Thursday, November 8, 2007

Be careful what you wish for

Bankruptcy Law Backfires as Foreclosures Offset Gains:
Nov. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Washington Mutual Inc. got what it wanted in 2005: A revised bankruptcy code that no longer lets people walk away from credit card bills.
The largest U.S. savings and loan didn't count on a housing recession. The new bankruptcy laws are helping drive foreclosures to a record as homeowners default on mortgages and struggle to pay credit card debts that might have been wiped out under the old code, said Jay Westbrook, a professor of business law at the University of Texas Law School in Austin and a former adviser to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
``Be careful what you wish for,'' Westbrook said. ``They wanted to make sure that people kept paying their credit cards, and what they're getting is more foreclosures.''
Washington Mutual, Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc. spent $25 million in 2004 and 2005 lobbying for a legislative agenda that included changes in bankruptcy laws to protect credit card profits, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan Washington group that tracks political donations.
The banks are still paying for that decision. The surge in foreclosures has cut the value of securities backed by mortgages and led to more than $40 billion of writedowns for U.S. financial institutions. It also reached to the top echelons of the financial services industry.
[snip]
People are putting their credit card payments ahead of their mortgages, said Richard Fairbank, chief executive officer of Capital One Financial Corp., the largest independent U.S. credit card issuer. Of customers who are at least three months late on their mortgage payments, 70 percent are current on their credit cards, he said.
``What we conclude is that people are saying, `Honey, let the house go,''' but keep the cards, Fairbank said Nov. 5 at a conference in New York sponsored by Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.
The new bankruptcy code makes it harder for debtors to qualify for Chapter 7, the section that erases non-mortgage debt. It shifted people who get paychecks higher than the median income for their area to Chapter 13, giving them up to five years to pay off non-housing creditors.
[snip]
``We have people walking away from homes because they can't afford them even post bankruptcy,'' said Sommer, a Philadelphia- based bankruptcy attorney. ``Their mortgage rates are resetting at levels that are completely unaffordable, and there's nothing the bankruptcy process can do for them as it now stands.''
Four million subprime borrowers with limited or tainted credit histories will see their mortgage bills increase by an average 40 percent in the next 18 months, according to the National Association of Consumer Advocates in Washington. About 1.45 million of those will end up in foreclosure by the end of 2008, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com, a research firm and unit of Moody's Corp. in New York.
[snip]
Personal bankruptcies rose 48 percent to 391,105 in the first half of 2007 from a year earlier and Chapter 13 filings accounted for more than one-third of those, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute. In the first half of 2005, they were just 24 percent of the total.
Of course there were a few of us (from a variety of perspectives) who saw the 2005 bankruptcy bill as bad news. The birds are, as one might say, coming home to roost.

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