Why Does Mortgage Debt Continue to Rise Among Older Homeowners?

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, aggregate mortgage debt stood at $8.6 trillion in Q2 2014, down from its peak of $10.0 trillion in Q3 2008. Many have interpreted this decline as a sign that consumers have become chastened by the Great Recession’s bursting of the housing bubble and are voluntarily paying down their mortgage debt to more sustainable levels. For those thinking in such terms, I recommend a paper further analyzing the same Consumer Credit Panel data that produces the aggregate debt estimates just cited. In a masterful exercise, Fed economist Neil Bhutta concludes that the recent drop in mortgage debt has more to do with shrinking inflows than with expanding outflows, including mortgage defaults:

“While few borrowers, compared to prior years, have been increasing their mortgage debt, they also do not appear to be aggressively paying down their mortgages… It is therefore possible that many borrowers might actually be credit constrained (they would like to increase their debt, but cannot find a willing lender …).” (p. 3)

via Housing Perspectives (from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies).

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