” Kamei said. “If a bank takes that approach, I’ll hit them with a business improvement order.”

Japanese “salarymen” struggling to pay mortgages after bonus cuts may be eligible, he said. “We’re going to make it extremely easy for very small companies to get money,” Kamei said.

Let summarize the lunacy of this new plan: debtors pretend they will pay later; the banks pretend that the defaulted loans will be repaid; banks will be forced by the government to lend more money to debtors who cannot repay what they already owe and the banks will not have to set aside loan loss reserves on the defaulted debt.  Japan’s debt moratorium is a final desperate attempt to “save the system” by preventing deeply indebted, income poor borrowers from defaulting on debts that can no longer be serviced.  It will move private bad debt onto the already over leveraged public balance sheet and will encourage debt repudiation on a massive scale.

When Debt Becomes Inconvenient

Debt that cannot be repaid won’t be repaid and the consequences of default are in many cases relatively minor compared to the burden of continued payments.   Japan now joins the U.S. in actively encouraging the repudiation of debt as discussed in How The Government Encourages Ruthless Defaulters and Loan Mods – Just A Warm Up For The Real Thing – A Mortgage Holiday.

Ironically, the biggest impediment to future bank lending is the growing trend of debt repudiation directly sponsored and encouraged by a government concurrently seeking to encourage more lending.

Consumers having trouble paying their debts can now chose from a long list of government programs for debt forgiveness, loan modifications, rate reductions, 125% loan to value mortgages and more programs on the way.  Their is no  longer any shame or embarrassment associated with defaults and bankruptcy.  Defaulting on debt has become a rational choice for many with little repercussions.

If the long shot odds of economic recovery and job growth do not materialize,  expect to see defaults worldwide increase exponentially as even those who can pay will chose not to.  Zombie banking is alive and well.