Odds and Ends

No one cares about monoline restrictions

As a demonstration of how little attention monoline restrictions in the insurance industry get, if you google “monoline title insurance”, my post on it comes up in the 9th position (for me, at least).  I wrote the post less than a week ago, and it has gotten fewer than a dozen hits.   The internet seems to have little else to say on the subject, other than the one paper I referred to in the post.

The Fed and the Torrens system

Apparently all I had to do was ask:  Thanks to Dwight Jaffee (author of the monoline paper) for bringing to my attention the fact that the Fed recently proposed to create a national database of liens, akin to the Torrens system I wrote about.  Says the Fed:

A final potential area for improvement in mortgage servicing would involve creating an online registry of liens. Among other problems, the current system for lien registration in many jurisdictions is antiquated, largely manual, and not reliably available in cross-jurisdictional form. Jurisdictions do not record liens in a consistent manner, and moreover, not all lien holders are required to register their liens. This lack of organization has made it difficult for regulators and policymakers to assess and address the issues raised by junior lien holders when a senior mortgage is being considered for modification.

 

Requiring all holders of loans backed by
residential real estate to register with a national lien registry would mitigate this information gap and would allow regulators, policymakers, and market participants to construct a more comprehensive picture of housing debt.

We’ll see what comes of all that, but meanwhile I’ll try to find a response from the title insurance industry to this idea.

Tangent on the nature of insurance

When I discussed the difference between “safe” and “catastrophe” lines of insurance, I didn’t mention what I consider to be the most catastrophic line of insurance in existence (in fact, I would actually call it inherently un-insurable):  deposit insurance.  The risk that deposit insurance is supposed to protect you from (panicked depositors making runs on the banks, rendering your bank insolvent and your balance worthless) is the worst kind of risk imaginable to an actuary.  Of course most of the time the insurance is unnecessary, but if for whatever reason, people suddenly become uneasy with the nature of fractional reserve banking and worry about the security of their deposits, then it’s a perfectly plausible outcome that every single bank in the country could fail all in one day.  When the FDIC claims that your deposits are covered up to $250,000 per depositor, it’s almost entirely an illusion.  Don’t delude yourself:  the FDIC doesn’t actually have enough money to cover everyone’s deposits.  No, there are not 250,000 dollars sitting in a vault somewhere waiting to be paid to you, the individual depositor, in the event of a calamity.  Not even close, in fact.  The FDIC has about $50 billion to cover $4 trillion in deposits, barely a 1% reserve rate.  I referred to the risk of panics as un-insurable because really, the only way to insure $4 trillion in deposits against this type of catastrophe is… to have an extra $4 trillion sitting around as a reserve, which of course is economically ridiculous.  Other insurance lines essentially benefit from the so-called law of averages, a statistical assurance that their claims rates will be stable over time (which crucially depends on the fact that individual claims are independent of one another:  one person making a claim doesn’t make anyone else more likely to file a claim themselves.)  But the risk that depositors face when they hand their money over to a bank that invests most of their money is intrinsically different, since the panics that the FDIC is insuring against are, by their very nature, panics by large groups of people (in extreme cases all depositors).  With this kind of behavior, the “average” claims rate for deposit insurance will not behave in the predictable manner that makes other kinds of insurance work.  The FDIC claims that no depositor has ever lost a penny that they’ve insured, but then again, there haven’t been any serious panics since the FDIC existed.  Sometimes I think that if everyone understood how fractional reserve banking works, and how the FDIC works, this knowledge alone might cause the panic that would bring the whole system down.

But I try not to think about that too much.

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Title Insurance: Monoline Restrictions

One of the more bizarre aspects of the title insurance industry is the so-called monoline restriction.  Essentially, what this means is that an insurer which sells title policies must only sell title policies; a company is ineligible by law to sell title insurance if it sells any other type of insurance.  These laws are not uniform throughout the country and can vary by state, but in practice, just about all states have a law which is more or less identical to what I’ve described (Iowa being one notable exception, about which I’ll probably have to write a separate post later). You may wonder, as I certainly did when I first learned of it, how on earth these laws came to be?  It’s a little complicated…

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Title Insurance: Why do we even have it?

As I started to learn about how real estate works in the U.S., one general question that I’ve found is always helpful to investigate about any aspect of the business is:  Do other countries do it this way, too, and if not, what are the results of any differences?  Title insurance, it turns out, is more or less an artifact of the peculiar land registration system in the U.S.

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Title Insurance: Prelude

This post is special:  I won’t bore you with my writing, but with someone else’s, instead!

To get a basic grasp of the problems with the title insurance industry, read this.

Don’t get your pitchforks out just yet, though.  Things aren’t quite as bad as that article makes them sound.  I’ll be “fair and balanced”:  read the industry response, too.

Of course, you all know by now that I will have lengthy comments on these in the coming weeks.

 

MID Tangent: Consistency

The Mortgage Professor (don’t let the hideous, 90s-style formatting fool you, this site is actually quite good!) makes an interesting point that I hadn’t thought of:  As long as mortgage interest is tax deductible, so should mortgage insurance and title insurance premiums.

Interest payments on home mortgages are deductible, and no distinction is made by IRS between the portion of the interest payment that represents compensation for the time value of money, and the portion that represents compensation for risk. If a low-risk borrower pays 7%, for example, while a high-risk borrower- pays 9%, the entire interest payment of the high-risk borrower is deductible. However, if the lender charges both borrowers 7% but requires that the high-risk borrower purchase mortgage insurance, with the mortgage insurer now collecting the 2% or its equivalent, IRS will not allow the 2% to be deducted. That is inconsistent.

Yep, spot on.  On title insurance:

Title insurance premiums on a policy that protects the lender only also should be deductible, but aren’t. The same is true of expenses billed to the borrower that are incurred by a lender in connection with a loan, such as a credit check or appraisal. IRS says they are not deductible because the borrower receives a service for them, but this is a fiction. The lender requires these services as condition for granting the loan, and they provide little or nothing of value to the borrower beyond the loan itself. Furthermore, if the lender elects to cover these expenses in the interest rate or points, they are fully deductible.

That last sentence, especially, is very insightful.  I remember that my mortgage lender offered to waive all lender fees in exchange for a higher interest rate on my loan.  It worked out to be a terrible deal for me (pay ~$20 / month more to save $800 upfront), so I elected not to, but I hadn’t thought about how those 2 different ways of paying lender fees had different tax implications.  The extra $20 / month would have been 100% deductible, while the $800 I chose to pay upfront was not deductible at all.

When I think about all the different mortgage loan choices that are available, I’m reminded of a Carmax commercial from several years ago, where a man held up a balloon and said that other dealers might give you a lower price, but they’ll “squeeze” you and make up for it some other way:  They’ll charge you a higher rate on your loan, or give you less for your trade-in, or put in some other junk fee to make up the difference.  I think mortgages are very similar in the way that some loans give you a lower rate but more points, or fewer points but higher lender fees, or lower fees but a higher rate.  It seems to me that lenders treat these as interchangeable ways to charge you the real cost of the loan (and possibly as a way to confuse the consumer with the wide array of choices.)  I think the professor makes a great point that the IRS’s distinction between points/interest payments and lender fees makes for an inconsistent tax policy.