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U.S. taxpayers are at risk for homes threatened by climate change

Banks are selling mortgages on homes in coastal areas around the U.S. that are vulnerable to natural disasters to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a study finds.

That could leave taxpayers footing the bill because the two government-sponsored enterprises buy the mortgages without adequately accounting for the heightened property risks.

“Climate change could lead to a ‘Big Short’ kind of crisis,” one of the study’s authors said.

The growing threat from natural disasters like hurricanes and floods could leave U.S. taxpayers footing the bill for damage to properties battered by rising seas. The reason: Mortgage lenders — mostly Wall Street banks — are selling loans for homes in vulnerable coastal areas to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, according to a working paper released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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The two government-sponsored enterprises guarantee those loans against default with taxpayer dollars. That’s creating a “market for lemons” in mortgages and even poses a “a potential threat to the stability of financial institutions,” the authors write. The fallout from climate-change induced disasters could be on par with that of the 2008 financial crisis, they warn.

“We’re realizing that … climate change could lead to a ‘Big Short’ kind of crisis,” Amine Ouazad, associate professor of economics at HEC Montreal and an author of the study, told CBS MoneyWatch, referring to a 2010 book by Michael Lewis and 2015 film about the housing bubble.

Ouazad and Matthew Kahn, a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, looked at natural disasters between 2002 and 2014 that each caused at least $1 billion worth of damage. Such events increase the chance that homeowners will default on their mortgage or, if they have flood insurance, pay off the mortgage early. The analysis included property data on 18 states along the Gulf Coast, ranging from Texas up the Atlantic seaboard.


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