The Great Crunch: It’ll happen again because we’ve gone soft on bankruptcy (Part 1)

The debate as to what to do to try to prevent a repeat of what I like to term the Great Crunch absolutely amazes me. There is virtually no analysis of what actually happened; instead the debate is dominated, it seems, by pre-existing prejudices. The whole financial crisis was caused by a cascade of bankruptcies, starting with so-called sub-prime lenders in the US and ending with Lehman’s failure, after which the authorities finally took decisive action.

Let’s start first with the least of the culprits. I worked myself into a bit of a lather late yesterday after reading a column by Vince Cable in the Times – see my comment there at 10:23pm on 20/10/09.

Why oh why do we persist in trying to devise policies to save people from themselves? Drugs? Ban them! Totally ineffective, in fact counterproductive, in fact worse than counterproductive in that the policy creates worse problems than those it doesn’t solve.

What we should be doing, in general, is equipping people to save themselves from themselves.

Tightening regulation of lending, it seems to me, is part of a paternalistic infantilising trend in our doomed Western societies that has been repeatedly shown to fail. It’s the wrong design principle, as was pointed out – to make a leftfield connection – in a thoughtful letter from Merrelyn Emery in last week’s New Scientist. Merrelyn notes “[t]he unstable nature of DP1 [hierarchical] systems” in comparison to “DP2” type systems “in which adaptation depends on regulatory systems built into the operational parts of the system itself”. Quite so.

Back to Vince in the Times. Vince, it seems, very much approves of the regulatory proposals announced yesterday by the FSA’s Hector Sants. If there is a shred of understanding in my grasp of recent history, the FSA, of course, has shown itself to be entirely incompetent in enforcing the regulations it already imposes, so one has to imagine that tighter checks on mortgage borrowers will also be ineffectual.

The whole proposition makes absolutely no sense. It rests on no sound analysis. Here’s a more subtle way in which it will fail. Mortgage defaults in the UK are an inevitable result of this or any other recession. They arise because mortgages are a 25 year commitment, a long-term loan, whereas income is paid on a short-term basis. Mortgagees are no different to banks which lend long-term and borrow short-term. Proving your income at the time you take out a mortgage has minimal bearing on your ability to pay the mortgage over the long-term. As the economy now comes out of recession the housing market will pick up. Happy days will be here again, and the buyers will be once more out in force. Inevitably a proportion of them will lose their jobs in the next recession.

In actual fact, banks diversify their risk when they offer mortgages to those with sources of income other than regular employment. We know that employees will be made redundant in the next recession. Many some of those with other forms of income may well continue to be able to pay their debts.

If we’re to put the onus on banks the problem never ends: next we’ll be asking banks to evaluate the security of mortgagees’ employment. Then we’ll be requiring them to ensure mortgagees have access to funds to pay the mortgage if they lose their job and so on…

Hey why not take the same approach in other areas of life? Why not, for example, mandate bar staff to ensure customers can actually afford to buy the booze they want? Oh, sorry, our paternalistic policy for drink is to put the price up. That’s odd, because in earlier eras the problem with heavy drinkers was not so much that they destroyed their health or caused a nuisance in the town centre. Rather it was that they destroyed the family finances.

No, no no! What’s needed is tough love. People need to take responsibility for their own finances. What sort of policies would this imply?

Well, first, it might be an idea to tell people that the economy experiences ups and downs. Companies fail. Even in the public sector people can be laid off. So those planning to take on a mortgage need to judge what would happen if their personal circumstances changed. Do they have sufficient savings to tide themselves over? Could a couple pay a mortgage on one salary?

Second, we need to look at the balance between greed and fear in the housing market. When the market is rising people pile in. And I don’t blame them. This time round we’ve sent the message that there’s not much to be afraid of. The dominant narrative consumed and constructed by those who drove house prices to unsustainable levels is characterised by indignation against the banks rather than by remorse, by scapegoating rather than by learning. And there’s more: many have been saved by low Standard Variable Rates (SVRs). There’ve been few stories of borrowers being pursued for their debts. Compared to the 1990s we now have Individual Voluntary Agreements (IVAs) and one year rather than 3 year bankruptcy arrangements. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, we’re even allowing people to take banks to court over perfectly clear mortgage terms.

In actual fact, as the ultimate inditement of complete regulatory incompetence, I can’t help observing that right now I’m sure I’m not alone in having just taken on board the lesson that I should have run with the herd and taken on a mortgage when I had the chance! Regardless of house prices.

My recommendations are completely opposed to current mainstream thinking. But perhaps that’s because I’m looking at what actually happened. The whole financial crisis was caused by a cascade of bankruptcies, starting with so-called sub-prime lenders in the US. Why Northern Rock was left floundering when it was, and ultimately nationalised is still completely beyond me, but A&L, B&B and HBoS failed to a greater or lesser extent because of fears about defaults in the UK housing market. NR would presumably have been in trouble later on had the odious Mervyn King not decided to “make an example” of its reliance on money-market funding. The cascade continued as even the soundest banks were stressed by a secondary source of losses: the recession arising from the original financial crisis.

So to snuff out the next one, why don’t we start at the beginning of the cascade by increasing the value of these dodgy mortgage debts?

Here’s my recommendation: treat debts from bankruptcy in a similar way to the UK’s student loans. That is, attempt to collect them directly through a levy on income (above a subsistence threshold) until they are repaid or for life and beyond. In effect, a bankrupt would pay higher levels of tax in the future. (I should add, that the level of interest would be low on bankruptcy debts, because the might of the state is to be employed to collect them). On death, any estate would first be used to pay off bankruptcy debts. The whole concept of bankruptcy needs to be rethought. We need to consider the general interest. At the moment, every time someone goes bankrupt, others must pay, increasing the risk that they too will get into financial difficulty. Why on Earth do we retain the archaic notion that bankruptcy can be “discharged”?

The effect on the bankruptcy cascade would be to increase the value of debts. Those sub-prime mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) would have been worth more than they were when the housing bubble burst.

That’s the stick. But we don’t want to be using it all the time. We also need policies so that the risk of bankruptcy is minimised:
– we need stable house prices;
– we need to hold house prices at the low end at an affordable level for those on the lowest incomes: in short, we need to raise the minimum wage and keep it in line with house prices.