Saturday, March 14, 2009

Why Fewer Reasons Are Better; Dead Cats and Cul de Sacs

When turning down a workout request or a loan application, you need to explain why. Borrowers expect a fair reason for being turned down, and loan officers and underwriters can learn from each experience and hopefully prevent reoccurrences in the future. You have a choice – you can try to provide a comprehensive understanding of your entire thought process, or you can relate just the factors which are the most important to your decision. In my experience, the latter approach is better, because what people remember won’t be your best reasons.

For example, back in the mid-1980’s I worked for Cambridge Capital originating multifamily loans (the company is long gone and not related to any of the Cambridge Capitals currently doing business). The principals were very hands-on, bright guys who personally inspected every deal we did, and I know I learned a lot about real estate from them. But, my only specific recollection is one deal which was turned down because, when the principal did his inspection of the property, there was a dead cat in the parking lot. I’m sure there were other things he didn’t like about that deal, but I don’t remember them.

I did something similar during a presentation sponsored by a chapter of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute in Oakland. After the Northridge Earthquake I did consulting work for the Los Angeles Housing Department, and one of the things I did was a drive-by inspection of all the red and yellow tag structures damaged in the earthquake. This was an inductive approach to learning – after you look at a few thousands damaged buildings you start to see patterns. A lot of these patterns were obvious. For example, proximity to the epicenter, hillside or liquefaction zone locations, and brick construction are all know risk factors, and the audience didn’t react when I relayed that information. I did get a reaction, though, when I told them that cul de sac streets were a risk factor. On reflection, this isn’t surprising. Orientation of the structure to the ground motion wave is an important variable, and on a cul de sac one or more structures are guaranteed to be oriented for maximum damage. Also, in Los Angeles a cul de sac is usually related to e geographic risk factor (the cul de sac terminates at a drainage ditch prone to liquefaction or a hillside, for example). But, I didn’t explain this during the presentation, and I know there are people out there who remember me as the idiot who thinks earthquake damage is linked to cul de sac streets.

There is a neurological basis which explains why people lock in on unexpected reasons. From Jonah Lehrer’s “How We Decide”:

The brain is designed to amplify the shock of these mistaken predictions. Whenever it experiences something unexpected – like a radar blip that doesn’t fit the usual pattern, or a drop of juice that doesn’t arrive – the cortex immediately takes notice. Within milliseconds, the activity of the brain cells has been inflated into a powerful emotion. Nothing focuses the mind like surprise.

This is why if you tell a loan officer you’re turning down his loan because the borrower lacks liquidity, the building is poorly maintained, the income is trending down, and there’s a dead cat in the parking lot, you will forever be remembered as the guy who is fixated on dead cats. Unless that’s what you want, you’re better off keeping that reason to yourself.