How to lose your debt without losing your health

October 3, 2011

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Deleveraging is painful. It’s so painful, indeed, that it can actually be lethal:

Foreclosure is not just a metaphorical epidemic, but a bona fide public health crisis…

The N.B.E.R. study found significantly more suicide attempts in high-foreclosure neighborhoods. For every 100 foreclosures, it found a 12 percent increase in anxiety-related emergency-room visits and hospitalizations by adults under 50. Losing a home disrupts social ties to neighbors, schools, jobs and health care providers — ties that under better circumstances promote good health. Neighborhoods suffer, not just homeowners.

This is a problem that’s going to get worse before it gets better. No matter how many refinancings and principal writedowns we get, the number of foreclosures is bound to rise sooner or later. There are 11 million homeowners underwater; those people have to deleverage somehow, and foreclosure is, sadly, top of the list of ways for them to do so. The only other way of getting a principal writedown, these days, is a short sale — but given how long it’s taking banks to foreclose, it makes sense to just sit in your house and wait for the bank to kick you out, rather than going to all the effort of trying to find a buyer just so that you can be forced to live elsewhere that much sooner.

I worry too about Ireland, in particular, where foreclosures haven’t even started yet, mainly because underwater homeowners there have been surprisingly diligent about making their mortgage payments. That’s partly a cultural thing, and partly a function of the fact that Irish mortgages are all recourse: if you default on your mortgage, the bank will seize essentially everything you own. But develeraging is even more necessary in Ireland than it is in the US, and again it’s hard to see how it’s going to happen without defaults and foreclosures.

The “great haircut” idea where everybody sees their debts written off simply isn’t going to happen: there’s not enough capital in the banking system, for starters. And for as long as Ireland remains in the euro, it’s hard to see how the country can deleverage through inflation. But that’s more of an option in the US — the more we inflate our way out of our excessive debt burden, the healthier we’ll all be. Literally.


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