Foreclosure freezes are not just a mortgage issue

October 14, 2010 by Kelly Kent

With the issue of delayed bank foreclosures at the top of the evening news, I wanted to provide a different perspective on the issue and highlight what I think are some very important, yet often underestimated risks hidden within this issue.

For many homeowners, the process of becoming delinquent and eventually going into default is actually a cash-flow positive experience. The process offers these borrowers temporary “free rent,” whereby a major previous monthly commitment is no longer a monthly obligation, freeing up cash for other purposes, including paying other bills. For those consumers who are managing cash flow issues each month, the lack of a mortgage commitment immediately allows them to meet other commitments more easily – making payments on credit cards and car loans that may have previously also become delinquent.

From the perspective of a credit card or auto lender, the extended foreclosure process is a short-term positive – it allows a borrower who had previously struggled to remain current to now pay on time and in the short-run, contributes to portfolio health. Although these lenders will experience an improvement in delinquency rates, the reality is that the credit risk is simply dormant. At some point, the consumer’s mortgage will go into foreclosure, and which point the consumer will again be under pressure to continue meeting their obligations. The hidden and significant risk management issue is the misinterpretation of improved delinquency rates.

Halting foreclosures means that an accumulating number of consumers are going to enter into this delayed stage of ‘free rent’, without any immediate prospect of having to make a rent or mortgage payment in the near future. In fact, according to Bank of America, “the average foreclosed borrower has not made a payment in 18 months”. This extended period of foreclosure delay will naturally result in a larger number of consumers being able to meet their non-mortgage obligations – but only while their free-rent status exists. A lender who has an interest in the “free rent” consumer is actually sitting on a time-bomb. When foreclosures stop or slow to a rate that is less than consumers entering it, that group will continue to grow in size – until foreclosures start again – at which point thousands of consumers will be processed and will have to start managing rent/housing payments again. Almost immediately, thousands of consumers who have had no problems meeting their obligations will have to start making decisions about which to pay and which not to pay.

So, this buildup of rent-free mortgage holders presents a serious risk management issue to non-mortgage lenders that must be addressed. Lenders who have a relationship with a consumer who is delinquent on their mortgage may be easily fooled into thinking that they are not exposed to the same credit risk as mortgage lenders, but I think that these lenders will quickly find that consumers who have lived rent-free for over a year will have a very difficult time managing this transition, and if not diligent, credit card issuers and automotive lenders may find themselves in trouble.