Mortgage Equity Withdrawal is a Cultural Pathology

Mortgage Equity Withdrawal is a Cultural Pathology

Article by Lawrence Roberts

Mortgage Equity Withdrawal or MEW is the process of obtaining cash through refinancing residential real estate using the accumulated equity as collateral for the loan. This is a cultural pathology because it is not sustainable. Many people became addicted to using their houses as an ATM machine, and when prices fell, these people lost their homes in foreclosure.

Before MEW homeowners would have to wait until the property was sold to get their equity converted to cash. Apparently, this was deemed an inefficient use of capital, so lenders found ways to “liberate” this equity with home equity lines of credit or cash-out mortgage refinancing.

Home equity lines of credit are popular with lenders despite the additional risk of being in the second or third lien position because borrowers are less likely to default or prepay than non-cash-out refinancing. The impact of MEW on equity is obvious; it reduces equity by increasing the loan balance. It has been noted that equity is a fantasy and debt is real, and MEW is the process of living the fantasy with the addition of very real debt.

MEW has been utilized by homeowners for home improvement for decades, but the widespread use of this money for consumer spending was largely an innovation of the Great Housing Bubble. Since consumer spending is almost 70% of the US economy, mortgage equity withdrawal was the primary mechanism of economic growth after the recession of 2001, a recession caused by the deflation of another asset bubble, the NASDAQ technology stock bubble.

Many people who extracted their home equity lost their homes for lack of ability to refinance or make their new payments. After so many people lost their homes due to their own reckless borrowing, it is natural to wonder why these people did it. Why did they risk their home for a little spending money?

First, it was not just a little money. Many markets saw home values increase at a rate equal to the local median income. It was as if their home was another breadwinner. The lure of this easy money was too much for many to resist.

The rampant, in-your-face, marketing of these loans in every available media outlet touting the glossy “lifestyle” of over-the-top consumerism was a drug to many spending addicts. Also, during the bubble rally people really believed their house values would go up forever, and they would always have the ability to refinance enormous debts at low interest rates and maintain very low debt service costs.

Most people did not think it possible they would end up in circumstances where they would lose their homes; however, they were mistaken. Given these beliefs, the equity accumulating in their house was “free money” they just needed to access in order to live and to spend like rich people. Even though they were consuming their net worth, and making themselves poor, they believed they were rich, and they wanted to spend accordingly.

People were able to create a lifestyle of ever-increasing debt during the Great Housing Bubble. It was a Ponzi Scheme on a truly colossal scale. When the Ponzi Scheme collapsed, so did house prices, and so did the lifestyle dependent upon mortgage equity withdrawal.

Lawrence Roberts is the author of The Great Housing Bubble: Why Did House Prices Fall?Learn more and get FREE eBooks at: the author’s daily dispatches at The Irvine Housing Blog:

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