Nobody knows at this juncture the scale of the losses for bank balance sheets from mortgage write-downs. But the EU-IMF deal had to set aside a certain amount for contingencies relating to future losses – including those from mortgages – and chose €25bn. This post attempts to shed some light on the potential scale of mortgage write-downs. Given that purpose, it almost completely sidesteps the broader economic and social impact of negative equity, arrears and repossession, not because these are not important topics, but because they are worth their own research, not as sidepoints in a discussion about bank balance sheets.
The Morgan Kelly question: three types of bank assets
Morgan Kelly has been the most vociferous on the apparent “time bomb” for banks in Ireland’s mortgage arrears. His estimates stem from his “realistic loss” scenario, published on the Irish Economy website in May, where he estimated that of €370bn in all lending by Irish banks, a figure that includes loans abroad, €106bn would be lost. In truth, his estimate is driven almost entirely by Irish bank lending within Ireland, so he is predicting bank losses of €100bn off a loan book of €235bn.
Based on these figures, he then wrote an article in early November, entitled “If you thought the bank bailout was bad, wait until the mortgage defaults hit home“. One could legitimately assume from this that if losses from loans that went to NAMA were bad, those from mortgage foreclosures would be worse. Indeed, this was the general conclusion: this is an article that spooked markets around the world. I know, as I was out of the country at the time and saw the immediate reaction from a non-Irish perspective.
Given that Morgan has been right on so much over the last five years, including his prediction in that very article that Ireland would need an EU-led loan, is there nothing to do now but brace ourselves for the mortgage arrears time bomb that will surely make the bank bailout look like peanuts? To shed some light, it’s worth thinking about three main types of bank asset and therefore three main types of potential losses: NAMA, arrears and SMEs.
- NAMA losses are losses from big property speculation. Irish banks lent out about €100bn in large chunks (i.e. typically more than €5m) for land and development which is now falling under NAMA’s remit.
- Arrears losses will stem from residential properties that the banks have to foreclose and sell for less than the mortgage outstanding. Total residential mortgage lending in Ireland stands at about €115bn.
- SME losses are where small businesses go under and banks have to take their place in the queue to get money out of the assets that are being liquidated. Corporate lending in Ireland stands at about another €100bn.
On the face of it then, it seems reasonable to say that if we’ve been focusing almost exclusively on the €100bn or so in NAMA-related lending, then the €100bn or so in mortgage lending is indeed an elephant in the room. (I will have to leave for the moment the issue of SME losses, both because I’m not an expert on that issue and because that was not the focus of Morgan’s article.) On NAMA losses, banks face somewhere in the region of €40bn of losses on NAMA-bound properties, in round numbers and allowing for past efforts at external recapitalisation.
Estimating the number of borrowers at risk
Is this €40bn in bank losses from land and development going to be small compared to the losses from bank balance sheets due to mortgage arrears? Suppose there are three types of people with mortgages: (1) new borrowers, with large debt which more than likely swamps their equity, (2) old borrowers, with small amounts of debt and (relatively) large amounts of equity in their homes, and (3) topper-uppers, who are probably in the main similar in profile to old borrowers. The risk category for banks is almost exclusively new borrowers, because it is unlikely that they will have to repossess the homes of old borrowers or of topper-uppers, and if they do, the equity in the house will very likely cover the debt.
So how many new borrowers are there? To be safe, we should assume that anyone who has borrowed since 2003 is at risk, whether they are first-time buyers or not, apart from topper-uppers. Why since 2003? If prices fall 55% by 2012 – which may just be enough to bring the rent-price ratio back to normality – prices will be back at levels seen in 2000, broadly speaking. This is about 20% below 2002 levels, so if someone who bought in 2002 had to sell in 2012, they could, as on average they will have paid off about 25% of the principal by then. By looking at quarterly IBF data, which go from 2005, and a similar Dept of the Environment series, it is possible to estimate there have been about 435,000 borrowers since 2003 who are either first-time buyers or mover-purchasers. This is out of a total of 800,000 mortgages.
