This article digests the circumstances accompanying foreclosure and the steps which a government should take to curb the rate of foreclosure.

As federal, state, and local governments continue to try to tame high foreclosure rates, the ability of economists, real estate brokers, and investors to predict and explain foreclosures remains limited. Until the government can accurately identify the factors that most impact foreclosure rates, it will be unable to effectively anticipate and prevent their occurrence.

Unfortunately, popular opinion about the cause of foreclosures is rife with conjecture and untested theories. A common belief is that the number of foreclosures can be anticipated from the number of borrowers with a negative equity, for instance, and can be resolved by loan modifications limited to payment schedules. Government policy, congressional and administrative, has largely been based on these beliefs.

However, a recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston (FRBB) determined that foreclosures are rarely caused by negative equity alone. The study recommended that lenders focus their foreclosure-prevention efforts on forbearance agreements instead of loan modifications. Forbearance agreements, it seems, appeal only to homeowners who are legitimately at risk of foreclosure. In a follow-up article from the FRBB, Christopher Foote takes a look at what causes borrowers to default on their mortgages, and examines commonly held opinions about lender behavior and loan modifications.

One common belief is that homeowners decide to default when a loan is no longer affordable, for example, in a loan with high mortgage payments relative to the homeowner’s income when the loan was originated. Homeowners with high debt-to-income (DTI) ratios (over 40%) are commonly thought to default more frequently than those with low DTI ratios. However, this does not hold true. A review of foreclosures reveals that not all homeowners living in similar houses with similar mortgages default at the same time.

Households that suffer income disruptions, such as job loss, default far more often than others. Job loss, it seems, is a factor with huge consequences. Also, younger households and households with fewer financial resources are more likely to default. Thus, the loan-to-value ratio (LTV) and DTI are poor predictors of foreclosure risk, especially in times of economic upheaval. The most relevant factor leading to foreclosure is the homeowner’s present income, not his income when the loan was originated.

It is likewise a commonly held belief that lenders act against their own best interest when they refuse to modify loans for property owners, since the lenders’ costs of foreclosure are known to be dramatically high. In spite of these high costs, lenders are most often extremely reluctant to modify unaffordable loans. Pundits attribute this to the current widespread securitization of loans, claiming that conflicts and potential conflicts between the many classes of priorities pooled among investors (tranches) holding a loan prevent lenders from taking action to prevent financial loss. However, the belief that securitization is the culprit also turns out to be highly suspect as a factor leading to foreclosures.

Foreclosures have always been common in times of economic hardship, and the contracts within securitized loans do tend to grant loan servicers the fiduciary right to modify loans when necessary. The truth is that lenders may incur higher costs up-front when they foreclose, but the costs of offering loan modifications to solvent homeowners (able to pay) who do not actually need them, or are insolvent (unable to pay) and will only proceed to default anyway (currently 65% re-default within six months), are very likely to negate the money saved by delaying an immediate foreclosure. Thus, the report concludes that it is most often against lenders’ interest to offer loan modifications.

What, then, is the ideal solution for governments seeking to prevent foreclosures? Instead of the government attempting to coax lenders to modify loans (or forestall the inevitable foreclosure) against their own best interests, the report suggests that government efforts should ignore loans entirely, and move their policy focus from the needs of lenders to the needs of owners. Government policies should focus on reducing the impact of job-loss and other revenue shocks on homeowners. They must learn to target the root cause of foreclosures much more directly than merely enacting policies to change unaffordable loans which should never have been made (or should have been made for lesser amounts, with more predictable low fixed rates).

As it turns out, homeowners with stable incomes are far better able to hang on to their homes, even when they are burdened with cumbersome loans. Roughly 3% of California homeowners have lost their jobs since November, 2007 (approximately 240,000 owners) a number likely to rise to just over 4% when considering future employment loss, which is on schedule to end mid-2010. Jobs, not unaffordable loans, are and will remain the real problem in real estate sales. As for mortgages needed to finance these future sales, government regulations must set parameters on rates and payments and place limits on loan-to-value (LTV) amounts.