Thursday, September 01, 2011

Irish Mortgage Arrears

The suggestion in the Irish Times that the Government may give additional powers to an agency such as MABS, the money and budgeting advice agency,  to handle the issue of ability to pay on a case-by-case basis, merits attention.

The issue of mortgage indebtedness is complex and it is clear that there is no “magic bullet” or “one-size –fits-all” solution, Michael Noonan, Finance minister, said today.

Noonan told the Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform that while there have been many contributions to the debate including suggestions for the granting of extensive debt forgiveness, "this simply is not a realistic option." He said solutions must be found on a case-by-case basis through open and meaningful engagement between the distressed borrower and the lender. The planned reform of the bankruptcy and debt settlement arrangements are also key elements in any consideration of potential policy options. 

On Monday, the Central Bank published the latest data on mortgage arrears and repossessions for the period ended June 2011. The figures show that 7.2% of private residential mortgage accounts are in arrears for more than 90 days.  At the end of June 2011 there were 777,321 private residential mortgage accounts held in the Republic of Ireland to a value of €115bn. Of these, 55,763 accounts, or 7.2%, were in arrears for more than 90 days. This compares with 49,609 accounts (6.3% of total) that were in arrears for more than 90 days at the end of March 2011. 95,158 accounts were either in arrears greater than 90 days or have been restructured.

Besides the restructured mortgages, there must be large numbers of people who are just about managing to keep up with their bills but the rational reaction to the expectation of some sort of blanket forgiveness would be to not keep up with payments.

I noted last week that we have one of the highest level of owner occupied housing in Western Europe without a mortgage and obviously some housing units were purchased by parents in their children’s names — I would think it’s a substantial number.

There are many other issues; it’s understandable that a person who lost their business or job may not be able to pay a €500,000 or €1m mortgage, absent downsizing, unless most of the balance is cleared. So shouldn’t an agency have power to set reasonable options for a borrower in distress? In some cases a mortgage could be cleared in full by downsizing.

These type of big schemes are ripe for abuse and the application of the law of unintended consequences.

Forty per cent of third level students are in receipt of a public grant; from the time the scheme was introduced fort years ago, it was common to find wealthy farmers, already in receipt of public handouts, having their children on grants motoring to college while struggling middle income families above the income threshold having to fund fees and maintenance.

Finally, it’s interesting how the BlackRock extreme scenario provision, produced by the US firm in the March 2011 Irish bank stress tests, appears to give the illusion of a cost-free solution, as the monies have been already set-aside. Contrast that with a situation where one issue in the debate would be the amount of a special mortgage income tax levy that should be introduced in Budget 2012, to cover the cost.

Irish Economy blog thread