Charlie Weston: Well-thought-out personal insolvency scheme urgently needed
Published 17/10/2011 | 05:00
IT is a sad fact that thousands are going to lose their homes over the next few years. And most of those in mortgage distress would be better facing that reality now rather than getting themselves deeper into debt.
But no fair-minded financial adviser would encourage anyone with an unsustainable mortgage to hand back the keys now, ahead of the expected introduction of a more humane and modern personal insolvency regime.
That is the mess we find ourselves in and the announcements of last week only go some of the way toward fixing it.
Defining what an unsustainable mortgage is can be tricky. The Cooney group on mortgage arrears, that reported last November, said it was being in arrears for more than 18 months with a build-up of overdue interest owed on the mortgage.
We don't know how many people fall into that category but we know from ratings agency Moody's that more than 22,000 homeowners are a year or more behind on repayments.
This means 22,000 families are heading into unsustainable mortgage territory.
Deputy governor of the Central Bank Matthew Elderfield expressed concern last week that many of those with long-term arrears are just building up bigger and bigger debts that will have to be dealt with when they eventually either hand back the keys or have the property forcibly repossessed.
He is concerned that the reluctance of banks to force repossessions is at the root of this problem of people with unsustainable mortgages ending up deeper in a debt hole.
He has ordered banks to have strategies in place by the end of next month to deal with this.
Some €10bn has been provided to Irish banks to cover losses on residential mortgages.
But the lack of a modern personal insolvency framework means people are holding off on doing deals with banks when they can no longer afford a mortgage, and banks are not forcing the issue.
Mr Elderfield believes that if the new bankruptcy laws are too favourable to the heavily indebted it will lead to thousands of homeowners taking advantage and banks will have to get more state funding.
A public debate needs to get under way so we decide what exactly we mean by a personal insolvency regime, precisely:
•How long should someone be subjected to a bankruptcy regime before they can be freed to operate their own finances again. Last week's Keane report on mortgage arrears recommended three years. But is this too short?
•Should mortgage debt, or just non-secured debt, form part of this non-court bankruptcy process? If not, why would anyone surrender their house to the bank, if they will be saddled with the shortfall for decades. Not all banking experts believe that the balance owed after a home has been repossessed should then be regarded as unsecured debt.
•Is it appropriate and fair that those with no means to support themselves should have all their debts written off, with a debt relief order, even if they borrowed heavily? The Law Reform Commission recommended that these orders may be appropriate in limited circumstances.
Until some of these decisions are made and the new bankruptcy regime is brought in -- which could take up to a year -- banks are unlikely to force repossessions and homeowners will recoil from handing over the keys.
We face some tough decisions and the sooner we get to grips with these thorny issues the better -- for the banks, for distressed mortgage holders, and for those lucky enough to be able to meet their repayments.
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