High debt, house price risk and income inequality

Over at Capital Ideas, published by Chicago Booth School of Business, there is an excerpt from Amir Sufi & Atif Mian’s book “House of Debt: How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It from Happening Again“.

Debt plays such a common role in the economy that we often forget how harsh it is. The fundamental feature of debt is that the borrower must bear the first losses associated with a decline in asset prices. For example, if a homeowner buys a home worth $100,000 using an $80,000 mortgage, then the homeowner’s equity in the home is $20,000. If house prices drop 20%, the homeowner loses $20,000—his full investment—while the mortgage lender escapes unscathed. If the homeowner sells the home for the new price of $80,000, he must use the full proceeds to pay off the mortgage. He walks away with nothing. In the jargon of finance, the mortgage lender has the senior claim on the home and is therefore protected if house prices decline. The homeowner has the junior claim and experiences huge losses if house prices decline. 

I recommend reading the full article if you have time. The reason why this makes sense is that one household’s debt is another household’s asset. A key risk to the New Zealand economy is the outsized proportion of household assets made up by home equity. A way to reduce that risk is to build up the financial assets of households. This is the real benefit of Kiwisaver and state wealth funds like ACC and the NZ Super Fund. They’re reducing the severity of any house price collapse induced recession in the future. If your household has a diversified portfolio of assets – including across asset classes – then house prices dropping 20% won’t have as much of an impact than if your household has almost 100% of its assets in home equity.