Did Bankruptcy Reform Cause Mortgage Default to Rise?

Wenli Li, Michelle J. White, Ning Zhu

NBER Working Paper No. 15968
Issued in May 2010, Revised in December 2011
NBER Program(s):Law and Economics

This paper argues that the U.S. bankruptcy reform of 2005 played an important role in the mortgage crisis and the current recession. When debtors file for bankruptcy, credit card debt and other types of debt are discharged--thus loosening debtors' budget constraints. Homeowners in financial distress can therefore use bankruptcy to avoid losing their homes, since filing allows them to shift funds from paying other debts to paying their mortgages. But a major reform of U.S. bankruptcy law in 2005 raised the cost of filing and reduced the amount of debt that is discharged. We argue that an unintended consequence of the reform was to cause mortgage default rates to rise.

We estimate a hazard model to test whether the 2005 bankruptcy reform caused mortgage defaults to rise, using a large dataset of individual mortgages. Our major result is that prime and subprime mortgage default rates rose by 23% and 14%, respectively, after bankruptcy reform. We also use difference-in-difference to examine the effects of three provisions of bankruptcy reform that particularly harmed homeowners with high incomes and/or high assets and find that their default rates rose even more. Overall, we calculate that bankruptcy reform caused the mortgage default rate to rise by one percentage point even before the start of the financial crisis, suggesting that the reform increased the severity of the crisis when it came.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w15968

Published: "Did Bankruptcy Reform Cause Mortgage Defaults to Rise?" with Wenli Li and Ning Zhu. NBER working paper 15968. Published in American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 2011. citation courtesy of

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