In truth, given the loan-to-values and outstanding debt involved, it’s reasonable to think that 2003 and 2009 borrowers are of different types to their 2006 and 2007 counterparts. Using a combination of IBF, Dept of Environment and county-level Daft.ie data, it’s possible to estimate the number of households in negative equity. If house prices fall 55% from the peak, about 330,000 households would be in negative equity, compared to about 200,000 households now, including two thirds of all 2006-2007 borrowers and more than half of 2004, 2007 and 2008 borrowers.
But even then, we can’t just multiply 330,000 by, say, an average mortgage of €200,000 and assume that €65bn of the mortgage loan book is at risk. Many of those borrowers will remain employed and – perhaps grudgingly but consistently – pay off their mortgage each month. They may represent a threat to economic growth, as people feel less wealthy when their homes are worth less, but such households are not a threat to bank balance sheets.
Estimating how much of the loan book is at risk
Instead, we need to look at the proportion of negative equity households at risk of foreclosure, i.e. where circumstances such as unemployment lead not just to arrears and Court proceedings but ultimately foreclosure. The first step is to look at mortgages in arrears: there are currently 40,000, a figure that may rise to 100,000 in a pessimistic scenario. With an average mortgages of €200,000, this suggests that a maximum of €20bn of the mortgage loanbook is at risk.
Even then, the underlying asset, the house, will not have lost all its value. Very few properties would have only get half their loan-value back, the back of the envelope figure that Morgan uses. For this to be the case, the average borrower would have to have bought at the peak with a 100% interest-only mortgages. This is not the average – this is the upper bound. A more reasonable rule of thumb is that banks will recover two-thirds of loan value on average. So the upper bound in mortgage-related write-downs is now perhaps €7bn.
This figure still needs to be scaled down again, not just to reflect the fact that not everyone in arrears of less than 180 days progresses to deeper arrears, but also to reflect that not everyone in six months or more of arrears has their home repossessed. At the moment, about one in four mortgages in arrears goes from the 90-180 days category to the 180-days-plus category. This may rise to one half over time, as people run out of outside options, but I’m not sure anyone is actually going to predict anything like 50,000 mortgages having Court Proceedings issued.
Currently, repossessions are running at a rate of about 300 a year. This will almost certainly rise as some of those currently scraping by fall victim to the ongoing recession and as the moratorium on repossession passes. But are we seriously expecting an average of 5,000 repossessions every year from 2011 to 2020? Suppose repossessions instead jump from 300 this year, to 1,500 next year, 5,000 in 2012 and 2013, and then falls back gradually to about 500 by 2020. That would be a calamitous scenario for all those affected. But what would it mean for the bank balance sheets? The graph below recaps the figures discussed in this post. The punchline is that repossession of 20,000 homes and their resale by banks for two-thirds of their loan value would mean balance sheet losses in the order of €1.3bn.
This is a far cry from claims that mortgage arrears will cast losses on banks that will make NAMA look like a sideshow. You could be three times as pessimistic about the number of repossessions and more cautious about final values and still struggle to get above €5bn in bank losses. You might even somehow be able to construct a case that I’m out by a factor of 10. But I struggle to see how someone could make the case that the figures above are out by a factor of 50, let alone 100.
Morgan’s article is full of depressing vistas: a “torrent of defaults”, a “social conflict on the scale of the Land War” and the rise of a “hard right, anti-Europe, anti-Traveller party”. Perhaps I am young and naive, or excessively fond of the Simpsons, but this reminds me of an exchange in the Simpsons, where TV host Kent Brockman asks his expert guest: “Hordes of panicky people seem to be evacuating the town for some unknown reason. Professor, without knowing precisely what the danger is, would you say it’s time for our viewers to crack each other’s heads open and feast on the goo inside?” To which the Professor responds: “Mmm, yes I would, Kent.”
That is perhaps the point. By basing his predictions for losses on the idea of 200,000 mortgages hitting the wall, Morgan is making a social prediction – i.e. that people will lose faith in society and all hell will break loose – not an economic one. He may yet be right, but if all social fabric is rent asunder, then probably most economic bets are off.